Dairy cattle welfare – the relative effect of legislation, industry standards and labelled niche production in five European countries

Peter Sandøe, Henning Otte Hansen, Eddie A.M. Bokkers, Peter S Enemark, Björn Forkman, MJ Haskell, Frida Lundmark Hedman, Hans Houe, Roi Mandel, Soren S Nielsen, Evelien M de Olde, Claire Palmer, Colette S Vogeler, Tove Christensen

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The only common European Union (EU) legislation set up specifically to ensure the welfare of dairy cattle is for calves. As a consequence, there is wide diversity in how dairy cattle welfare is ensured in EU countries. A few countries have legal requirements for dairy cattle welfare, while in others, it is left to industry standards or niche production requirements, typically linked to various premium labels. In this paper, we compared animal welfare provisions in dairy cattle production across five countries with different combinations of legislative and other approaches: Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Firstly, we aimed to map the diversity of animal welfare initiatives. Secondly, we used the Benchmark method of expert valuations and weightings of the relative importance of individual welfare provisions. We found that Denmark and Sweden have the highest level of dairy cattle welfare provisions as measured by the Benchmark method, partly due to high legislative welfare requirements, followed by the United Kingdom, which has an extensive industry standard with very high uptake. Germany and the Netherlands, on the other hand, have lower levels of documented welfare provisions, and correspondingly a Benchmark score closer to a baseline defined by legal requirements at EU level. We also found differences in what elements of animal welfare were focussed on. Some initiatives emphasised fulfilling the social needs of cattle, while others focused more on space and freedom to move. Also, the countries with the highest Benchmark score had a relatively high level of production of organic and other specialty dairy products. We found the effect of national legislation or ambitious industry standards on dairy cattle welfare to be much larger than previous studies have found in either pigs or poultry. At a time when the EU is considering stepping up its efforts to improve animal welfare in terms of common minimum standards, the results of this study could have important policy implications. The diversity in the level of dairy cattle welfare standards found across countries may speak in favour of having shared minimum standards, both at EU level and globally. However, even among countries with a similar Benchmark score, we found a difference in the kinds of welfare provisions at work, which may make full harmonisation of standards more challenging.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101009
Issue number12
Early online date12 Oct 2023
Publication statusPrint publication - Dec 2023


  • Animal welfare
  • Benchmark
  • Dairy cow
  • Marketing
  • Policy
  • Animal Welfare
  • Europe
  • Dairying/methods
  • Netherlands
  • Animals
  • Cattle
  • Swine
  • European Union
  • Dairy Products


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