The ethics of profiting from animal welfare

Lino Saputo (pic: ABC)

Earlier this week, dairy processing giant Saputo announced it was getting tough on animal welfare. Well, more precisely, it was getting tough on the dairy farmers supplying it milk.

Saputo toughens stance on animal welfare @ABCRural.

The announcement was greeted by farmers on Twitter, both in Saputo’s native Canada and here in Australia where it owns Warrnambool Cheese & Butter, with a degree of skepticism.

The common theme of the discussion was that farmers were already meeting the standards trumpeted by Saputo. The exercise was simply one of a processor profiteering off the backs of dairy farmers, yet again. But it’s worth remembering that Saputo’s move followed a case of a farmer doing the wrong thing as Lino Saputo told the ABC:

Mr Saputo said an incident in Canada motivated the work behind this new policy.

“One of the farms that was supplying us milk had a recorded incident of animal abuse. Here in Canada we are buying milk from the milk marketing board, and typically we don’t know where that milk is coming from,” he said.

“As it turns out, the milk from that farm that had some abuse was being delivered to our plant. “We tried to rally with the dairy industry to have some stronger practices in place, but quite frankly we found ourselves alone in this process and we felt like we needed to take a leadership role.”

Saputo is not on its own. Fonterra has quietly begun animal welfare audits on the farms of its suppliers. Perhaps coincidentally, its own customer, Nestle, threw its considerable global weight around earlier this year, demanding a set of welfare standards from suppliers that has already seen scores of Australian dairy farms whose milk eventually reaches Nestle inspected.

I’d be willing to bet the farm that Saputo, Fonterra and Nestle are the tip of the iceberg. As farmer Shelby Anderson (@cupslinga) tweeted, “it’s society, not a foreign Co” that is demanding transparency and rigour around the way we farmers care for our cows.

The RSPCA is already considering accrediting milk for animal welfare, as it does with eggs. The idea is rejected by peak dairy body, the Australian Dairy Farmers, because it fears the RSPCA marketing will imply most dairy farming is not up to scratch. It’s a fair point that leaves me feeling conflicted because, on the other hand, it’s great to put a value on good animal care (err, beyond having healthy, productive animals and being able to sleep at night).

Just as the quality of Australian milk is taken for granted by Australian shoppers, they expect the cows to be treated well. I for one am pleased that Saputo and Fonterra have been proactive to protect that reputation for kindness.

I only hope that the way we care for animals is marketed with the same sensitivity. A ghastly adversarial marketing campaign might make a quick buck but would leave everyone a loser.

20 thoughts on “The ethics of profiting from animal welfare

  1. Marion, how do you and your readers feel about a corporation imposing its will onto the general population? Or how about a corporation imposing a moral standard onto its employees? In society today there is much debate about whether churches have the right to try to impose their moral standards onto society. If we think that Churches should not try to impose moral standards onto society, why would we not think that corporations should also not attempt to impose moral standards onto society also? After all, laws are in place which force corporations and companies to behave ethically as society has demanded. Those laws have come about because corporations have a history of putting profits before good behaviour. Now, with this Saputo example, are we now reversing our ideas of who should set moral standards?

    Why has Saputo decided that they shall be the standard bearer of what is said to be good animal ethics practices? Do we suddenly trust a body whose desire is business profit to make us behave in a certain ethical manner? Our current laws are passed by parliaments, or, as in the case of much of our animal welfare rules and guidelines, they are overseen by organisations that are overseen by parliamentary legislation. The RSPCA is an example of an organisation that is overseen by parliamentary legislation. However, Saputo is not overseen by anything other than legislation that makes sure that they are not behaving unethically in the pursuit of business profits – they have to be honest in their business dealings and they have to treat their employees properly, according to the law. The law says Saputo must deal honestly with suppliers too, that is, the dairy farmers who supply the milk. Those farmer suppliers are bound by similar laws, plus laws that dictate what is and what is not ethical treatment of their farm animals. The laws are enforced by RSPCA inspectors and by the Police, as circumstances dictate.

