Shoppers who pay a premium for organic milk are being duped, say campaigners, after the Soil Association refused to suspend an approved dairy farm where distressed calves were filmed being brutally force-fed and hit by a worker.
The footage raised questions over the standards required by and enforced by the UK’s largest organic certification body, according to charity Animal Equality.
Video taken at an organic dairy farm in Somerset after a tip-off about cruelty showed:
- Distressed newborn calves struggling as workers shoved feeding tubes down their throats
- A calf thrown to the ground and slapped in the face during force-feeding
- A worker standing on a calf with his full body weight, shouting: “You f******. . .s***”
- Cows agitated and trying to intervene as calves call out in distress
- A newborn calf dragged by its back legs into a separation pen away from its mother
- Several cows with their back legs chained together in shackles
Witnesses also said they saw calves routinely separated from their mothers less than 24 hours after birth and were denied access to water for up to 29 hours, in breach of guidelines.
Both Waitrose and the RSPCA suspended the farm after the footage was revealed, and the RSPCA apologised.
Waitrose launched an investigation, saying the practices filmed did not “meet the high standards we set”.
The Soil Association sent a team to perform an unannounced inspection after being alerted to the breaches of farm regulations and its own guidelines, issuing demands for improvement.
The demands were based on “particular and unacceptable aspects of animal welfare as observed in the video”, the association said.
But it did not suspend certification, meaning the farm may continue to provide dairy products with the SA logo and accreditation on.
Animal Equality’s UK director Dr Toni Shephard said: “This shows that organic certification is not about animal welfare – and consumers who believe that it is are being duped.
“Customers pay a premium for organic milk because they think the animals are treated better. It seems they are being conned.”
Waitrose online sells a pint of non-organic milk for 50p and its organic equivalent for 65p. In surveys, shoppers say they are prepared to pay more for higher welfare.
Taken from both hidden cameras and live filming, the Animal Equality footage suggested the farm “failed to meet even the basic minimum legal requirements for looking after calves in the dairy industry and fell well below organic and RSPCA standards”, the group said.
Workers were seen force-feeding colostrum – milk produced by new mothers – to newly born calves by pushing a long tube down their throats.
“This can be a dangerous procedure as the tube can damage the throat and is potentially life-threatening if the tube goes into the lungs,” said Animal Equality.
Force-feeding is banned under Soil Association guidelines although careful use of a stomach tube is allowed in some circumstances, but the footage suggested it was routine at Coombe Farm.
Calves were separated from their mothers – leaving them crying out in distress – and held without water for more than 24 hours, the observers reported.
They said several cows were found in shackles on every visit. Shackles are used in the dairy industry on cows that have suffered muscle or nerve damage during calving and would not otherwise be able to stand.
Soil Association rules also say livestock must have access to water at all times and pipes checked regularly to make sure they are working.
Its standards also say: “Ideally dams (mothers) should rear their own calves. The calves will then build a natural vigour and resistance to infection.”
The various practices recorded also breached the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 as well as guidelines from the environment department (Defra) and the RSPCA.
The workers’ rough handling of calves and hitting them breaks the Animal Welfare Act 2006, “causing unnecessary suffering”, Animal Equality said.
Defra recommends calves stay with their mothers for 24 hours after birth but the charity said the video showed calves were taken from them after 13 hours, and in one case under 12 hours.
“The Soil Association claims to have even higher welfare standards than other organic certification schemes, yet they did not require the instant dismissal of these violent staff members. That is shocking and unacceptable,” said Dr Shephard.
The Soil Association said in a statement after seeing the video that its recommendations were being implemented by the farm.
It added: “Animal welfare is at the heart of organic and our standards are the highest of any farming system in the UK. Organic standards permit the use of a stomach tube only on sick animals or those having difficulty feeding to ensure calves get the optimum amount of colostrum as soon as possible.
“Of course, this needs to be done properly by trained staff to ensure that calves are not distressed.”
But Dr Shephard said: “The workers seen doing the force-feeding clearly have no compassion or empathy with the calves and should not continue to be employed on the farm or in any area where they work with animals.
“Senior management also needs to be held accountable for inadequate training and supervision of the employees.
“Consumers can have no confidence in animal-welfare claims made by Soil Association with this wholly inadequate response.
“I would have expected Soil Association to suspend the farm until these problems have been resolved and confirmed by a further unannounced inspection.
“It illustrates the fundamental problem with dairy farming: calves are denied their own mother’s milk – and the act of suckling from their mothers – so that the cow’s milk can be sold.”
“When we show people footage from typical, intensive farms, many viewers say ‘I only buy organic meat so they have a good life.’
“We always point out that even if their lives are better, they usually died in the same slaughterhouses as all other farmed animals. Now we see that claims of a better life cannot be trusted.
“That these harrowing scenes are from the much-romanticised organic farm will seem almost beyond belief.”
The campaigners also said the footage showed calves lived under 24-hour lighting, in breach of RSPCA guidelines.
The RSPCA said: “We are shocked and disgusted by the footage and understand why people are upset. It is totally unacceptable for staff on an RSPCA Assured certified farm – or any farm – to treat calves and cows this way and we apologise wholeheartedly to people who feel we’ve let them down.
“We launched an investigation as soon as the video was brought to our attention.
“Thankfully welfare concerns on RSPCA Assured certified farms are extremely rare.”
Coombe Farm says on its website: “We apply principles of high animal welfare and sound land management, which has enabled us to produce products of the highest organic quality, supplying some of the most trusted names in retail.” It states that all its calves stay with their mothers for 24 hours after birth.
The Soil Association declined to respond to criticism of its refusal to suspend the farm.
A spokesperson for Coombe Farm said: "We take animal welfare very seriously and ensure that any welfare issues raised are dealt with immediately.
"Upon receiving the report from Animal Equality, we initiated a request to the Soil Association and RSPCA Assured to visit the farm in question and carried out our own internal investigation to ensure all our practices continue to meet industry standards. We have addressed any issues of non-compliance for the Soil Association and RSPCA Assured, and have implemented further relevant training for all farm staff."
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