John Robbins Joins Peta in Lawsuit Against CMAB's False Ad Campaign
An Animal Rights Article from


John Robbins The Food Revolution
February 2008


As the only son of the founder of the Baskin-Robbins ice cream empire, I grew up eating plenty of ice cream and being groomed to take over the family business. However, I became aware of the tremendous suffering of dairy cows and their calves and the devastating impact dairy production has on the environment. Instead of following in my father's footsteps, I turned away from the family business and committed myself to working for a more compassionate and environmentally responsible world.

In my books, including Diet for a New America and The Food Revolution, I detail the horrific abuses suffered by dairy cows and their calves and the detrimental impact that large-scale animal operations, particularly those in California's dairy industry, have on human health and the environment. The books are international bestsellers, which reinforces my belief that these are issues of great importance to people. And the issues are nowhere more fully exemplified than in California.

The average size of a California dairy herd is more than ten times the national average. The amount of milk produced yearly by the average California cow is now nearly 3,000 pounds more than the national average. This increased production is achieved at great cost to the animals. The vast majority of California's dairy cows are kept on dirt and mud. They're repeatedly impregnated in order to keep them producing milk. Their male calves are taken from them and slaughtered or condemned to languish tethered within the small confines of veal crates. And when dairy cows can no longer produce the unnaturally high amounts of milk required of them, they are slaughtered.

The life of the California cow today is not a happy one. It is a life filled with difficulty and misery. Are we going to hold our advertisers accountable to reality? Are we going to ask that what they tell us bare some resemblance to the truth? The California Milk Advisory Board has built an advertising campaign that portrays the life of these animals as one of ease and comfort. By its very name, "Happy Cows," the ads deceive consumers and betray any sense of moral or responsible stewardship that the industry has toward these animals.

The ads present the California dairy industry as a bucolic enterprise that operates in lush, grassy pastures. This is completely false. Most California dairy cows are kept in dry feedlots that are a far and painful cry from the green pastures the ads portray. The ads show calves in meadows talking happily to their mothers. This is completely false. The calves born to California dairy cows typically spend only 24 hours with their mothers, and some do not even get that much. The defendants employ the slogan "So much grass, so little time," implying that the living conditions of California dairy cows are luxuriant with grass. This is completely false. A more accurate slogan would be "So many cows, so little space."

The ads propagate the image that California dairy cows live in natural conditions and the practices of the dairy industry are in harmony with the environment. Once again, this is completely false. The amount of excrement produced each year by the dairy cows in the 50-square mile area of California's Chino Basin would make a pile with the dimensions of a football field and as tall as the Empire State Building. When it rains heavily, dairy manure in the Chino Basin is washed straight into the Santa Ana River and some makes its way into the aquifer that supplies half of Orange County's drinking water.

The 1,600 dairies in California's Central Valley produce more excrement than the entire human population of Texas. About 20 million Californians (65% of the state's population) rely on drinking water that is threatened by contamination from nitrates and other poisons stemming from dairy manure. Nitrates have been linked to cancer and birth defects.

Many consumers today are willing to pay extra for products that have been produced humanely and with respect for the environment. If you are selling eggs from free-range chickens, you can sell them for a higher price than conventionally produced eggs. If you are selling bread made from organically grown wheat, you can get a higher price for it. But if you were to tell the public that your eggs were free-range when this was false, or if you were to tell the public that the wheat in your bread was organic when this wasn't true, your actions would be dishonest and criminal. You would be attempting to take advantage of the people who place great value on and are willing to pay more for humanely raised animal products and Earth-friendly food. In much the same way, the Milk Board's "Happy Cow" ad campaign portrays California dairy products as humanely produced in harmony with the environment, when this is not the case.

The Milk Board defends the ads by saying they are entertaining, and are not intended to be taken seriously. However, the Milk Board is not in the entertainment business. It is not spending hundreds of millions of dollars on this ad campaign to amuse the public, but in order to increase the sales of California dairy products.

The Milk Board says the ads show talking cows, and no one thinks cows talk. This is true. But there are a large number of consumers who are willing to pay extra for humanely raised animal products, and products raised in Earth-friendly ways. There is not a similar movement of consumers demanding animal products from talking animals.

The Milk Board knows that showing calves being ripped away from their mothers and confined in tiny veal crates won't sell their product. Neither will showing emaciated, lame animals, who have collapsed from a lifetime of hardship and over-milking, being taken to slaughterhouses and having their throats slit. But this is the reality of the California dairy industry. Covering up this misery with fantasy ads of happy cows is irresponsible, and, we contend, unlawful.

I am joining with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in a lawsuit that challenges the Milk Board's ads as unlawfully deceptive. It is inhumane to inflict widespread suffering on cows and their calves. It is inexcusable to poison the state's ground water basins. It is dishonest to deceive consumers about this animal suffering and environmental devastation. And it would be irresponsible to sit by and do nothing while the Milk Board continues in this deceptive course of action.

