- The Washington Times - Monday, December 30, 2002

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. If California overtakes Wisconsin as the nation's leading cheese producer, the state's dairy farmers will have the happy cows to thank.
The wise-cracking, grass-eating stars of a hugely successful ad campaign by the California Milk Advisory Board, the so-called "happy cows" have boosted cheese sales and delighted viewers with their wry takes on farm life and jabs at freezing Wisconsin dairies.
"Great cheese comes from happy cows," the commercials say, panning over a lush, verdant field as cows contentedly munch grass. "Happy cows come from California."
But the cows will be put out to pasture if a lawsuit filed by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals succeeds. Unlike the bovines depicted in the commercials, the complaint says, real California cows aren't so happy.
"Contrary to the depictions in the Happy Cows ads, the vast majority of California dairy cows do not live easy lives," said the complaint, filed Dec. 10 in California Superior Court in San Francisco.
The complaint asks the court to yank the commercials off the air, saying they violate the state's tough consumer-protection laws by deceiving consumers, favoring California's cheese over cheese from other states and misleading viewers about the environmental damage from dairy farms.
At a press conference earlier this month, PETA officials showed photos of dairy cows living in muddy pens piled with manure, not the bucolic pastures depicted in the commercials.
"We think [the ads] are false advertising," said Matthew Penzer, PETA's attorney. "They may be funny and clever, but if the tobacco industry created funny and clever ads saying smoking was healthy, people would be outraged."
Officials from the state's $4 billion dairy industry have denounced the lawsuit, insisting that the state's cows are treated well.
"The better our farmers take care of cows, the more productive they are," California Milk Advisory Board spokeswoman Nancy Spencer told reporters. "It's in the best interests of dairy farmers to take care of their cows."
California leads the nation in milk production but trails Wisconsin in cheese, a gap that the state has been steadily closing since the happy cows spots began running more than a year ago. Last year California farmers produced 1.6 billion pounds of cheese.
Miss Spencer pointed out that PETA lost a similar complaint, filed with the Federal Trade Commission, in October. Mr. Penzer said that although the commission refused to act formally, it stopped short of endorsing the ads.
The happy cows campaign's defenders also argue that the radio and TV spots are hardly meant to be realistic. They show the cows talking, singing songs from "The Brady Bunch," having their hoofs massaged by earthquakes and kicking a rooster to activate the "snooze alarm."
"Fair enough: The life of a California dairy cow isn't all it's cracked up to be," said Chris Weinkopf, columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News. "Most TV viewers, though, assuming they're at least as bright as the cows being depicted, ought to be able to figure that out on their own."
PETA officials argue that dairy cows are forced to give too much milk and have their calves separated from them at too young an age. Dairy farms are major groundwater polluters, they say, thanks to the manure that seeps into basins.
What's more, PETA argues, cow's milk is unhealthy for people because it is loaded with cholesterol and saturated fat. "You're talking about a product that's bad for your health and bad for cows," Mr. Penzer said.
Therein lies PETAs real agenda, the group's critics say.
"So extreme is PETA's lactose intolerance that any favorable depiction of dairy products could probably qualify as 'misleading,'" Mr. Weinkopf said.
So far, the complaints don't seem to have put a dent in the commercials' popularity. A milk board Web site does brisk business selling plush happy cow animals, calendars, coloring books and T-shirts that say, "So much grass, so little time."
"I just moved here from Madison, Wis., and I find your commercials right on! Every time I run across your ads on radio and TV, I end up on the floor laughing and in tears," said Stepanie from El Cerrito, Calif., in a comment on the Real California Cheese Web site (www.calif-dairy.com).
In a poll by the Bakersfield Californian, 57 percent of callers said they supported the happy cows ads, while 11 percent said they "don't accurately portray their living conditions." Thirty-one percent said the ads should be pulled "only if the cows form a union and strike."

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