Animal welfare is one of our central themes and is closely linked to the so-called ‘license to operate’ of pig farms, transport and slaughter companies. Vion makes an active contribution to improving animal welfare in all parts of the chain in which Vion is active. This starts with compliance with legislation, guaranteeing well-being in the supply chain and offering premium concepts with improved standards. Especially for farms Vion assists the farmer with data and knowledge to continuously improve animal welfare.
In the development of national and European welfare legislation, the development of requirements within the national guides to good agricultural practice practice (Farm Assurance Schemes) and Vion’s own welfare procedures, the five freedoms set out in the Brambell report are taken into account. Additionally Vion recognises also that animals have emotions. All animals:
- Are free from hunger and thirst through easy access to fresh water and a diet to maintain complete health and vigor;
- Are free from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting place;
- Are free from pain, injury or disease, through prevention or prompt diagnosis and treatment;
- Are free to express normal behaviour by offering sufficient space, additional facilities to express the animal’s behaviour;
- Are free from anxiety and stress by providing conditions and treatment that prevent psychological suffering.
Furthermore Vion recognises farm animals as sentient beings. In that regard the five domains of animal welfare are an elaboration of the five freedoms emphasising the need to promote positive welfare states when keeping farm animals. These five domains characterise the emotional needs of animals, which are important to take into account to improve animal welfare even better.
These five freedoms with the recognition of emotions in animals are a very good starting point to look at animal welfare. Keeping animals under modern Farm Assurance Schemes (100% of our animals are raised under Farm Assurance Schemes) is a good way to assure these freedoms are met. Our clear commitment to stun 100% of the animals in our supply base prior to slaughter is part of this. This is also visible in Vion’s policy that no animal within the Vion premises is being slaughtered without priorly being stunned.
Levels of animal welfare requirements
Within European meat production, animal welfare requirements can be divided into legal requirements (at European and national level) and private standards that consider animal welfare, ranging from moderate to high-end standards. The figure on the right shows the different levels of animal welfare requirements in Vion’s supply chains.
Vion is committed to improve animal welfare by implementing new developments and insights and supporting initiatives that concern these improvements. Topics considered are:
- More space for animals to allow animals to exhibit species-specific behavior. Gestation-crates have been long gone in our supply base, pilots are being conducted to experience the benefits of free-farrowing pens, meat from cattle with access to pastures has found its place in the market and tethering of cattle is being phased out within the coming years (with goal of all year thethering system < 10 % in till 2030).
- Species-specific enrichment to meet the needs of animals. Straw-tubes for pigs for example have been developed in our top tier welfare concepts but are already adopted in lower tier schemes as well. Another example in dairy farms we see the use of brushes becoming more and more a common practice which is fully in line with our commitment.
- Routine modifications such as castration, tail-docking or dehorning are issues which don’t match with the idea of keeping animals in an environment that allows species-specific behavior. So initiatives that find ways to omit these practices are applauded and stimulated. In this regard our experiences with intact male pigs (entire boars) is now seen as the way forward for our business.
Steps made to improve animal welfare have to be at balance with the market requirements for these steps to be sustainable. When developing our concepts further with our customers and partners understanding this dynamics is vital for a successful next step. This is equally important to improve on other animal welfare topics such as what to do with day old male chicks or keeping animals on fully slatted floors.
Antibiotic stewardship as an important aspect of Good Agricultural Practices which is important for a sustainable animal production. Prophylactic use of antibiotics is already not allowed under the Farm Assurance Schemes we adhere to in our supply base. Vion is committed to reduce the over-use of antibiotics in husbandry systems to control the development of antibiotic resistance by stimulating Good Veterinary Practices where prudent use of veterinary drugs is the norm and routine metaphylactic use is not practiced. Increasing the robustness of animals by improving their environment is stimulated by feeding back relevant slaughter observations and health information to the farmers and focusing on further animal health improvements at farm level.
Vion encourages limiting the use of antibiotics by coaching individual farmers in order to find an optimal balance between animal health, animal welfare and productivity. To further study this concept, Vion is supporting an EU-funded research project to investigate the potential of precision livestock farming to further reduce antibiotic use. The project started in February 2019.
In addition, Vion is active in the smart pig supply chain project within sector innovation programmes.