Question: Don't you think the ads are funny?

I think they are clever, but they are only funny if you don't take animal suffering seriously. There's nothing funny about cruelty, and misleading the public does not become legitimate when it is done in an "entertaining" way.

Question: You are joined in this lawsuit by PETA. Aren't your complaints about the ads something that only vegetarians and animal rights advocates would make?

The consumers who want the animal products they buy to be from humanely raised animals can be found in every segment of society. McDonald's has recently increased the size of the cages in which their chickens are kept, and decreased the number of birds in the cages. They have made this change at considerable cost, because they recognize the strength of the market demand from their customer base for more humanely raised poultry. Burger King and Taco Bell have made similar changes. The customer bases for these fast food franchises are not primarily vegetarian, nor are they made up of animal rights advocates. On the contrary, they are composed of mainstream Americans. Consideration for the plight of animals is a central part of the American character. It is an essential part of who we are as a people. Abraham Lincoln was not speaking only for vegetarians or for animal rights advocates when he said, "I care not much for a man's religion whose dog or cat aren't the better for it."

Question: Are you joining this lawsuit because you are a vegetarian?

No. Being a vegetarian is a personal choice. It is not a personal choice whether you tell the truth about products you are marketing to the public. That's obligatory. It's not a personal choice whether you abide by the law and tell the truth. That's mandatory.

IIn fact, it is the non-vegetarian population that is more the victim of this ad campaign. Many vegetarians do not consume any kind of dairy products, so this kind of false advertising actually affects them less.

Question: Aren't all ads like this? When I buy a beer, I don't expect to get two women in bikinis standing next to me.

Many ads exploit the desires of people for happier and more exciting lives, and some do cross a line and become ethically marginal. But the "happy cow" campaign is uniquely irresponsible and deplorable. Our society is not experiencing a concerted and serious social movement composed of people from all walks of life demanding that commercial beer products come with women in bikinis. There is, however, exactly that kind of movement demanding that dairy and other animal food products come from humanely treated animals and environmentally sustainable practices. The "happy cow" ads are an insult to the legitimate humanitarian concerns of millions of people.

Question: Are California cows treated any better than cows in other states?

No. The reality is actually the opposite. California's dairy industry is concentrated for the most part in the dry Central valley, which is now the number one milk-producing area in the United States. Here, the cows are typically kept in dirt feedlots, unlike the green pastoral fields common in Wisconsin, for example, where there is much higher annual rainfall. California dairy cows are kept in larger numbers in smaller areas than anywhere else in the country. In 1998, when the national average dairy herd size was 60 cows, California herds averaged 650 cows.

Furthermore, California dairy cows are pushed to produce more milk per cow than cows in other states. In 2000, the nationwide annual average milk production per cow was 18,204 pounds; in California, the average was 21,169 pounds - nearly 3,000 pounds greater.

WWhen dairy cows are made to give vastly more milk than their bodies are designed for, nutrients such as calcium and magnesium that would otherwise be used for the animals' nutritional needs are diverted to the milk the cows produce. As a result, California cows suffer from brittle, broken bones, and many forms of disease, or emaciation and weakness to the point that they cannot stand up.

Question: The Milk board says that PETA has already filed this complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and it was rejected. Are you and PETA just fishing for someone who will take it on?

No. Earlier this year, PETA filed a complaint with the FTC over the deceptive dairy ads. On October 7, 2002, the FTC sent PETA a letter making the historic finding that the humane treatment of farm animals is, in fact, an important issue for consumers. The FTC declined to allocate its resources to take formal action against the Milk Board, but stated that its decision "should not be construed as a formal Commission determination of whether or not the challenged advertising campaign complies with FTC advertising law."

Question: What are you trying to accomplish with this lawsuit?

My ideal goal would actually not be to ban the ads. My preference would rather be to see the dairy industry reconcile the discrepancy between the conditions portrayed in the ads and the actual reality. If the industry treated cows in the manner exhibited in the ads, I'd drop the suit in a heartbeat.

However, since I think this is unlikely, I am expecting the court to take animal suffering seriously, and put a stop to these deceptive ads. Furthermore, I would like to see an effort made to rectify the damage done by the ads. For example, I would like to see the Milk Board pay fines at a level commensurate with what they've paid for the "happy cow" campaign; I'd like to see them required to pay for announcements in which they apologize for defrauding the public. And I'd like to see a public service educational campaign undertaken to educate people of all ages about preventing cruelty to animals, and the importance of compassion for all life.

***** Further reading: Happy Cows? You Decide., PETA’s Lawsuit Against the CMAB, California Milk Board Can't Be Sued for 'Happy Cows' Campaign

Return to Animal Rights Articles