The random thoughts of a sceptical activist

Pseudo science down on the farm

I liked Yeo Valley yoghurt, particularly their vanilla one. Big pots of the stuff didn’t last long.

They are organic, but this isn’t why I used to buy it. I just liked the rich, creamy taste.

Yes, I used to buy it.

On Twitter yesterday, @GhostOMichael, a follower of @RhysMorgan, tweeted a link to a page on Yeo Valley’s website (cached) that I found worrying: it told how Yeo Valley ‘treat’ their cows with homeopathy. (That page has disappeared and has been replaced with this one. Thanks to Jaxxson for pointing it out.)

The page is dated 9 November last year and their announcement was highlighted by UK Homeopathy News (cached) on 6 December and this ‘news’ has been tweeted by @UKHomNews and other homeopaths, including @KerryHomeopath.

Yeo Valley say:

Nov 9, 2010

Alternative treatments for our cows

The health of our cows is the top priority on our farms. Organic systems – like those followed at Yeo Valley – include a proactive approach to animal welfare and are designed to minimise stress on livestock that might result in illness; the routine use of antibiotics as a preventative measure to treat our cows’ ailments is not permitted.

As a result of this Steve, the Herd Manager on one of our farms began investigating alternative options to the use of antibiotics and began studying a course on homeopathic treatments.

Since then, Steve has been implementing what he has learnt by using homeopathic treatments and remedies to treat his cows for a number of issues, including warding-off flies and easing the cows’ stress levels when having their feet clipped. The treatments have so far proved successful and, unlike with antibiotics, cows don’t build up immunity to these remedies. In fact, they encourage the cows’ immune systems to fight bugs themselves.

The use of homeopathic treatments not only helps to develop a more robust immune system, it also means no withdrawal periods for milk and meat while the animal is being treated, as would be the case when antibiotics are used.

However, this doesn’t mean we completely avoid more conventional treatments; if we need to treat an animal quickly and effectively we will always choose the treatment, either conventional or alternative, that will be most beneficial to the cow to aid its recovery and this may involve antibiotic use.

Steve’s convinced that homeopathic treatments offer a viable, practical option so he continues to favour treating his herd homeopathically whenever appropriate.

To find out more, contact us on our Facebook page, @yeovalley on Twitter or email Sally at [email protected]

There are, fortunately, regulations that aim to ensure that animals are treated well and that any risk to human health is minimised and it is gratifying to know that Yeo Valley don’t have complete faith in homeopathy: they do resort to proper medicines when they ‘need to treat an animal quickly and effectively’. Quite.

However, it is worrying that they believe in any of this nonsense.

I felt compelled to email ‘Sally':

Hi

I have been buying your products for many years and particularly like your vanilla yoghurt.

However, I’ve just found out from your website that you use homeopathy to ‘treat’ your cows for a number of issues.

I don’t doubt you believe that you are, indeed, treating your cows and that it does help them. However, as well as having no plausible mechanism of action, there are no robust studies that show that homeopathy has any effect over placebo in humans or any other animal and many robust studies that show that homeopathy has no effect over placebo.

Please do not let yourselves be convinced that the animals are helped by homeopathy – there are far more credible and better researched mechanisms by which an unblinded observer can be misled into thinking that the homeopathic potion given has had the desired effect. It is clear from the evidence that giving them homeopathic potions does not have any effect over placebo.

I note that you say you will use conventional medicines (ie those with evidence to back them up) when you need to treat an animal ‘quickly and effectively’. I am glad of that for the sake of the animals, but that still leaves you open to the charge that you will, under some circumstances, be relying on homeopathy for other conditions. I believe this is cruel and immoral and can only lead to unnecessary suffering and stress.

Homeopathy is an unscientific belief system that has no place in human health or animal husbandry.

It is with regret, therefore, that I will not be buying your otherwise tasty products again.

Best regards.

Alan

I’ll let you know if I get any response.

A reply from Yeo Valley:

Dear Alan

Thank you for your recent email, we always appreciate hearing from our consumers.

Yeo Valley is an independent, family owned British business and we value our reputation and the loyalty of every one of our customers who buy our products. We have built our reputation on a combination of quality and word of mouth and would never knowingly do anything to jeopardise this.

Under the Soil Association’s organic rules, all aspects of animal health and welfare are tightly controlled, including rearing, shelter, feeding, transportation and slaughter. Ensuring good health is better than relying on drugs to treat disease, which is why the Soil Association put so much emphasis on practices that encourage healthy farm animals. Please be reassured that the health of our cows here at Yeo Valley is our utmost priority on all our farms and conventional treatments, such as antibiotics, will be administered to help return an animal to good health when required.

Through the collective experiences of Soil Association affiliated farmers, we have found that many routine problems can be treated with homeopathic and herbal medicines without any compromise to animal welfare. This further benefits the herd as the underlying philosophy of homeopathy will support the farmer to be more a observant and empathetic stockman.

As a result, we have been using homeopathic treatments on our Yeo Valley farms alongside conventional medicines for approximately 18 months and have seen some excellent results which has been a pleasant and surprising experience for us.

