GRANA PADANO AND ANIMAL WELFARE

12.13.2017

The accusations levelled by the Italian CIWF Association at the Grana Padano Consortium and its production system in terms of animal wellbeing have left us extremely perplexed, both concerning the violent tones with which they have been directed towards public opinion and their unfounded content. These accusations are unjustifiable from every point of view, and speak badly of the professional ethics of those who ought to carry out investigations worthy of that name and work towards correctly informing – without adding factious interpretations – the public and its consumers. Unfortunately, what we are seeing is an aggressive media campaign based on disinformation and alarmism. This is projecting a distorted image of reality, attacking a production and value-system with a millennial background, which over time has evolved continuously in every aspect, and which has invested great efforts and daily commitment to conquer international respect and appreciation. We speak of this with sincere regret, given that we fail to understand the purpose of this show, which not only unjustly damages the image of Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano, but also the entire Italian production system, whose worldwide success is based on genuine Italian quality.
 
This is a method of “making news” which is far removed from the methods of those who work seriously to provide useful information to consumers. The information contained in the materials diffused by the CIWF is, in reality, specious and utterly fails to represent a complex and highly articulated system, both from a productive and geographical viewpoint, such as that of Grana Padano. This consists of almost 4,500 dairy farms, 130 cheese factories, 150 maturing centres and some 40,000 personnel overall, based in regions that for tradition and climate are radically different from each other, namely Lombardy, Piedmont, Trentino, Veneto and Emilia Romagna. Consequently, it is perfectly obvious to anyone that to have identified and “investigated” only 9 companies within this vast system, together with that of Parmigiano Reggiano (a further 3,000 dairy farms), cannot claim to be a sufficiently broad survey on which to base credible accusations against an entire sector.
 
Hence the amazement, perplexity and sadness which we have felt when reading the generic and violent words used to describes ours as a system indifferent to the wellbeing of our primary resource: our animals. For the personnel of CIWF, 9 dairy farms with some defects in terms of animal wellbeing were enough to describe and accuse a system of roughly 8 thousand farms, using skillfully manipulated words and images to build up a negative sentiment on the part of consumers towards the Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano systems. Can this be called an investigation?

A genuine investigation is conducted using precise concrete details, as specific as possible, with truthful and representative information, honouring the highest sense of the term “information”. Where are the details? A few high-impact images concerning an infinitesimal part of our world, a lot of generalisations and opinions, but no serious consideration given to the extremely heterogeneous nature of our system, to why specific kinds of livestock management solutions are adopted in different places, and on hundreds of other details needed to narrate the truth. To fill in these gaps in their narration, we can maybe help the CIWF Association by providing the following specific information, hoping they will appreciate this gesture.
 
As we have said, the “Grana Padano system” has always paid great attention to the quality of its production and to the everyday measures it takes to achieve this quality, thus ensuring the consumer a healthy and genuine product. Quality is never achieved overnight, it is attained by constantly investing effort and resources in research and in the application of current regulations, while also valorising every aspect of the productive process, from the stable to the cheese factory, and on to the maturing process. The path to producing Grana Padano starts right from the cattle stalls, and only quality milk – which must come from healthy and well cared-for cows – will provide quality cheese. The almost 4,500 cattle farms that provide milk to the cheesemakers who produce Grana Padano are perfectly aware of this rule. And the Protection Consortium focuses strongly on the issue of sensitivity towards, and respect for, the animals, and insists that its milk suppliers treat their herds well and provide for their wellbeing by using virtuous production procedures.
 
Therefore, we forcefully reject the accusations of those who try to spread the idea that the Grana Padano Protection Consortium does nothing for the wellbeing of the cows who provide the milk for the cheese.
 
On the contrary, it is our first priority. For example, on 21st April 2017 the Annual General Assembly of the Grana Padano Protection Consortium’s Members voted that – once a package of measures under consideration since 2014 by the EU and by MIPAAF (the Italian Ministry of Agriculture) has been concluded – we will introduce internal rules which impose and clearly define animal wellbeing, specifying the criteria regarding care, health, freedom of movement, access to food and water and open-air grazing. A series of measurable standards will be introduced which, if not respected, will result in the exclusion of the guilty dairy farm from the Grana Padano circuit, and which will attempt, in time, to optimise all cattle breeding conditions.
 