    Now the laws that dictate what is and what is not ethical animal handling are the result of community discussion and, ultimately, are bought into play as standards by acts of parliament. Here, however, we have a foreign company, Saputo, declaring that it will only deal with those farmers who meet its very own standard of what it believes to be the ethical handling of animals by farmers. In other words, a corporation (and a foreign one) is imposing its standards onto Australian farmers. The corporation is effectively saying it knows better than farmers, the community and even Australian law makers what animal ethical standards should be. In justifying its decision, the corporation cites just ONE example of how it was supposedly outraged by documented abuse on a Canadian farm. OK, let’s stop right there! The Canadian abuse was ‘documented’. The question is ‘by whom’? The Canadian system of animal welfare monitoring system, as decided by the Canadian people? We are not told, but it would be fairly safe to accept that a ‘documented’ case had been dealt with by Canadian law enforcement. So why would Saputo suddenly decide to jump into a role of being a moral arbitrator? One would think there is no need, if Canada has in place a system that can ‘document’ an animal abuse case. So why? A marketing ploy? Saputo wanting to be seen as a good corporate citizen by taking on a role already overseen by law? One could be forgiven for adopting a very cynical view of a corporation that is obviously just trying to be populist!

    In Australia, laws, rules and regulations are already in place which establishes what is right and what is wrong with certain animal useage practices. Add to that the fact that Australians and Australian farmers undertake community discussions about what constitutes good animal welfare. farmers have always had a vested interest in good animal handling practices. After all, the welfare of animals is what, ultimately, decides the profitabllity of their farming operations. That idea particularly applies to dairy farmers, because contented, happy animals are the ones that produce the most for the least cost. Any dairy farmer worth his or her salt knows this as a truism and are constantly striving to achieve the required animal handling and welfare practices that make for happy, contented cows. Australian farmers are also overseen by a system that ensures such a high standard.

    Now Saputo, a foreign company, has decided to enforce its own morality onto Australian suppliers of milk. In this case, Saputo is even over-riding Australian law and is disregarding local debates, local laws and local conditions in an attempt to impose what it thinks should be a universal morality. In my opinion that is a dangerous precedent and should not be accepted.

    • Thanks John!
      You raise a really interesting point about who should set the bar and how high.

      I think most farmers would agree that simply staying on the right side of the animal cruelty laws sets the bar far, far lower than the standards on Australian dairy farms.

      Unfortunately, as with so many rapidly changing things in life (think of drones, and cyber security for example) these laws may not have kept pace with community expectations.

      These days, Australians are taking a greater interest in animal welfare, which is wonderful! Farmers need to embrace this growing interest and show how we share the same love of animals.

      As you say, the farming community has done a lot in the last few years on animal care – because it matters to us. What a shame then, if other Australians watch us kicking and screaming against progress towards improving the lives of our animals.

      I would have done exactly the same thing Saputo says it has done in the face of community outrage, which was try to develop a response in partnership with farmers. And if farmers don’t want to talk, any organisation has the right to source its materials from people who can provide exactly what it wants.

      If there is a moral to this story, I think it is that farmers need to lead the community in terms of animal welfare progress and be very open about the progress we are making.

  2. Well said Marian. Sure there is PR element to these programs but the processors are not idiots; they are simply reflecting the changing community values. It’s happening for all livestock industries.

  3. Who are Nestle to throw their weight around on animal welfare issues when they can’t get their own human wlefare issues under control? Vis a vis the controversy over selling their infant formula into third world countries and their beliefs/comments that water is not a human right and should be privatised?

  4. I wonder how many farmers will now move their milk to another processor as a result of Saputo’s announced position. Plenty of choices down that way and even those contracted to WCB can use this ruling to trigger a contract termination if they choose to.

    In the commercial world corporate standards are defined and applied regularly with varied results, some to comply with the law, some to comply with their own wishes and some to ensure they are not ensnared in independent advocacy issues.

    Saputo seeking to impose a self defined standard on its suppliers is no better or no worse than some of Coles (or Woolworths or Metcash for that matter) conduct for its suppliers, or what services companies demand of their employers or contractors or environmentalists demand of mining companies in regards tailings and processing waste.

