Jury Hits Land O'Lakes Purina for Destroying Family's Dairy Herd with Toxic Feed
Land O'Lakes Purina, one of the nation's largest producers of cattle feed, sold defective feed that sickened and killed most of a family's award-winning dairy herd, a Tillamook County jury found December 18. Land O'Lakes mixed a toxic combination of minerals into feed and sold it over several years to Neal and Nancy Kaste, fifth-generation dairy farmers, leading to the deaths or unfitness for milking of 140 cows. The jury, by a 10-2 verdict, awarded the $750,000 plus attorney fees sought by the Kastes, and the jury asked to award damages well above that amount, but was not allowed to by the judge.
Anne D. Foster and Blair E. McCrory of Dunn Carney Allen Higgins & Tongue were the Kastes' attorneys. Land O'Lakes allowed a salesman who was not trained as an animal nutritionist to adjust the formula of feed sold to the Kastes, Foster said, upping the amount of copper in the feed to six times the required level, and taking out needed phosphorous. As a result, the cattle were slowly poisoned by the excessive copper, and because of the lack of phosphorous, the cattle's bodies began feeding on the phosphorous in their own bones. "These cows were literally dying on their feet," Foster said. "Dairy farmers are close to their cows. The Kastes had names for all of them. They began watching their cows get sick and die before their eyes, and at first they didn't know why," she said. "It broke their hearts and pushed them to the brink financially. It was only because the Kastes were such good, careful farmers that they were able to stay afloat. Most dairy farmers would have been ruined."
The defendant found liable, Land O'Lakes Purina Feed, LLC, is a subsidiary of Land O'Lakes, Inc., headquartered in Arden Hills, Minn. It has feed cooperatives and mills throughout the U.S., with Oregon mills located outside Portland and in McMinnville. The Kastes began purchasing feed from Land O'Lakes in November 2005. The Kastes were unaware that the feed contained dangerously high levels of copper, a standard ingredient in feed for dairy cattle, but toxic at high levels if fed to high-producing dairy cows over a long period.
Shortly after the Kastes began using the feed, their cows started to produce less milk and acted sick. Over the next two years these problems worsened. In the fall of 2007, shortly after the Kastes were convinced by their local feed representative Greg Wildhaber, to enter into a new one-year feed contract, they noticed their cows appeared seriously ill. By the end of November 2007, many of the Kastes' animals started dying. Later, the Kastes learned that Wildhaber had changed the feed mixture without permission and removed all added phosphorous from the feed. Despite a state law requiring feed makers like Land O'Lakes to immediately produce a list of feed ingredients upon request, Land O'Lakes repeatedly refused to reveal to the Kastes the feed's contents. Only after the Kastes spent their own money to test the feed and their cows did they learn that the feed contained toxic levels of copper and insufficient phosphorous and protein to sustain the health of the cows. From 2009 to 2013, the health of the cows on feed continued to deteriorate due to the permanent damage done to their livers, ultimately leading to the death of all but one of the cows that ate the feed. At trial, Land O'Lakes denied knowing that the copper levels in the feed could cause chronic copper toxicity, but the jury saw a memo from the Land O'Lakes legal department summarizing each of the numerous scientific copper toxicity articles confirming the Kastes' claims. After the five-week trial, the jury agreed that the unsafe feed supplied by Land O'Lakes was the lone cause of the illnesses, injuries and deaths in the herd. The size of the jury award is believed to be a record in Tillamook County.