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Animal health and welfare

We want to safeguard animal health and welfare in the entire chain by treating animals with care. In addition, we pay attention to acknowledging the intrinsic value of animals, responsible transport, good care and food and of course we want to encourage natural behaviour and a positive emotional state among calves.

Responsible transport

The VanDrie Group buys calves that become available in the dairy farming sector, because they are not being used or cannot be used to replace the cows of the dairy farmers. In 2021, the number of Dutch calves in our integration was 62 percent. That is 2 percent more than in 2020. The number of calves that we purchased from foreign dairy farmers therefore decreased. 28 percent came from our neighbouring country Germany. The number of calves from other EU Member States amounted to 10 percent. Compared to the reference year 2009, the average number of transport kilometres decreased by 51 percent in 2021.

As a result of collaboration with veal farmers and transporters, knowledge about animal behaviour when loading, unloading and transporting is being exchanged on a continuous basis. In 2020 and 2021, we sent 16 newsletters to the contract veal farmers, which we used to share knowledge about this topic. In those newsletters, we dealt with topics including the auditory, visual and smell perception and sense of touch of calves. However, we also dealt with the facilities at the veal farmer, such as floors, walls and lighting, and how to use them properly when moving calves. There was also a specific newsletter dedicated to the driving of the calves. We believe it is our responsibility to continue discussing these topics. In this way, we can learn from each other and continue improving animal welfare.

Good care

To safeguard the welfare of calves in our chain, an Animal Welfare Code has been included in Safety Guard, the quality system of the VanDrie Group. Compliance with this code is checked by the DWC monito in all links of our chain. It is a tool with which a reliable assessment can be made of the welfare of animals at the primary holding on the basis of animal-oriented indicators (behavioural and health characteristics). The basis of the monitor is the methodology of the European research project Welfare Quality®

In 2021, the regional managers of the VanDrie Group were trained to conduct the assessments. Thanks to the training, the VanDrie Group can continue performing this monitoring uniformly and on a large scale. It helps to gain insight into the welfare of animals and provides support with the management of the farm.  

In 2021, a survey was sent to veal farmers, regional managers, veterinary surgeons and Animal Welfare Officers in order to map out which events in the life of the calf they view as high-risk. Ninety people completed this survey. Although we think we know only too well where the risks lie, we wanted external validation from these professionals. It is our intention to translate the results of the survey into points for improvement with regard to animal welfare in our chain. In 2022, the project group will set to work on researching the feasibility of these points for improvement. 

In 2021, the reduction of antibiotic use in our chain was 61.6% compared to 2007. This is 1.7 percent higher than the result achieved for 2020 (at that time the reduction was 63.2 percent compared to 2007). This increase can be directly traced back to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. Countries throughout Europe went into lockdown. Catering establishments had to close, as a result of which an important sales channel for veal fell by the wayside for a long time; this even continued until the spring of 2022. As a result of this, we had to adjust our distribution patterns for calves. We could not continue applying the strict principle of all in all out; it took longer before we delivered calves to the farm. The batches of animals were also more diverse. This made care more difficult. 

In 2021, we organised two themed days for regional managers of the VanDrie Group and veterinary surgeons employed in our chain. An important topic during these gatherings was the influence of human behaviour on the use of antibiotics. The study Critical Success Factor 2 (Kritische Succes Factoren 2, KSF 2) revealed that human actions are the most decisive factor in the use of antibiotics, more than technical interventions in the stall, such as ventilation or the quality of feed. This means that the veal farmer, but also the veterinary surgeon and the regional manager, play a crucial role in reducing the use of antibiotics in our chain. We are seeing that the veal farmers who clearly take the lead in wanting to reduce the use of antibiotics achieve the greatest success in that regard. 

In 2021, sectoral agreements were given concrete form with the aim being that the Dutch cattle herd will become BVD and IBR free. BVD stands for Bovine Viral Diarrhoea, an annoying virus infection among calves. An acute BVD infection leads to serious respiratory problems and temporary general reduction in resistance, which can subsequently go hand in hand with other health problems. The sectoral agreements will lead to the banning of calves that are carriers of this illness and cause a lot of damage in the stalls of our veal farmers. In order to achieve this, we are working closely together with LTO Nederland and the Dutch Dairy Association, through the Dutch Veal Industry Association (SBK), in order to combat this animal disease, In 2022, further steps will be taken in that regard. As from 2024, only BVD-free calves will be supplied in our Dutch integration.