Regarding the food, forage and fodder fed to the cows – in compliance with our Production Specification Rules – these originate almost entirely from the Grana Padano DOP production area... i.e. in areas of Northern Italy where GMO production is prohibited. Only soya, if imported, could be genetically modified, but this represents a tiny part of the cattle’s standard diet.
 
As for ‘Zero Grazing’: summer cattle grazing in the mountains is a traditional agricultural activity in the Alpine area, having been developed as a way to optimise forage and farm labour resources. This practice undoubtedly has positive sides to it and, after a period of relative decline, it has recently been revalued and is currently much used, especially by farms situated in highland areas who raise suitable cattle breeds. Roughly 15% of the dairy farmers who supply milk to Grana Padano cheesemakers are totally committed to making use of Alpine pastures, especially those located in pre-Alpine areas and, obviously, in the Alpine parts of Lombardy, Veneto and Trentino South Tyrol. At least another 10% of Po Valley cattle farms use highland pastures, and a further 30% have fields as well as cowsheds stalls, where their herds can move freely. The situation in the lowland plains is naturally different, for reasons of tradition, culture and livestock methods (e.g. feeding practices, cattle barn techniques, distance from mountains and pastures, and breeds raised).
 
The typical dairy cattle raised in the plains are Friesians: cows that have also become used to the mountains, given that many Alpine farms have switched to a lowland-type farming model, which is more efficient from a productive viewpoint. Some dairy farmers transport their Friesians to Alpine pastures. Effectively, Friesians can adapt quite well to Alpine summer grazing, providing they have got used to it from an early age, and providing the conditions are favourable (distance, steepness, stony or rocky terrain, and ample high-standard grazing pastures).
 
Otherwise, the stress experienced by the cattle can be intense enough to negatively influence their wellbeing, which completely negates the concept of wellbeing attached to grazing on green pastures (to cite just one example, it can cause excessive weight-loss. To counteract this, farmers are frequently forced to administer typical intensive-farming feeds even in Alpine grazing contexts: this risks making nonsense of the very idea of mountain pastures and compromising proper use of their grazing potential). Lactating cows tend not to move outdoors with ease, finding it more comfortable to eat and drink in their stalls, where they can also lie down on prepared beds of hay. Calves and non-lactating cows, on the other hand, are more inclined to go outside and graze. But practically no cows go outside in hot summer conditions, preferring the shady conditions indoors, which are frequently also ventilated by nebulisers. Likewise, they also tend to stay indoors in the winter when there is fog, humidity or wet ground where their hooves sink, making movement more tiring.
 
Applying CReNBA standards. The protection of livestock animals and their wellbeing have always been priority goals for European and Italian lawmakers. As far back as the Treaty of Lisbon, Europe has recognised animals as “feeling beings”. Since then legislators have drawn up and laid down mandatory regulations concerning respect for animal wellbeing. As is well known, all livestock farmers are obliged to comply with what are called GOOD AGRICULTURAL PRACTICES (GAP) – on pain of being excluded from access to Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments and funding from Rural Development Programs (RDP), as well as being subject to fines. The above-mentioned CReNBA rules, drawn up by the Centro di Referenza Nazionale per il Benessere Animale (National Reference Centre for Animal Wellbeing) of Italy's Health Ministry, consist of optional guidelines which facilitate evaluation of animal wellbeing levels in livestock farms. These are based on the European Welfare Quality® research project, on indications contained in the draft law on adult cattle wellbeing discussed in Strasbourg in the 2007-2009 triennial, and on numerous serious studies on animal wellbeing published over the last 10 years.
 