    I find all of them rather invasive personally and prefer the model of a business relationship where it is delineated by the boundary of responsibility of each party and the interchange of product or service is determined by quality, timeliness and a mutually acceptable price. This game of supplier advocacy that has crept into business in the last couple of decades by the greater entity does more damage than good and verges on bullying and often denies the industry in which everyone in the supply chain operate in and depend on any growth or sustainable opportunity.

    Animal husbandry and animal welfare is something intrinsic in the farmers business not a ruling determined by a downstream recipient, they can stipulate standards for what they are buying (i.e. the milk) and expect compliance (societal or legal) of how this is produced but to step through that boundary of responsibility means they then have to consider paying for the privilege or sharing some of the risk or step back.

    • Hi Boundary Hunter,

      Thanks for that comment. Yes, I’ve got a lot of sympathy for what you’re saying. It sometimes feels as though there is more and more and more we have to do, just to tread water.

      I long for the day when farmers are paid well for our milk. But it’s a commodity and when you’re supplying a commodity you’re a price taker. That price comes in many forms and one of them is having to ask “how high?” when we are told to jump.

  5. When I read the media around Saputo’s decision, Marian, it sounded to me like a marketing position. It also sounded that they are planning a third party audit process. This will be another cost to the farmer in 2 ways: the actual cost of the audit and the cost of compliance ie paperwork beyond what is kept now.

    • I’m sure it is a marketing decision, Meg. Saputo found itself in the centre of community outrage after the incident that provoked the policy.

      The reality is that the community is becoming more demanding of all farmers and will apply pressure to drive change. And it has worked.

  6. While this is an old post, I thought I’d like to comment. I am no farmer and know little of farming, but the question of ethical treatment of animals is one I do have an interest in.

    I am curious about how you might see the future panning out for dairy farmers. I read your latest post regarding the difficulties being faced by farmers due to environmental conditions such as the dry weather and the Murray Goulburn overspend so it’s clear this is a tough time for the industry.

    However I wonder if ethical matters might become even more of a concern in time? In the post above and in the comments I hear a certain note of dismissal for the idea that more ethical standards might be brought to apply to the industry, for example the idea that “laws are in place which force corporations and companies to behave ethically as society has demanded”. But society’s demands in ethical matters are not static, and do evolve over time. Thus it is even possible that with the right pressure, laws may change.

    Many people argue that dairy is an intrinsically unethical industry. For myself, I haven’t been able to get to the bottom of this claim but to my eye it has merit. Certainly I can find a lot of information to support the claim. In this respect the Internet has been a big player because it means that consumers like me can find out about activities that I would not have known about otherwise. This is an example of the kinds of information now out there: http://dairycruelty.com.au/

    Worldwide, there is a significant push to develop more ethical alternatives and we see all sorts of clever options becoming available (eg the development of pea based milk such as Ripple. http://simmerandboil.cookinglight.com/2016/04/22/what-is-pea-milk/). It seems to me that with some thought and innovation it should be possible to develop alternatives to traditional dairy that leave the consumer far more comfortable about what their food choices mean for animal welfare.

    At a personal level for example, dairying appears to me to involve some highly dubious practices that I feel I cannot condone. I have made the transition to non-dairy milks with my preferred option being coconut milk. I have also moved to a meat free diet for similar reasons.

    The question is, will ethical considerations become far more demanding of the industry and should farmers become rather more sensitive to community expectations, perhaps even more sensitive to how those expectations might evolve over time?

    • Hi Graeme,
      So nice to have a polite comment from the animal liberation perspective. Thank you. I think that, in general, farmers and animal welfare advocates share the same values – it’s just that we can have different opinions regarding what it all means in practice.

      For example, you may be concerned about the separation of cows and calves. I don’t like it either but do raise the calves away from the herd in the interest of the calves, not me (believe me, it would be a lot easier and cheaper to keep them together!). If you’re interested, I wrote about it here: //milkmaidmarian.com/2012/02/10/why-we-raise-calves-away-from-the-herd/

      The website you pointed me to talks about tail docking, which is illegal for cows. You’ll see from my blog that our cows have full tails.

      It also talks about the removal of horn buds. This is done for the safety of both people and other cows. Every herd has a strong pecking order and weaker cows often are bullied mercilessly. I once saw a cow bleed to death from a horn wound before the flow could be stemmed. Horrific.

