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In conversation with… Ruth Bouwstra (CCQO) and vets Bjorn Roelofs and Jos van Arkel

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Quality improvement within the chain: to measure is to know

Quality is the foundation of all products that the VanDrie Group supplies, and in order to further expand the position of the VanDrie Group in the field of quality, a new position has been created. In October 2020, Ruth Bouwstra took up her new role – completely from home due to the coronavirus – as Corporate Chain Quality Officer in order to further improve the quality structure and quality control in the chain. The cooperation with independent vets such Jos van Arkel and Bjorn Roelofs from Dierenkliniek Den Ham (Den Ham Veterinary Clinic) plays an important role in her position. A three-way discussion about animal welfare, animal health, data and the opportunities that these offer when it comes to utilising the power of the chain.   

2020 was a unique year for everyone. What effect has COVID-19 had on your work? 

Bouwstra: “It was an unusual start to a new job. I’m someone who likes to make contact. So as soon as that’s allowed again, I’ve got a lot of hands to shake.”

Roelofs: ’Many of our company visits went ahead as normal. You can’t deprive sick animals of care. It was, however, quieter in the stalls due to a reduced demand for veal. The periods between the rounds [Editor’s note: period that a group of calves stays at a calf husbandry] were also longer, as a result of which the stalls were empty more often.”

Van Arkel: “As a result of the coronavirus crisis, I have noticed how important the role of a cup of coffee at the kitchen table is in my work. The personal consultation within the context of a farm is an important indicator to determine how things are going with the family. My experience is that when everything is in order, the veal farmer also achieves optimum performance in the stall. The fact that the conversations at the kitchen table fell by the wayside sometimes made it more difficult for us, as vets, to make decisions.”

All three of you are working to improve and safeguard animal health in the chain of the VanDrie Group. What are the most important points for attention in this regard?

Van Arkel: “When we visit a calf husbandry, we assess each calf individually based on a number of points, such as: liveliness, the coat and whether a calf is eating and drinking well. We subsequently examine if the immune response of the calf is up to standard and whether the calf has successfully weathered the transport and change of location.”

Roelofs: “Actually, our work already begins in between the rounds, that is, before a new herd [Editor’s note: group of calves] moves into the stall. Together with the veal farmer, I then evaluate what went well the last time and what could be improved. The farm’s health plan plays an important role in this regard. It is a compulsory evaluation in which points such as animal health, stall climate and use of antibiotics are specified. In this way, you raise a farm up to a higher level through proper interplay between the veal farmer, the regional manager from the VanDrie Group and the vet. That is the strength of chain integration.”

Bouwstra: “Safeguarding animal health is one of the most important pillars underpinning our chain. The animal is the main focus in the chain operated by the VanDrie Group; healthy feed produces healthy animals and healthy animals lead to high-quality products. The fact that animal health and animal welfare are occasionally at odds with each other is difficult at times. Take walking outside for example: while this often has a positive effect in terms of animal welfare, it can be less positive in the case of animal health and sustainability. Walking outside increases the risk of animal diseases, due to direct contact with wild animals, for example. Nevertheless, there are also many opportunities for achieving improvements, without that directly leading to an increased risk of animal diseases. Good information, together with the correct interpretation of that information by independent vets, such as Bjorn and Jos, helps us when monitoring animal health and making the right decisions on the path towards further improvement.”

Starting from this solid foundation, we are continuing to build an organisation in which quality policy is proactively developed, based on an intrinsic motivation to be and to remain a pioneer.

What opportunities do you see for the VanDrie Group to utilise the strength of the chain even better in order to safeguard and improve animal health?

Bouwstra: “For a future-proof organisation, it is important that quality is not only driven by external factors, such as customers and legislation. Our quality system, Safety Guard, facilitates a way of working in which quality ethos goes beyond meeting those basic requirements. Starting from this solid foundation, we are continuing to build an organisation in which quality policy is proactively developed, based on an intrinsic motivation to be and to remain a pioneer with regard to important themes.”

Bouwstra: “In my view, utilising the many data flows in our chain more effectively represents a major opportunity. With the knowledge and expertise that the VanDrie Group possesses, we are investigating how we can utilise that data even more and even better, and – if necessary – how we should supplement it, in order to further improve food safety, animal welfare and sustainability, in addition to animal health. You can only improve things if you know exactly what could be done better. To measure is to know. That begins by having an objective way of recording data. What is more, we are making use of the expertise that already exists in our group and are working in close collaboration with Labora, the independent laboratory of the VanDrie Group.”

Van Arkel: “As far as the use of data is concerned, the VanDrie Group can learn from the poultry sector, for example, where data is already used when formulating parameters in terms of animal welfare and animal health. Nowadays, you are able to read almost on a minute-by-minute basis how things are going with a flock of chickens in the poultry barn.”

Roelofs: “As a vet, you are continually busy, in collaboration with regional managers, collecting data about animal health. The types of data collected include the Hb level in the blood and the feed intake, but if you are also looking further along in the chain, it also includes slaughter data, such as carcass weight, conformation, fat coverage and meat colour. The VanDrie Group can process this data into quality information so that it can be shared throughout the chain.”

The vet’s voice should be heard more often in discussions within society about animal welfare and health.

How can you work together to ensure that this quality in terms of animal welfare and animal health continues to be safeguarded, now and in the future?

Roelofs: “We must remain committed to quality improvement in order to preserve the calf husbandry’s right to exist. The VanDrie Group could make a contribution to this by making knowledge and data available for research and training.”

Van Arkel: “We can also play a part in this as vets, for example by communicating more effectively about what we do and the things we see on a farm. Moreover, the vet’s voice should certainly be heard more often in discussions within society about animal welfare and health.”

Bouwstra: “The veal sector contributes to the role of the Netherlands in supplying high-quality food. It is our belief that the Dutch mentality and the entrepreneurship this engenders are precisely what is needed to innovate, including in livestock farming. Dutch knowledge and expertise are helping us take steps towards safeguarding animal health, animal welfare, food safety and sustainability in livestock farming. Together, we can spread the word that the Netherlands is a country where high-quality products are being produced in an increasingly sustainable way and at the same time work is constantly being carried out to improve animal health, animal welfare and food safety. The products supplied by the VanDrie Group must therefore also be safe and be responsibly produced. Stakeholders should be able to expect us to be constantly thinking about improvements and how we will apply them. That is why it is important to continue developing quality, for example by making more effective use of data, investing in new research techniques such as genome analyses in order to map out the genetic composition of an organism, cell or virus, or actually encouraging knowledge sharing between the links in the chain. In this way, we are working on the next step of the quality ethos within our chain.”