The dairy farms supplying the Grana Padano Consortium not only comply with these optional guidelines, they go further. They apply even stricter standards. It is worth underlining that Italy has launched a national plan for animal wellbeing – “il piano nazionale per il benessere animale (PNBA)” – in order to comply with national and European regulations and to standardise the execution and programming of control procedures, while also improving the expertise of veterinarians and livestock producers concerning the key issues of animal wellbeing. Consequently, all dairy farms involved in supplying milk to the Grana Padano system must comply with mandatory rules and are subject to regular controls by competent organs (veterinarians from local health services) in order to verify compliance with current regulations and adequate knowledge of them. The vets must also indicate how they can improve livestock practices in order to raise animal wellbeing levels.
 
The care for and protection of animal wellbeing is a fundamental principle of society and is the first priority of the Grana Padano Protection Consortium: it improves productive performance, product quality and product healthiness, as well as protecting the consumer and coinciding with the economic interests of dairy farmers and of Italy’s productive system. This is why the collective commitment of all those involved in the Gran Padano production chain is constantly orientated towards raising the level of animal wellbeing, most of the time setting higher standards for itself than the legal requisites. After all, for the Grana Padano system the wellbeing of the cattle involved is the “conditio sine qua non” for producing a cheese excellence that will satisfy the market, to everybody’s advantage, from consumers to producers.
 
In 2014, a research project on animal wellbeing was carried out, involving 134 randomly selected livestock farms, in collaboration with CReNBA, run by the Experimental Zooprophylactic Institute of Lombardy and Emilia Romagna (IZSLER). This revealed that in terms of complying with the requisites for ensuring animal wellbeing, 71.6% of the cowsheds evaluated were awarded a score classifiable as excellent (with 151.23 points out of a maximum of 199.53). The CReNBA has recently devised a system for evaluating animal wellbeing which specifically includes milk cows. This was officially presented in Rome on 21st January 2014 in the Health Ministry, in the presence of the Ministry of Agriculture, various national Zooprophylactic Institutes, Category Associations, the Italian Federation of Veterinarians (F.N.O.V.I.), and some a few Regional Government representatives. The specific evaluation system for milk cows drawn up can be consulted in detail on the website of the Experimental Zooprophylactic Institute of Lombardy and Emilia Romagna (IZSLER).
 
In summary, this manual indicates that its method is based on analysis of two groups of data: those directly connected with dangers derived from immediate environment (management, structures, equipment and microclimatic conditions) and those connected with the adverse effects (negatively affecting wellbeing) which the animals experience due to one or more of the dangers above. When deciding the aspects on which to focus evaluation, the CReNBA chose to concentrate on elements with a clear scientific dimension and with objective and easily measurable criteria, thus making it possible to compare different livestock situations using the same evaluation criteria, ensuring greater objectivity in assessing the conditions affecting the animals’ wellbeing.
 
It’s clear that farm management (which includes all farmhand operations affecting livestock) is the fundamental factor in animal wellbeing. At first sight, this might not seem obvious, but on reflection it clearly has a greater all-round effect on animal wellbeing than the structural characteristics of the farm. The CReNBA also specifies that, when deciding whether a specific farm’s animals are, on average, in good health, if even one single animal shows a particularly serious condition in terms of legal requirements, then that farm cannot be described as offering good animal wellbeing conditions. 
 
We decided to count on the collaboration of a national institution (CReNBA), which is independent and highly competent, basing its work on legal requirements and scientific studies, in order to establish the animals’ real living conditions, and not just our own expectations. We wish to underline that it is highly important that animal wellbeing is evaluated by expert and specifically trained personnel, as are the veterinarians trained and employed by CReNBA.
 
Understandably, we devote great care to this issue, and we would be interested to know the precise criteria and methods used by the CIWF to measure the wellbeing of milk cows. Presumably, these will be based on absolutely reliable expert sources, such as those considered by the Experimental Zooprophylactic Institute of Lombardy and Emilia Romagna.
 