Compared to global pork production, the pig farms who supply Vion are far ahead in reducing antibiotic use. The reduction started in 2008 and the use of antibiotics has already decreased significantly (source: CSR report 2022 and www.autoriteitdiergeneesmiddelen.nl). Especially the use of antibiotics critical for men is largely abandoned and the use of other non-critical antibiotics is substantially reduced. The effect of this policy on the reduction of the transmission of antibiotic resistance is also reflected in an international scientific paper that shows that pork of our premises had a negligible effect on the transmission of antibiotic resistance to men.
European and national legislation
European legislation on minimum standards for animal welfare
EU law provides a legal framework for minimum animal welfare requirements that applies to all European countries.
National legislation with improved welfare standards
National legislation provides a legal framework for minimum animal welfare requirements applicable to specific EU member states. In the Netherlands specifically, the standard for living space is higher than the European standard. In addition, Dutch pigs for meat production have at least 40% solid floor area.
Quality labels to guarantee animal welfare throughout the chain
In the Netherlands, the IKB quality mark (Integrated Chain Management) is used, in Germany the QS (Qualität & Sicherheit) quality mark. The regulations of these quality labels guarantee that the standards of animal welfare, animal health and food safety are met. Vion believes it is important that all animals raised according to certified standards have had a good life. For that reason, Vion is only affiliated with companies that are certified with the IKB or QS quality mark.
Farmers holding this certification are regularly independently audited to ensure compliance with regulations. In this way, compliance with basic animal welfare standards with our suppliers is ensured.
Vion market concepts
In addition to European and national legislation and quality marks, Vion has developed several market concepts. 22% of all animals processed at Vion have been raised according to these certified higher animal welfare requirements (EU organic, Beter Leven, Für Mehr Tierschutz or Initiative Tierwohl).
Vion chains such as De Groene Weg and Good Farming Star are designed in such a way that animals grow up in accordance with (inter) national welfare standards. Each animal is given a lot of peace and space.
Good Farming Star
Good Farming Star is a concept introduced in 2010 that pays extra attention to animal welfare and sustainability. Within this concept, Vion works together with some 165 Dutch Good Farming Star pig farmers. In Dutch supermarkets, the meat may bear one star of the Beter Leven quality mark. 17 percent of the animals processed by Vion in the Netherlands meet the Beter Leven Keurmerk 1 Star. The companies have an agreement with Vion in which the animal welfare requirements of the Good Farming Star concept are guaranteed. All links in the chain from the farm to the shop shelf are independently certified and audited. Vion actively coaches and supports pig farmers in this process.
The important criteria from the Beter Leven one Star program are:
- the pigs have more living space than in conventional pig farming; Fattening pigs have 25% more space, weaned piglets have 33% more space;
- the animals have access to extra play material that creates a more attractive living environment for the animal;
- extra attention is paid to animal health;
- males are not castrated;
- the transport time to the slaughterhouse is monitored and limited. The transport time for finishing pigs is a maximum of 8 hours. In practice, the maximum transport time is less than 6 hours. Transport time is defined as the time between the loading of the first animal and the unloading of the last animal.
- the travel time of the pigs and piglets in the Beter Leven Keurmerk one star is a maximum of 3.5 hours. Travel time is defined as the time between the departure and the arrival of the transport.
De Groene Weg
De Groene Weg has been the market leader in organic beef and pork in the Netherlands since 1981. This brand is supplied to customers in Europe. From 2020 the organic meat is for sale in Germany under the name “Der Grüne Weg”. The products meet the European standards for organic products and the criteria for 3 stars of the Beter Leven quality standard. These high animal welfare requirements are guaranteed in contracts with suppliers.
The main differences with the criteria for 1 star of the Beter Leven quality mark are:
- all pigs have a lot of space inside (1.3m2) and can go outside (1.0m2). A maximum of 75 percent of the outdoor area is covered;
- the farrowing pen is at least 7.5m2 inside and 2.5m2 outside outside, the sows must also be free.
- bearing sows have a space of at least 2.5 m2 inside and 1.9 m2 outside. The pregnant sows are obliged to go outside from April 1 to November 1.
- at all stages of the pig’s life, the pens are covered with organic straw.
- the pigs are fed organic concentrates and organic roughage in all phases of life;
- the pigs’ tails are not docked;
- the piglets are neutered in an anesthetic with pain relief;
- the transport time to the slaughterhouse is limited to a maximum of 6 hours. The maximum transport distance is up to 60 km;
- the weaning age of the piglets is at least 42 days;
- motherless rearing of the piglets is not permitted.
