Jim Dickrell is the editor of Dairy Today and is based in Monticello, Minn.
Animal Welfare Audits Need Accountability
Mar 10, 2013
Videos that show abusive animal handling practices at dairies and slaughterhouses show up on the Internet with sickening regularity. The dairy industry must do better.
Videos that show abusive animal handling practices on dairy farms and in slaughterhouses show up on the Internet with sickening regularity.
In their wake, there is the usual condemnation from industry spokesfolks, claims that the practices are an aberration and promised resolve to do better. Until, of course, the next video pops up and the cycle repeats.
The dairy industry must do better, says Jennifer Walker, a veterinarian and Director of Dairy Stewardship with Dean Foods. The industry needs a comprehensive, national on-farm animal welfare auditing program that has definite time lines and holds farmers accountable.
Walker’s words—and warning—carry clout. She represents the largest buyer of fluid milk in the country. "It all boils down to brand protection," she says. "When we lose consumers’ trust, we lose social license which will then lead to increased regulation."
The National Dairy FARM Program is a first step, but Walker worries that it is being implemented differently by various co-ops, is voluntary and has timelines that are far too long. She points to tail-docking as an example. "Do we really need a 10-year phase-out for a practice that is not scientifically defensible?" she asks.
Betsy Flores, National Milk Producer Federation Senior Director of Animal Health & Welfare, heads up the FARM Program. Flores says animal welfare is an evolving issue. Three years ago, the American Association of Bovine Practitioners said tail docking was not a recommended practice, but it did not oppose the practice. It now does. The National Mastitis Council also now says tail docking does not improve milk quality.
In the revised FARM Program, due out in a few months, tail docking likely will no longer be recommended. But it will not be prohibited, says Flores. "We don’t want to exclude a farm [from being in the program] based on one check point. Participation opens the door to conversations on these practices.
"Animal welfare should not be a competitive issue. The intent of the program is continuous improvement and that happens through including all producers," says Flores. "The accountability comes through the market chain."
But that is precisely Walker’s point. She worries that a food retailer will grow tired of recurring animal abuse videos, particularly if they occur on one of their own supplier farms. They will then mandate a welfare program that is far more burdensome and bureaucratic—and may actually do little to improve animal well-being. And it then could become a competitive issue, with some brands saying their milk comes from humanely raised cows while implying milk from their competitors does not.
Dairy farmers bristle at the thought of more audits, more inspectors and more compliance costs. But Walker says some Dean processing plants already have 10 to 12 different audits each year to show plant processes are in compliance. Customer transparency and verification are simply the new reality.
Having one, national animal welfare program—with accountability and timeliness—is Walker’s preferred approach. The knee jerk reaction would be to condemn Walker and Dean Foods. A more adult response would take this recommendation to heart—and act on it.
For more on Walker’s take on animal welfare, click here.
For more on the national Dairy FARM Program, click here.