Working with retailers to develop assurance schemes and policy

Posted on August 10, 2018 by Richard Cooper

Nearly ten years ago, I first started work at the Evidence Group, a veterinary consultancy who work with retailers and the food service industry developing assurance schemes and policy.

There is no such thing as a typical day in Evidence Group, but a typical week would include a couple days on farm with my own farm consultancy clients, a further day providing advice and auditing for some of the farms within a scheme, and the remainder spent either in workshops and seminars with farmers, vets and industry, or analysing epidemiological data generated through these schemes and using it to inform or develop existing or new policies.

Developing standards

Developing farm welfare standards or codes of practice generally involves understanding where threats to health and welfare initially exist. While we might have a good idea where the industry lies, getting objective data in the form of animal outcome measures and farm surveys allows us to understand exactly where opportunities lie and the implications of any standards or policies to farm businesses.

Practically speaking, once the process has started, standards generally evolve. Setting realistic goals and timelines is obviously essential to maintain engagement; sometimes there are things you would like to do that are either not seen as a priority by the scheme provider or require wider industry development first. In this sense there needs to be good communication channels between all those involved within an assurance scheme.

We are fortunate that for the largest scheme we work with, farmers are central to the development of the scheme through representation on a steering group. We also have face-to-face contact with all farmers involved through regional meetings and on-farm advisory visits and audits. The producers we work with are usually very engaged, and are good at challenging us where they think that scheme development is too ambitious... or not ambitious enough!

Data are key

We also support schemes by providing data management services that monitor compliance (health, welfare and production outcomes or antibiotic use for example) as well as providing other advisory services to the supply chain and farmers to achieve compliance and drive continuous improvement. We aggregate data from a variety of sources including the British Cattle Movement Service (BCMS), milk recording organisations, farm software, milk, beef and lamb processors and from vets and farmers themselves.

The data are collated in our web application (FarmMetrics), used to calculate performance metrics, and which are in turn are used to determine where potential or actual improvements in health and welfare exist. These metrics are normally shared with farmers and their practicing vets along with their relative standing in the group (i.e. though benchmarking), as this is integral to facilitating improvements.

The beauty of having all this data at our fingertips is that even before we drive up to the farm gates we have a sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the unit, and where potential opportunities for improvement lie.

Why veterinary involvement is so important?

I believe that animal health welfare is a shared responsibility across the whole supply chain, and that no single organisation or body should claim ownership. However, as a professionally regulated body who have sworn an oath to protect the welfare of animals under their care, I think vets have a central role in animal health and welfare initiatives, including farm assurance. Our role is to be the constant advocate for the animal, whilst understanding and respecting the personal and commercial situation of the farmers that care for them.

The best part of my job is being able to make small improvements to a large number of animals by engaging with farmers and their vets through assurance schemes.

More information

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Richard Cooper

Written by Richard Cooper

Richard qualified as a veterinary surgeon from Bristol in 2002 and, after working in mid-Devon in a predominantly farm animal practice for three years and in New Zealand for 12 months, he returned to Bristol University for a farm animal residency. Here he developed his interest in herd health and production medicine and gained valuable experience in practical and classroom farm animal teaching.

After obtaining his RCVS certificate in cattle health and production, he joined the Evidence Group in 2008. Since then he obtained the RCVS Diploma in Cattle Health and production in 2011, and MSc in Public Health in Epidemiology and Public Health in 2018. He lives in Exeter, Devon and has a keen interest in Evidence Based Veterinary Medicine and farm animal welfare.