Animal rights activists who complain that California dairy cows do not live the happy life shown in a popular television advertising campaign for the state's cheese producers say they are heading to court to try to force the ads off the air.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and author John Robbins of Santa Cruz, using California's strong consumer protection laws, said Wednesday that they planned to ask a San Francisco Superior Court judge to ban the "happy cows" ads. The activists say the ads are false, unfairly favor California cheese over other states' cheeses and mislead consumers about environmental damage from the dairy industry.
The ads, which feature cows that talk, show cows in green pastures and contend that "great cheese comes from happy cows." Happy cows, the ads say, come from California.
In a recent commercial, a high-strung chicken pesters two impassive cows for the secret of their tranquillity. Finally, the chicken says, "Silence. OK, like a Zen thing. I get it, Grasshopper."
After the chicken moves on, one cow says, "Wow." The other chimes in, "Yeah, poultry."
The California Milk Advisory Board, which produces the ads, credits the commercials with helping the state close in on Wisconsin, the country's lead- ing cheese producer. California farmers produced 1.6 billion pounds of cheese in 2001.
"Where the ads are seen, it creates more demand," said Nancy Fletcher, the milk advisory board's spokeswoman.
But PETA says most California dairy cows live not in bucolic pastures but in filthy, grassless lots where they are forced to give too much milk and are separated from their calves too soon.
"Increasing numbers of the public do want to know how the food they eat is produced," said Robbins, son of a co-founder of ice cream maker Baskin- Robbins.
Robbins is a vegetarian, and PETA advocates a dairy-free diet. But Robbins says the issue is about informing consumers.
"This ad campaign is such an affront to people who want to make an informed choice," he said.
The complaint says, "Contrary to the depictions in the Happy Cows ads, the vast majority of California dairy cows do not live easy lives."
In October, the Federal Trade Commission declined to take action on a similar complaint from PETA.
Fletcher of the milk advisory board said the group, having lost at the FTC, is simply shopping for anyone to take a look at the complaint, which she described as groundless.
"The better our farmers take care of cows, the more productive they are," she said. "It's in the best interest of dairy farmers to take care of their cows."
The cheese producers' Web site sells Happy Cows plush toys and T-shirts that say, "So much grass, so little time."
The site also offers testimonials from happy consumers. Bob of Exeter, Calif., wrote: "Please do not let whoever is complaining about the commercials stop you from doing them. My family now looks for the real California cheese label because of the commercials."
Robbins, who grew up in a Southern California home with a pool shaped like an ice cream cone, says dairy operations are inhumane.
"What if the ads showed calves being ripped away from their mothers?" he said.