As you have taken the time to write to us, we would love to write back to you in the future, please follow this link to register for our newsletter. We promise not to send you anything from any other companies or anything you wouldn’t like! Please click away on http://www.yeovalleyorganic.co.uk/newsNewslettersReg.php to keep up to date with us.

Thanks again for writing to us, I do hope that you continue to enjoy Yeo Valley Organic.

Kind Regards

Sally Laurie – Marketing Team

Emmm…

I do hope that you continue to enjoy Yeo Valley Organic.

I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume this is a standard phrase, but you’d have thought…

Anyway, I replied:

Sally

Thank you for taking the time to reply.

I note you say:

Ensuring good health is better than relying on drugs to treat disease

I couldn’t agree more and it is a laudable aim to try to do this. The problem is, however, in thinking that homeopathy is somehow helpful in achieving this aim.

I have serious concerns over other things you say:

Through the collective experiences of Soil Association affiliated farmers, we have found that many routine problems can be treated with homeopathic and herbal medicines without any compromise to animal welfare.

As a result, we have been using homeopathic treatments on our Yeo Valley farms alongside conventional medicines for approximately 18 months and have seen some excellent results which has been a pleasant and surprising experience for us.

This is where much of the problem lies. Anecdotes can be useful, but only as way of highlighting that there may be something worth studying properly and independently and they cannot be used as justification for the use of homeopathy.

There are many reasons why homeopathy sometimes appears to work and I would recommend that you read this article on the subject and ask yourselves whether these are not far more plausible reasons for the effects you believe you have seen.

Observer or experimenter bias is a well-known and understood phenomenon and it is frequently not allowed for in many trials cited by homeopaths. It is clear that when the experimenter and observers are properly blinded in a trial on homeopathy, the results are no better than placebo.

The organisation Sense About Science, which is an independent charitable trust promoting good science and evidence in public debates, reinforces this in its briefing note on homeopathy:

Veterinary homeopathy

Homeopaths argue that homeopathy works for animals, which cannot be explained by the placebo effect. (The same is also true for babies). However, these trials depend on human observations that, without standardised observational measures or independent veterinary surgeons, can suffer significant (unintentional) bias. Those studies that correct for observational biases show that homeopathy does not work.

You also say:

This further benefits the herd as the underlying philosophy of homeopathy will support the farmer to be more a observant and empathetic stockman.

I would certainly hope that your farmers are already very observant and empathic, but homeopathy is not required for that. I would also hope that you base your animal welfare on the best available scientific advice.

Because there is no good scientific evidence that supports homeopathy nor any plausible mechanism by which it could work, I urge you to seek independent scientific advice on homeopathy and reconsider your position.

If you require any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Best regards.

Alan

28 Responses to Pseudo science down on the farm

  • I was reading an Aussie biodynamic-farm website the other day where they say much the same thing – they treat the animals homeopathically except as a last resort to prevent suffering. So they’ll basically do nothing until suffering sets in, then they’ll act.

    It seems the problem is that once they treat them with real medicine, the produce can no longer be marketed as organic.

    I guess it’s true though that an animal that survives infection with no useful intervention will end up with a stronger immune system. Like people who survive being hit by a bus are more likely to pay attention when crossing the road in future.

  • Yeh, yeh, yeh, all very impressive – But I can trump that! ;-)

    “Tineke is the supreme winner of the Rural Women New Zealand “Enterprising Rural Women Award for 2010: with her Waikato-based business Homeopathic Farm Support Ltd.”

    Although later the article does note that “Tineke has over the years had to show real resilience and a determination to succeed in the face of skepticism and little belief in alternative of methods of healing.” So maybe she got the award for resilience rather than the efficacy of her products’ packaging. Either way, I feel I need to take a course of Lord Ernest Rutherford’s laboratory bench, 30c, for 11 days. (It cures belief in quackery. Apparently. Well actually I made that up. Although, in my defence, the homeopaths started it!)

  • Hmmm…

    The publication Farmers Weekly recently had a homeopath in the finals of their ‘Livestock Adviser of the Year’ competition.

    At least she admitted:

    It’s important that you’re not trying to take the place of the vet.

    The article also said:

    Support for her initiative has come from various sources including the Prince of Wales who donated £5000 at the start. “That went towards the marketing,” she says.

    No surprise there, then. Pity the money wasn’t spent on decent research.

  • Zeno you never fail to amaze me. You know absolutely everything about everything.

    “As a result, we have been using homeopathic treatments on our Yeo Valley farms alongside conventional medicines for approximately 18 months and have seen some excellent results which has been a pleasant and surprising experience for us.”

    Which bit of that statement don’t you understand? Which part can only be explained away by placebo? Those dumb fucking cows.

    You are making yourself look very stupid IMO.

  • “However, these trials depend on human observations that, without standardised observational measures or independent veterinary surgeons, can suffer significant (unintentional) bias. ”

    Where is your proof this statement is fact? What disorders have been treated and what observations were made?

