Farm Assurance Schemes
Food scares such as BSE, Salmonella and E. coli, as well as concerns over GMOs, antibiotics and pesticides, have led to an increase in the supply of organic milk and many farmers have adopted one of the farm assurance schemes. However, sales of organic milk now represent only 2.5 per cent of the overall liquid milk market (118).
Many people who choose to pay the extra for milk certified under one of the schemes below do so because they believe the animals have a much higher standard of living. However, all these dairy cows are still subjected to the exploitative nature of the industry.
Soil Association Organic Standards
In order to receive Soil Association certification for their milk, dairy farmers must comply with specific standards set down by the organisation. Certified farms are inspected annually by the Soil Association to ensure that these standards are being upheld.
While most of the standards set out by the Soil Association are aimed at improving the quality of the milk, certain standards do pertain specifically to animal welfare. Highly invasive practices such as embryo transfer and ovum pick-up are prohibited but artificial insemination is allowed without any regulations governing the breed (and therefore size) of the sire (119). Fertility hormones must not be used to synchronise calving but may be used to bring a cow with failing fertility into heat (119). Calves may only be housed individually until seven days old and then must be group housed. Disbudding is still permitted up to two months old and castration with a rubber ring without anaesthetic is allowed in the first week of life (119). They may not be taken to market under one month old but beyond that age they may endure journeys of up to eight hours to market or the abattoir.
Cows on organic farms are still impregnated every year to provide a continuous supply of milk and endure the trauma of having their calves taken away within 24-72 hours of birth. They also carry the dual load of pregnancy and lactation for seven months ofevery year, just like those on conventional farms. These two welfare insults are inherent in dairy production and cannot be eliminated. The birth of male calves is also a problem for organic dairy farmers using high yield breeds such as Holsteins and the scheme allows these ‘unwanted by-products’ to be shot shortly after birth (until 2015), or to be raised for rose veal (119).
RSPCA Freedom Foods Scheme
The RSPCA’s Freedom Foods standards for the welfare of dairy cattle provide little more than the legal minimum for cows and their calves. As in organic farming, cows suffer the repeated trauma of having their calves taken away shortly after birth and face the gruelling workload of pregnancy and lactation. The only practices of conventional farming which are prohibited are embryo transfer and ovum pick-up (120). Calves may still be housed individually up to eight weeks old and can travel to market as young as seven days old, enduring journeys up to eight hours long (120). The standards on the removal of supernumerary teats and disbudding do offer slightly higher welfare than the legal minimum, with local anaesthetic being required for both procedures under the scheme and the upper age limit set for five weeks (120). However the fate of male calves is ignored under this scheme, leaving farmers free to kill off any unwanted calves immediately after birth.
The welfare benefit provided to dairy cows by the RSPCA Freedom Foods scheme was evaluated in a study by Bristol University which investigated the welfare of cows on 40 Freedom Foods approved farms and 40 non-Freedom Foods farms:
“There was no difference in overall welfare score between Freedom Foods and non-Freedom Foods farms. Thus, we were unable to conclude that membership of the Freedom Foods scheme ensured better overall welfare than non-participating farms.”
Professor Webster (8)
Red Tractor Farm Assurance
The Red Tractor logo on dairy products signifies that the milk was produced in the UK on a farm which meets the standards of the Red Tractor Farm Assurance Dairy scheme. However, these standards are simply the UK and EU legal minimums and nothing more! All of the farming practices outlined in this report are acceptable under this scheme (121). The only thing this logo guarantees the customer is that the product was produced in Britain and the farm was not breaking any laws, at least not on the day it was inspected.