The age at which calves from the dairy farm are allowed to be moved to the veal farm is a topic of discussion on a European level. According to the current European legislation, this is allowed from the age of 14 days. Given all the discussion about this topic, we estimate that this age will be changed to 28 days in the near future. As the VanDrie Group, we are open to this, because the resilience of the calves is likely to be higher. This will have a positive effect on animal health and also therefore on reducing animal medicine use. For dairy farmers, this decision will mean that they must keep calves for four weeks instead of two weeks. That will require considerable investments from them in order to properly adapt their business operations to that, such as more feed, stall space and labour. At the same time, we see an opportunity here for the calf to become stronger and more resilient. With the knowledge that we possess in-house as the VanDrie Group, we would like to support the dairy farmers with being able to keep and care for calves properly, among other ways via subsidiary Alpuro Breeding.

Smarter camera surveillance

As Director Corporate Quality at the VanDrie Group, Ruth Bouwstra is ultimately responsible for animal health and welfare in the entire chain. Although all meat companies of the VanDrie Group make use of camera surveillance, the ambition of the company was to improve this further. In 2021, Bouwstra launched a project aimed at using smart camera monitoring in the reception area of the slaughterhouse. Ekro in Apeldoorn was used as pilot company. According to Bouwstra, the project offers guidelines for the further improvement of animal welfare.  

“Animal welfare is extremely important”, says Bouwstra. “If you can make it clear where you can demonstrably improve welfare, you have a win-win situation. Because if an animal feels good, that is better for everyone. It is therefore important that you organise this as well as possible.”   

Bouwstra launched the Artificial Intelligence (AI) project together with Deloitte – which had already gained experience in this with another meat processor. “When new cameras with a higher resolution were placed at Ekro, we seized that moment. We conducted research first, because we wanted to know whether we could shed light on the interaction between human and animal by using camera monitoring. With our partner Deloitte, we subsequently developed computer models that are applicable to calves and their behaviour. Can the system start noticing that there too many animals in a space? Or that there is unnecessary physical contact between human and animal? We tested and validated this for a few days: is what the computer sees true and reliable? And is it feasible to improve it in practice?”

In addition to registration of the processes, cameras reveal causes of certain behaviour. In this way, you can see what the consequences are, for example, if the loading of animals is hurried or what happens if the rearmost animal is urged to walk while the animal does not have room to do that. “That provides us with new insights and in this way we can give our people feedback on their performance. We are also focusing on the animal-friendly behaviour that we would like to see.”  

“As a result of the AI project, we have achieved major progress, and we have been able to demonstrably improve content and process”, says Bouwstra. “Personally, I think that is more important than ‘that the VanDrie Group does something with camera surveillance’.”

Good feed

The right feed is essential for good animal health and welfare. Whereas calves received extremely uniform feed around the turn of the century, primarily calf milk, that has changed dramatically in the past decade. On average, a calf received 235 kg of veal milk powder in the form of milk, 325 kg of muesli and 35 kg of chopped straw in 2021. The shift from milk to more vegetable raw materials leads to a better-developed ruminant digestive system among the calves and also results in a more vital and healthier calf. The rumen creates more vitamin B and there is iron in the roughage. A larger amount of roughage contributes to species-specific behaviour, such as rumination, and at the same time it fosters health. It is partly because of that (clinical) anaemia barely occurs.

 In 2021, we completed a multi-year research project into the effect of carbohydrates on intestinal health and increasing the resilience of vulnerable groups. For this, we held joint discussions with various chain partners and sectoral colleagues within the Carbohydrate Competence Center Consortium, including Wageningen University & Research, the Veterinary Medicine Faculty of the Utrecht University, FrieslandCampina, Avebe and Agrifirm. The research was not only focused on calves, but also on piglets, babies and older people. The research show that the intestinal flora can be positively influenced with carbohydrates and can therefore have a positive effect on the immunity and resilience of the calf. At the same time, we also know through the research that the intestinal flora of calves are extremely complex and work differently in every animal. These results offer reference points for follow-up research in 2022 and beyond, that will enable us to understand animal health better and better all the time and take increasingly targeted steps in order to improve it. Read more about the research here 

Inspection results NVWA

Our Dutch Meat Processing companies, Ameco, ESA, Ekro and T. Boer & zn are under permanent supervision of the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA). This means constant inspections on important issues such as animal welfare or hygienic work are in place. In addition to this permanent supervision, The NVWA carries out inspections (a total of 6,260 for the aforementioned companies) and publishes its data publicly on its own website. We see over 2021 that the four companies comply by as much as 99.4%. To a large degree the demands made upon us are met. Ensuring animal welfare in our meat processing plants is one of our top priorities. Nevertheless, in 2021, four deficiencies that were are finable under the Animals Act were found.