In response to a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals lawsuit, a state Superior Court has ordered farmers in the Central Valley and elsewhere on the California Milk Advisory Board to answer questions about how they market the dairy industry in California.
Lawyers for the animal rights group argue that the milk board has no evidence to support its campaigns that depict, in a positive light, the health, comfort and safety of the state's dairy cows.
"The milk advisory board continues to tell consumers about the great standards of care that cows receive," said Martina Bernstein, senior litigation council for PETA. "There has been absolutely no evidence to that fact. If they have this evidence, they should be required to show it."
Both the milk board and the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which certified the campaign, declined to comment.
California leads the nation in total milk production, according to agriculture department statistics. In 2010, California produced 40.4 billion pounds of milk -- more than one-fifth of the nation's total production. Dairy farming is a leading agricultural commodity in California, producing $5.9 billion in annual sales in 2010. The state's dairies hold about 1.75 million milk cows.
After the lawsuit started last summer, attorneys for PETA asked that board members be deposed for questioning. The milk board consented but disagreed as to the scope of questioning.
However, the groups eventually came to something of a consensus, after agreeing that questions about the daily operations of individual dairy farms were anecdotal and couldn't be used to substantiate the campaign.
PETA initially argued that questions about individual practices were necessary because milk board's marketing campaigns relied heavily on testimonials from individual dairy farmers.
But, according to court documents, the milk board and the agriculture department said the information wasn't relevant.
It's not clear what the milk board based its marketing campaign on, Bernstein said. "I expected (the agriculture department) to say 'We have these surveys,' " she said. "But what they said is the (milk) board members are farmers. They know how to care for their cows. There are roughly 1,600 dairy producers in California. For them to say the board members have their own farms and they can verify industrywide conditions made no sense."
Over the next two months, under Superior Court order, attorneys for PETA will have the chance to question board members Domenic Carinalli Jr., Richard Michel, Margo Souza, James Ahlem, Perry Tjaarda, Tony Machado, Essie Bootsma and Henry Vander Poel.
The milk board is one of the largest commodity boards in the country, conducting research, public relations and advertising for the industry.
Under the PETA lawsuit, the milk board and the agriculture department could be found in violation of the California Marketing Act and California Milk Marketing Order, respectively. Such a ruling could restrict the milk board's ability to make claims about dairy industry conditions, until further evidence is presented.
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 835-2486 or email@example.com.