Continuous improvement of animal welfare
Vion supports the supply chain in the process of continuous improvement of animal welfare
Control and transparency of animal welfare is an important point in Vion’s strategy to create trust in the products and the chain. Vion wants to take the lead in welfare discussions and fulfill its role in monitoring the welfare status in the chain. Our animal welfare strategy consists of different levels of animal welfare control. Our goals are:
- Helping farmers in the continuous improvement of animal welfare by means of feedback of slaughter observations and animal welfare outcomes.
- Provide transporters with information to evaluate and improve animal transport. This information includes animal welfare outcomes that are registered from the animals upon arrival.
- Provide customers, consumers and society with certainty with regard to the management of animal welfare in the supply chain.
- Create trust and have a professional reputation for animal welfare and transparency among all stakeholders.
With the FarmingNet program, Vion helps farmers in the process of continuous improvement of their stables and animal welfare. FarmingNet is an online information system for the pig farmer. The system gives the pig farmer direct insight into the weights and the muscle and fat thickness of the delivered animals. In addition, the pig farmer receives extra information, for example about the performance per department. This provides important knowledge about the health of the pigs and the balance. Moreover, it is possible to anonymously compare multiple locations or companies. Together with the Vion Farming employee, the intermediary, the veterinarian and / or the feed advisor, the pig farmer can use the data to improve the result. In many cases, the propagator is also involved in this improvement process.
Dairy farmers can also collaborate with Vion in the RundveeNet program. Via this programme, they have access to Vion’s slaughter data and, in consultation with their veterinarian, try to prevent possible abnormalities or disorders in their herd in the long term.
Vion launched the “BigIDee” concept. The aim of this concept is to improve the health and welfare of pigs. The first step of this concept is the exchange of information on health and vaccination status between pig farms and their receiving pig farms. Another aspect of “BigIDee” is the transport between the two farmers. Transporters have received additional training and information on how to monitor animal welfare and hygiene during transport (for example, the quality of the litter), as well as what kind of measures they can take to care for the health of pigs during and after transport and to eliminate the transmission of pathogens.
How are our animals raised?
Producing safe and healthy food is one of Vion’s top priorities. Food safety and quality assurance are embedded in the codes of conduct at all Vion production locations. Vion opts for “pure nature” and in this area is committed to working responsibly with our customers, suppliers and other stakeholders.
For this reason, Vion complies with the following rules in the animal welfare chain for all animals processed by Vion:
- no animals are derived from cloned animals or subject to genetic engineering;
- no growth aids are used. Since 2006, it has been prohibited in the EU to use antibiotics as a growth promoter in livestock. Compared to global pork production, the pig farmers who supply Vion are far ahead in reducing antibiotic use (source: CSR Report 2022, page 58).
- Transport times are kept to a minimum. Most of the transports are no more than 200 kilometers (source: CSR Report 2022, page 74).
In 2022, 35 percent of the total number of male pigs slaughtered at Vion was not castrated. Together with the “Boars on the way” program, Vion is investigating the possibilities of ending the castration of male pigs within the European Union.
The Business Benchmark for Farm Animal Welfare (BBFAW) analyses the farm animal welfare policies, management systems, reporting and performance of 150 of the world’s largest food companies. They do this by looking at the available information published by companies about animal welfare on the internet. Once a year a ranking is made showing how different companies perform on how they manage and report on animal welfare. Vion is one of the companies being ranked annually.
The information the BBFAW looks for, is rubricated in 50 questions on which they try to find answers on one of our websites. Questions like “Does the company acknowledge farm animal welfare as a business issue?” which directly applies to us as a company. A bit more tricky are questions like “does the company have a clear commitment not to produce or sell foie gras?” Which Vion doesn’t produce and doesn’t sell. But communicating this on our website is a bit as “stating the things one doesn’t do” which is sometimes seem as an odd type of communication.
Another example is “Do we have a policy on reducing the reliance on animal-sourced foods?” For a company pre-dominantly producing animal-sourced foods we are clearly committed in providing our customers with wholesome products. We also understand there is a clear demand for vegan products and because we are well connected with farmers (e.g. to growers of beans) we also produce vegan products (www.me-at.com). This part of our company has originated from Vion’s strategic choices founded in our over-arching policy which also includes non-animal-sourced foods.
Overall the methodology BBFAW uses is a useful one to steer investors towards companies who are vocal about their efforts to improve animal welfare. Vion has been a dedicated contributor to the engagements with the BBFAW team over the past years and we are confident we keep this up in the years to come.
We invite you to have a look at their website: www.bbfaw.com