      We are dairy farmers because we love cows. This is a family farm, not a factory.

  7. Thanks Marian, I will read your other post re calves later this evening. My comment here was more about how you think farmers might respond to growing community concerns about ethical practices, and also more specifically how you think farmers might deal with the growth in alternatives to dairy. I believe I read recently that this sector is definitely on the increase and might threaten ‘traditional’ dairy. Considered in tandem with the other factors you mentioned in your latest post, I wondered at how the dairy industry might be looking strategically at longer term impacts.

    Insofar as animal welfare/rights/liberation goes, I do want to find out more about dairy, but I haven’t really found a way to do so. I suspect you can’t assuage my concerns because we no doubt have fundamentally opposing philosophies, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t like to have a better understanding of both sides. I don’t know how I’d go about getting a genuine understanding – after all websites from both sides have their axes to grind…

  8. If you mean what are my concerns around animal welfare on dairy farms, or the ethics of dairy farming, they would be many, but I didn’t wish to be discourteous on your blog and tackle that. That said, I’d be interested in discussing these things if you are.

    My comment here was more to do with how you and other farmers might be looking to the future when it comes to ethical concerns. I got the feeling from reading your post that you feel that current standards of care are sufficient and that where abuse does occur, it’s an outlier. However as a consumer doing my research, that’s not what I take away from what I find. Add in the increasing variety and viability of alternatives to dairy and it seems to me that the industry might be confronting a profound change in consumer attitudes and behaviours. I wondered if this figures in strategic thinking within the dairy farming community.

    • I can see why you’re concerned given that the internet is your source. I would be too.

      Little of the information on the internet reflects the reality of life on farm but there are few farmers telling it how it is.

      Nobody (apart from a sadist) likes to see animals suffer. We all want the best possible lives for our cows. The issue is really what that means in practice. Sometimes, as in the calf rearing example, it’s complicated.

      Farmers care what consumers think – we don’t want to be known as abusers. We also worry sometimes that people with the right intentions but the wrong info could force counterproductive change. But do I think pea milk will take over? No, I don’t.

  9. I should like to add that I’ve been browsing through your blog posts and I see you’ve already tackled many of the issues that stand out for me. I shall have to have a good long read because this is the kind of first hand account that I’ve been looking for to offer an alternative viewpoint.

  10. Hello again Marian,

    Well, I’ve read many of the relevant posts on your blog (which is a very well written and thoughtful blog), dug through the various comments, spent several hours on the Dairy Australia website, perused various Meat & Livestock reports, and spent some time reading a variety of Google Scholar references. I’ve also revisited several of the “activist” websites to reconsider their views in light of what I’ve read.

    Given your latest post “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions” I can see that this is not the best time to be probing the ethical question, so I will understand if you don’t wish to respond with any depth. I actually wrote out a list of inconsistencies and misrepresentations in your various posts, but it would take us far too long to go through those and it’s not appropriate as I say. It would be a great topic for personal discussion, I think.

    Anyways, I observed in my comments earlier that some might see dairy as an unethical industry. The concern I had was that I hadn’t really taken the time to analyse this view in any detail (what I mean is, I kind of thought dairy seemed pretty innocuous and who doesn’t like milk, cream and ice-cream?).

    Now, I accept that the several hours of research on the web as I describe above is hardly an exhaustive analysis, but when add to this what I can glean from your blog, I think a few salient facts start to emerge. I am not convinced that I should disregard the activist’s view in favour of the dairy farmer’s.

    You said above “So nice to have a polite comment from the animal liberation perspective.” I guess that yes, I would see myself as an animal rights activist. This means that I view all animals as free beings with a natural right to life and liberty. I believe that all animals have the right to live free and not be exploited by human beings who simply have no need to do so.

    It seems to me however that animal farmers see other animals as resources to be exploited. This is clear enough I think, although you seem at pains to defend against that claim, as for example in your post “The business of dairy farming and what that means for our stock”.

    Really though, your bottom line is an economic one. Whatever you do in-between, the end result is that your cows ARE economic units. Even your latest post “Decisions” makes this abundantly clear. Your herd will be treated in tough times quite differently from your human herd. You simply are not in the business of raising cows for their own good.

