Waitrose has suspended an organic farm that supplied it with dairy products following an investigation by vegan pressure group Animal Equality which uncovered a series of alleged animal welfare breaches.
The retailer, the Soil Association and RSPCA Assured have all launched investigations into Somerset-based Coombe Farm after undercover filming by Animal Equality this summer showed staff at the farm allegedly force-feeding calves, denying cows water and inflicting violence on the animals.
One worker was filmed standing on a calf with his full body weight while shouting “you f**king… sh*t”.
Cows were also routinely shackled, the group claimed, while calves were often separated from their mothers less than 24 hours after birth, in contravention of Defra’s code of welfare of livestock, it added. The farm also allegedly broke a host of Soil Association and RSPCA Assured guidelines on animal welfare.
Coombe Farm produces a variety of organic meat and dairy products at its farm in Crewkerne, Somerset, and also sells products directly through its website. The farm took animal welfare “very seriously and ensure that any welfare issues raised are dealt with immediately”, it said.
“Upon receiving the report from Animal Equality, we initiated a request to the Soil Association and RSPCA Assured to visit the farm in question and carried out our own internal investigation to ensure all our practices continue to meet industry standards,” a spokesman added.
“We have addressed any issues of non-compliance for the Soil Association and RSPCA Assured, and have implemented further relevant training for all farm staff.”
A Waitrose spokeswoman said the breaches highlighted by Animal Equality “do not meet the high standards we set for a farm supplying us”, adding it had suspended the farm and launched a full investigation, including unannounced audits by the Soil Association and RSPCA Assured dairy scheme, as soon as it had been made aware of the allegations.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for RSPCA Assured said it was “shocked and disgusted by the footage”. She added: “We launched an investigation as soon as the video was brought to our attention and have suspended the farm from the scheme for breaches of the RSPCA welfare standards.”
Consumers would be “shocked to see such cruel treatment of tiny newborn calves, with their heartbroken mothers forced to look on helplessly”, said Animal Equality’s UK director Toni Shephard.
“That these harrowing scenes are from the much romanticised organic farm producing dairy products for Waitrose will seem almost beyond belief,” Shephard added.
The Soil Association said it had taken “immediate action” after an unannounced inspection at the farm, and issued “improvement requirements based on particular and unacceptable aspects of animal welfare as observed in the video”.
However, it stressed the use of shackles was acceptable for cows which had suffered physical damage to the nerves to their back legs, mostly associated with calving, and provided “additional support for the affected cow enabling her to exhibit her normal behaviours”.
It also took issue with Animal Equality’s depiction in the video of animals apparently confined to small cages. “This is not true,” said a spokesman. “On this farm, calves access their milk in a small space which they can enter and leave freely. The stall is there to protect a calf having a drink from being knocked by another calf who would also like to have a drink. There is no animal welfare concern with this practice.”