Modern dairy animal husbandry (or zootechnics) on plains: most dairy farming companies today, in order to boost efficiency, invest strongly – thanks also to RDP contributions – in environmental sustainability, energy efficiency and also in providing their animals with the best available solutions for promoting their wellbeing... by creating a modern closed-cycle facility for milk cows, equipped with the latest technology for providing both savings and animal wellbeing. With this goal in mind, today most of the dairy farms which are part of the Grana Padano production system confront market challenges in the following ways:
 
1.       producing electricity from renewable sources;
2.       reducing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in wastewater;
3.       producing less CO2;
4.       heat recovery;
5.       sanitised wastewater;
6.       water savings;
7.       energy savings;
8.       economic sustainability.
 
For livestock farmers, correct herd management is their top priority, adopting automatic evaluation systems of their animals’ morpho-physiological parameters, constant herd monitoring and immediate intervention in the case of specific needs of individual animals, with clear benefits for the cattle. The cows sleep in stall berths at least as large as the regulatory minimum, and often larger, in order to provide greater comfort for the animals and to avoid them getting in each other’s way during rest periods. Many farm structures allow the cows to move and feed as they wish, with evident positive effects on their wellbeing; the cow barns are well ventilated, both artificially and naturally, ensuring adequate air circulation, cooling in summer and warming in winter, with evident benefits for the cows; the current revision of our Product Specifications, which has been presented to the EU for approval, also foresees the adoption of a robotic milking system which allows each single cow to decide when it wants to be milked: another major wellbeing improvement, reacting to the individual needs of each animal.

Labelling: thanks to the efforts of the Ministry of Agriculture, the sector has obtained obligatory indication of origin on milk labels. This is a large stride towards greater consumer protection and choice, considering that not all foreign countries observe the same standards of animal wellbeing as those applied in Italy. The Grana Padano Protection Consortium cannot but be in favour of the introduction of a further system of compulsory labelling that makes it possible to inform the consumer of all the daily efforts which farmers make to take care of the wellbeing and health of milk cows, in order to produce high quality and healthy milk suitable for transformation into the most important PDO cheese, in terms of quality and consumption, worldwide: GRANA PADANO.   
 
The Grana Padano Protection Consortium, along with its member cheesemakers and dairy farm milk providers, has a direct interest in communicating in an appropriate, detailed and adequate way all the daily activities that go into caring for the cattle, which are the point of departure for local production systems, combining the historic traditions of Grana Padano with innovative modern livestock techniques which respect both the environment and the animals involved.
 
This is why we have invented a new logo: "Il nostro latte” (Our milk), which was created to satisfy the consumer’s demand for traceability, thus further guaranteeing the quality, uniqueness and origin of milk from a specific protected territory. This logo can be used voluntarily by all Consortium members and authorised packers, on all the packs of Grana Padano destined for both the Italian and foreign markets. The new “Il nostro latte” logo is governed by a regulation which establishes limits and conditions for the concession of the use of the logo created and registered by the Grana Padano Protection Consortium to packing companies.
 
In conclusion: unfortunately, as in any productive system involving an extremely large number of operators, there may be occasions when a tiny proportion of the system presents defects normally prevented by sense of responsibility, and these must be immediately indicated so that corrective action can be taken by the people in charge of checking and protection. But a handful of ‘irresponsible and inadequate" farm structures certainly do not represent the average Grana Padano standards. A milk cow that is well looked after, and therefore healthy, produces better milk, from every viewpoint. It is consequently in the interests of every efficient and intelligent milk supplier to take great care of their herd, in order to protect their company’s activities and, above all to guarantee quality to consumers. Our cows are well treated, and their milk is among the best in the world. And Grana Padano continues to be an Italian excellence deserving of national pride.
 
So, we would like to challenge CWIF: in the presence of a notary, we could extract at random 100 of the dairy farms that supply us, and then have these examined by a third-party commission consisting of vets chosen by the official Order of Veterinarians. If the findings of this Commission confirm the theses of the CIWF, affirming that the cattle in our dairy herds are treated badly, then we would make a public apology and immediately intervene to take rigorous and suitable corrective measures. But if, as we are entirely confident, the accusations made against the Grana Padano system are judged to be unfounded, then the CIWF should apologise to us, and to all Italian dairy farmers, for the extremely serious damage it is causing us, and immediately interrupt its slanderous campaign, removing all references to it from all their communication channels.
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