Tillamook’s Ads Slammed ‘Big Food.’ Now a Lawsuit Says It Uses Industrial Farming

Class-action complaint says the dairy brand downplays the size and nature of its suppliers

A 2016 ad campaign from Tillamook featured the tagline, 'Goodbye big food, hello real food.' Tillamook
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The Animal Legal Defense Fund has brought a class-action lawsuit against Oregon dairy company Tillamook, alleging that the company engaged in deceptive marketing practices by conveying its products as being supplied by small, family farms.

The complaint, filed in the Circuit Court of the State of Oregon on Aug. 19 on behalf of several residents of the state, contends that Tillamook “causes likelihood of confusion or misunderstanding as to the source of the dairy products it sells” and “misrepresents the nature, source, characteristics, and production practices of its dairy products.”

At issue is the brand’s overall representation through its branding, marketing and social media channels. While the company’s traditional home is in the lush environs of the Oregon Coast in Tillamook County (its corporate headquarters are in Portland), it has emerged that a majority of the milk for its products comes from industrial farms in the more arid, eastern part of the state. The complaint contends that the company violates Oregon consumer protection laws and common law by implying its products come only from small farms in bucolic Tillamook County.

The lawsuit cites 72andSunny’s “Dairy Done Right” campaign—specifically the brand’s “Goodbye Big Food. Hello Real Food.” ad—as well as branded content that ran on Slate as part of the campaign. The Animal Legal Defense Fund contends that Tillamook has engaged in widespread and longstanding deceptive marketing tactics. 72andSunny and Slate both declined to comment. The complaint was first reported by The Oregonian.

The brand has issued a statement standing by its positioning as a co-op of local farmers and claiming that the lawsuit is part of a larger effort by the Animal Legal Defense Fund to eliminate dairy from consumer diets.

“Tillamook takes great pride in being a farmer-owned and farmer-led co-op, and we only work with business partners that share our values and live up to our extremely high standards,” the statement said. “Being a co-op means that the 80 farming families in Tillamook County are not just part of our high-quality milk supply; they actually own and lead the company.”

Animal Legal Defense Fund attorney Amanda Howell cited Oregon state laws preventing companies from causing confusion as to the sourcing of their goods or misleading consumers as to the geographic origin of their products. Howell said it was clear Tillamook intentionally caused such confusion in consumers through the images and descriptions in its marketing.

In branded content on Slate, Tillamook put its small farms front and center.

While Tillamook began as a collective of local dairy farmers more than a century ago, and still sources a portion of its dairy from small family farms, Howell contended that as the company has grown, it has shifted to industrial farming methods while holding onto its down-to-earth image.

“Tillamook is using these family farmers to mask their factory productions,” she said, adding that the company is “using factory farming methods, which is what is putting most small-scale dairy farmers out of business. They are very sophisticated and have been engaging in this type of marketing forever.”

In reality, she claimed, the vast majority (she estimated around 80%) of the cows producing Tillamook’s dairy are housed in the largest dairy in the state, an indoor facility at Columbia River Dairy at Threemile Canyon Farms. She described that facility, one of the largest of its kind in the country, as engaging in the type of factory farming processes Tillamook’s marketing claims the company is in opposed to. The lawsuit claims that, contrary to the messaging of Tillamook’s marketing, cows in this facility are “housed by the tens of thousands in industrial-type warehouses where they stand on concrete or in their own waste.”

In a statement on Tillamook’s website, the company says the facility contains “30,000 dairy cows, 93,000 acres and 300 full-time workers, all led by a fifth-generation Oregonian” and claims it “uses this scale as an advantage to adopt more sustainable practices” including staff training on animal welfare, an advanced irrigation system and collecting and analyzing nutritional data to ensure the health of its cows.

“We are proud of our nearly 20-year relationship with Columbia River Dairy in eastern Oregon and have highlighted their leadership in environmental stewardship and sustainable agriculture,” the company said in a written response to the class-action complaint. “The size of the farm does not dictate the quality of care. An independent and rigorous audit conducted recently at Columbia River Dairy by the nationally recognized Validus Dairy Animal Welfare Expert Committee resulted in the first-ever 100% score for a dairy operation”Our farmer-owners and suppliers all take good care of their animals not only because it is their livelihood, but because it is the right thing to do.”

In addition to the Columbia River Dairy facility, Howell contends that Tillamook has also relied on contracting from other facilities outside of Tillamook County, including Lost Valley Farm, outside Boardman, Oregon, which provided milk to the Tillamook cheese factory.

Lost Valley Farm opened in April 2017 and racked up nearly $200,000 in fines for violating more than 200 environmental regulations related to its wastewater permit before closing in early 2019 as part of a bankruptcy proceeding while leaving behind over 30 million gallons of manure and wastewater. In July, its new owner, Easterday Farms, sought a permit to reopen the dairy.

Howell explained that the complaint was seeking to prevent Tillamook from continuing to mislead consumers and that within 30 days the legal complaint will be amended to include a request for $200 in damages for “any consumer exposed to [Tillamook’s] marketing practices,” which she estimated could total hundreds of thousands of people.

“The Animal Legal Defense Fund is anti-dairy and actively advocates for people to cut all dairy products from their diets,” Tillamook’s response to the lawsuit said. “The Tillamook County Creamery Association adamantly disagrees with the allegations made in the lawsuit, and we will aggressively defend ourselves.”

Here is the full complaint filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund:

@ErikDOster erik.oster@adweek.com Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.