In June 2014, Saputo was attacked. Someone started a petition on The world's platform for change. It had 130,000 signatures and encouraged people to stop buying Saputo products until the company did the right thing.
The company’s customer service lines, which normally handle customer complaints about an expired product or something along those lines, were flooded with calls from people outraged at the company.
Why? Why was there such a public outcry toward a dairy processing company? Mercy for Animals (MFA) had released an animal abuse video of Chilliwack Cattle Sales, one of Saputo’s suppliers.
In his presentation at the 2016 Western Canadian Dairy Seminar, Dr. Warren Skippon, director of animal welfare and government relations for Saputo, discussed the impact this video had on the company, the steps they’ve taken since then to promote animal welfare and why.
Once MFA released the video, which contained footage of dairy cattle being kicked in the face, beaten and dragged, the company came under immense pressure from buyers to not supply them with milk from Chilliwack, Skippon said.
Due to loss of market, the company stopped receiving milk from that dairy until it underwent a third-party veterinary animal welfare audit that validated compliance with the dairy code of practice.
Company animal welfare policy changes
Prior to the incident, the company had an animal welfare policy; however, it was quite general. It stated, “The company shares industry and society’s concerns about animal welfare. We appreciate that animal welfare standards and practices are required, and we expect our suppliers to adopt animal care methods.”
Skippon said the Chilliwack incident “was a game-changer for Saputo. It was a game-changer, I think, for the processing industry and also for the dairy industry in Canada.
“We wanted a policy that was proactive and shows industry leadership in dairy cattle welfare,” Skippon said. “We wanted the policy to be pre-competitive, meaning we don’t want to compete with other dairy processing companies on animal welfare, much like we would never want to compete with those companies on food safety.
Those are just table stakes that you do not do. The policy needs to be science-based, aligned where possible with national animal care and handling codes and standards and their respective assessment programs.”
In June 2015, the company released its new animal welfare policy, which contained two components:
- Zero tolerance for any active animal cruelty
- Compliance with national codes and standards for proper animal handling care
The zero-tolerance policy is meant to address situations where there is undisputable evidence of animal cruelty. In these cases, the company will stop receiving milk when it reasonably believes there is an incident of animal cruelty on the farm and will continue to suspend milk receiving until specific re-integration steps have been followed.
Those steps include an investigation by the proper authorities in order to uphold the law, followed by an independent animal welfare audit to validate compliance with the dairy code of practice.
They expect all of their milk suppliers to comply with that country’s recognized standards. In Canada, that would be the National Farm Animal Code of Practice, and in the U.S., that would be the FARM program.
But why does a major processor like Saputo care about what happens on the dairies they buy milk from? Why change their animal welfare policy to promote better animal welfare standards? Because they too have something at stake.
“Mercy for Animals and other animal rights activist groups recognize that the power in their campaigns is targeting major international brands,” Skippon said.
When an animal rights activist group releases a video, it doesn’t just go after the dairy, it goes after the processor as well. When consumers, in general, view their brand or dairy products negatively, their sales drop, which hurts their business, their livelihood.
Processor concerns in the future
Poor cull-cow decision making is one major area of concern for processors, Skippon said, which is why Saputo views it as a key requirement for a dairy to meet their minimum standard.
“Poor decision-making results in the transport of unfit cull dairy cows and calves to auction markets. If you’re looking at examples from cows, it would be severe lameness or emaciation. There are many people in the industry that feel that if there’s going to be a target for our industry, this is it. They are public facilities where people can go in and videotape and, if there are animals that are arriving there that are unfit, then we’ve got a problem.”
The solution, Skippon said, is to educate those involved in the marketing chain. This would include the producers, drovers, veterinarians, auction market owners and employees.
They need a better understanding of the market pathways. They need to know that a cow is likely not killed the day after she leaves the farm and what constitutes a compromised animal.
The reality is the dairy industry has areas where it is vulnerable. We need to take steps to correct those now for the good of the animals and the industry. PD