VEGA News Item

Freedom's just another word... - 26/08/2003
Assurances on welfare of dairy cows found flawed in new assessment
“Except for the prevalence of dull coats (which was lower on Freedom Food farms) there were no significant differences in the proportions of FF and non-FF farms on which intervention was required according to the experts’ assessment”, reported independent veterinarians and biologists from the Universities of Bristol and Warwick this weekend (Main et al. (2003) Veterinary Record 153(8): 227-231).

The experts report their opinion that none of the total of the 53 farms assessed “was good at all aspects of the welfare of their cows” and they singled out lameness for special common attention. The RSPCA’s scheme purports to “assure consumers on such concerns as food safety, environmental management, and animal welfare” and its standards apply for similar schemes for sheep, chickens, turkeys, laying hens, ducks, salmon, beef cattle and pigs. The guidelines for dairy cattle are similar to those of the British Cattle Veterinary Association herd health plan. The Soil Association also operates organic versions in which animal welfare is featured and monitored to another set of standards.

The RSPCA is to be congratulated on commissioning the independent assessment, but this should have been done before it fobbed off flawed assurances on gullible customers, especially as the deficiencies in the national herd have long been recognised and condemned by objective animal welfarists (as a string of reviews by VEGA bears witness – and they don’t disregard the plight of the cows’ calves). All these testimonies indict the nation’s farmers and stockpersons for chronic incompetence and the need for training and licensing for all handlers of animals. The authors of the latest review report cogently that “on average farmers appeared to be aware of only one in four of the lame cows in their herd”.

The RSPCA is belatedly organising meetings to increase the awareness of farmers about these aspects of animal welfare that “will also consider their financial implications”. We hope Rolf Harris and the RSPCA’s TV vets will also spare a few moments to illustrate to consumers their involvement in the plight of the downer cow.

In summary the latest review of the dairy industry reports that “the FF farms had better results for 12 of the welfare indicators, including those for mastitis, non-hock injuries, cow cleanliness, and body condition, and poorer welfare indicators for 8 of the measures, including hock injuries, lameness, and restrictions in rising behaviour”. There were 8 measures for which FF membership “had no significant effect”. Mastitis, which “undoubtedly causes pain and suffering”, was less serious on the FF farms; the reduction “may have been associated with a greater attention to cleanliness and hygiene”. However, “there was also a pattern in the measures of the cows’ welfare that were worse on the FF farms. They mostly involved disorders of the limbs and locomotion, for example, swollen hocks, ulcerated hocks, poor claw conformation, and higher prevalence of lame cows, which may be related to the higher level of rising restrictions observed on the FF farms”. There was also a higher incidence of FF farms of milk fever.

Cow’s milk is succour for her baby calves: we’ve advanced now to a stage where she can be relieved of continual wet-nursing of the human population. Instead of stuffing feedstuffs wastefully into miserable and limping cows we can now rely on “dairy products” made from crops fed into gleaming steel vats. These are Freedom Foods assurances should be pinned on.

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