Animal welfare

The welfare of animals is central to Soil Association organic principles. Our standards mean:

  • No factory farming
  • Lots of outdoor space and fresh air
  • Encouragement of normal animal behaviour 
  • No routine use of antibiotics
  • No genetically modified (GM) feed or growth hormones
  • Minimised stress in transport and slaughter  

Aspects of animal welfare are central to all organic standards. Organic farming is the only farming system in the EU defined by regulation (Regulation 2092/92), which lays down minimum rules for organic animal production. Animals must have access to the outdoors and the number of animals per unit area must be limited. Drug and feed supplements are restricted and much of the food that the animals eat must be produced on their home farm, or organic farms in the region.

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) interpret the EU regulations and set the standards which govern organic production in the UK. These standards are the legal minimum to which bodies in the UK must certify organic foods.

Organic farming is a holistic method of agriculture. Through a positive management approach to health and welfare, farmers aim to prevent disease from occurring on the farm. If disease does occur then organic farmers are encouraged to use natural and complementary therapies. If these are not appropriate then medicines, including antibiotics, may be used. 

Under organic principles, routine use of antibiotics is prohibited. Routine drug use weakens an animal’s immune system and so increases its long-term reliance on drugs. When any animal is given antibiotics, its meat or milk cannot be sold for human consumption for a specified period – the 'withdrawal period'. If an organic animal is given antibiotics then the withdrawal period has to be at least doubled and often tripled before the meat or milk can be sold as organic.

Organic farmers aim to build up natural immunity in their livestock to diseases that may be present on their farms. Vaccines can only be used where there is a known disease risk on the farm – or a neighbouring farm – which cannot be controlled by any other means.

Organic farming works to minimise animal stress through good management techniques, providing good housing, adequate bedding and mixed or clean grazing (which helps keep down parasite-related diseases). On organic farms, ‘native’ breeds often play an important role in ensuring the positive health of animals. They have adapted to include suitability to locality (climate, elevation and soils), hardiness, disease resistance, temperament, and ability to thrive on a high roughage diet.

In most intensive agricultural systems, faster growing breeds that produce more milk or meat tend to be used. As a result the welfare of some breeds has been seriously compromised. This can put animals under excessive stress, weaken their natural immune systems and increase reliance on antibiotics and vaccines.

image "Organic is a fiendishly complex message to get over to the consumer when compared with single message foods, such as local, fair trade and free-range yet it has many of the answers to our current difficulties with food production."