    So we have that dichotomy – on the one hand, people who believe the intrinsic value of an animal inheres in its life, and on the other people who believe that an animal’s value is intrinsically economic.

    John Keily touched on this in his comment to your post “One woman’s kindness is another’s cruelty” in September of 2013 (//milkmaidmarian.com/2013/09/22/one-womans-kindness-is-anothers-cruelty/#comment-3901). As he says, the central ethic of animal rights activists is “totally at odds with the underlying ethic of our society”. He’s right.

    And this is why we simply cannot agree over what you see as caring, loving behaviour that ensures an appropriate level of animal welfare. Because your understanding of what this means is so far from my understanding of what it means. Animal welfare is important, but if it isn’t placed in a framework of rights and justice then it is a hollow claim. Because what we might see as a reasonable standard of welfare is, if placed within an economic framework arising from our own needs, not engineered to suit the animal’s interests.

    As John Keily further observes in his comment:
    “Farmers require greater productive output and that comes from, partly, better animal welfare. The expertise for that does not come from and will never come from animal activists.”

    Clearly, welfare in this context is framed in terms of productive output, not animal interests. And it is the animal’s interests with which I concern myself when I make the decision whether to buy and consume dairy. Dairy is a luxury, not a necessity, and hence animal welfare assumes a substantially greater value for me than it might were it a necessity. I can summarise this with what appears on the surface to be a trite question but which I think captures the essence of the philosophical divide.

    Would you be willing for you and your family and friends to live the life of a dairy herd?

    I am willing to bet that an honest answer is no, you would not. The point is, if you are at all like me, you simply never would trade places with a dairy cow.

    And that is why dairy is unethical.

    • I’d like to know what you consider “misrepresentations”.

      It’s more offensive to have general insults sent my way rather than points of discussion that I can engage with, Graeme.

      The reality is that it takes money to look after cows properly. You cannot feed a cow or treat a sick cow without it. For that reason, we sometimes need to sell some cows to look after the remainder well.

      If I were a cow, I would like to be one of ours. I would be looked after all my life, free to do what it is cows do. They are not confined under fluorescent lights. Nor are they left to die slowly in pain at the ends of their lives.

      They are not eaten slowly from the inside by parasites or in a few horrific moments by wild dogs. They calve once a year or so when they are fit and strong, not every 10 months when the bull takes his fancy. They are fed for optimum health and when they do fall ill, they are treated promptly with everything science has to offer.

      In fact, if it were left to nature, most of the farm’s cows would have starved to death this year. Instead, it’s my husband and I who are suffering the soul-consuming stress of drought.

      And that’s why I am happy to call dairy ethical.

    • Graeme, I can think of many animals I would like NOT TO BE – and a cow is not one of them!
      As a cow on Marian’s farm I would be looked after totally – a) good food every day (as they do), b) a treat that I would hurry in off the paddock for at every milking (as they do), c) looked after by the best vet care if I should fall ill or injure myself (as they do), d) have carers that actually do care about me and my state of mind/being (as they do.)
      In return I would have to agree to – a) being milked each day (Yea! No more bulging uncomfortable udder if my little one didn’t drink enough, or if something happened to my little one), b) having a young one each year if I was up to it. Well, that’s what we cows (and most other animals alive) do….no big problem there.

      Or I could choose to be a wombat or a kangaroo or wallaby – living a ”free” life – dependant on the weather to make and water enough food for me to forage, at risk of being hit and badly injured by those speeding metal boxes (cars?), or more likely, killed in getting across those hard patch surfaces (roads?) to the other greenery I wanted to explore, having my young slowly die of thirst and lack of maternal care in my now-cold pouch, or to try to avoid those with firesticks banging away at me (guns?) trying to kill me. Or maybe a fox -so sleek and pretty and free, never knowing if I’ll find enough to eat today or going to sleep hungry again, or being trapped, poisoned or shot at at every opportunity, never knowing from one day to the next whether I’ll get back to my cubs in the den or if they’ll starve when the shooters do get me.

      Yep, definitely a cow! Looked after from birth to death thank you.

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