  • So it’s gone eh?
    What I’m getting at is that your statement
    “However, these trials depend on human observations that, without standardised observational measures or independent veterinary surgeons, can suffer significant (unintentional) bias. Those studies that correct for observational biases show that homeopathy does not work.”

    has no basis. What does yeo valley treat its cattle for? How many head of cattle is given homeopathy? Why? What are the outcomes? If the outcomes are that the cows look happier then I would agree it’s observational, but what if it’s levels of mastitis decreasing or increased milk production? What would be your explanation? Don’t spout about science and evidence then make crap statements when you don’t know what you are talking about.

  • @Fed up ..

    You’re not really trying to defending the use of homeopathy to stop flies bothering cows!!

    Have you read the Yeo Valley page?
    If you have then you’d see the list of things they say they use homeopathy for … it’s a list of farily minor things, no mention of mastitis etc.

    “using homeopathic treatments and remedies to treat his cows for a number of issues, including warding-off flies and easing the cows’ stress levels when having their feet clipped. ”

    I fully agree that it would be nice to see a full list of conditions.
    However, based on what Yeo Valley have on their website then I think it’s pretty safe to say any improvement would be ‘observational’ – How exactly do you judge if a cow on homeopathy is less bothered by flies than one not on homeopathy – especially if the whole herd in on homeopathy and stood in a field full of cow crap!

    Another clue to the observational nature of any improvements is the comment “Steve’s convinced that homeopathic treatments offer a viable, practical option”.
    So it seems it’s Steve’s opinion. Would ‘Steve the Herd Manager’ be biased? Well he’s just done a course in homeopathy!

    Interestingly they make no mention of a vet being involved in the use of homeopathy (or observing/recording any improvements).

    The RCVS code of practice states that:
    “Other complementary therapists
    17. All other forms of complementary therapy in the treatment of animals, including homoeopathy, must be administered by veterinary surgeons. It is illegal, in terms of the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966, for lay practitioners however qualified in the human field, to treat animals. At the same time it is incumbent on veterinary surgeons offering any complementary therapy to ensure that they are adequately trained in its application.”

    Forgetting for a moment that homeopathy doesn’t work …. what they are doing may well be illegal!

  • Fed up

    Your first two comments went straight into the spam bin, but they are now published.

  • Ho hum.

    @fed up

    The question in your first post, “Which part can only be explained away by placebo?” is a non sequitur. As homeopathic ‘remedies’ contains no active ingredients, it makes no difference if they are used “alongside conventional medicines” or not. It follows that the “excellent results” seen by the respondent are attributable either to the conventional medicines or just to regression to mean. That there is no robust scientific evidence that homeopathic ‘remedies’ work in any way on anyone or anything, is hardly surprising as there is no plausible mechanism by which homeopathic ‘remedies’ can work.

    As for the quotation in your second and third posts, if you don’t accept the authority of its source, why don’t you address your question directly to him or her? You’ll find their contact details on the briefing paper zeno links to.

    By the way, your suggestion that zeno doesn’t know what he’s talking about makes you look pretty stupid yourself. And not just IMO.

    Nice response, SB, thanks for taking the time.

  • This is my response to skepticat on chiro live,

    http://www.chiropracticlive.com/mind-body-spirit-the-placebo-effect-by-ben-goldacre/#comment-3993

    SB “You’re not really trying to defending the use of homeopathy to stop flies bothering cows!!” lol If it was given to the flies maybe!

    But as usual you alter the facts to suit yourself. Steve is a herd manager, so looked after the animals using conventional medicine then tried homeopathy, so he has had experience with the animals before and after.
    “to treat his cows for a number of issues, including warding-off flies and easing the cows’ stress levels when having their feet clipped. The treatments have so far proved successful and, unlike with antibiotics,” including, but not only, flies, but then again do you think they used anti biotics to ward of those damn flies and to help with stress and toe nails? The fact he keeps mentioning anti biotics possibly means he has been using homeopathy as a substitute, agreed? Also Steve had his job before doing a course in homeopathy what benefit do think he got from it?

    “it also means no withdrawal periods for milk and meat while the animal is being treated, as would be the case when antibiotics are used.”

    So this sort of data would not be observational, they should have figures that show when a cow is withdrawn for periods while on anti biotics. Now as there are possibly hundreds of cows in Steves herd and he has only been using homeoptahy for 18 months these numbers would give you some idea as to wether the treatment used has been effective, also this is one herd of 4 so comparing to the other herds would be interesting.

    as an answer to your law post if the owner of the animals is giving medicine that can be bought without a vets prescription then they are not breaking the law.

  • its gone in the spam again!!

  • “Through the collective experiences of Soil Association affiliated farmers, we have found that many routine problems can be treated with homeopathic and herbal medicines without any compromise to animal welfare.”

    I really like this statement, through collective experience, that could mean hundreds of farmers and tens of thousands of cattle. Though we all know how gullible farmers are eh!

    Zeno knows best.

  • @Fed Up

    In an earlier comment you said “Where is your proof this statement is fact?” yet now you are automatically making the assumption (without proof) that ‘collective experience’ means a large number and that this somehow gives the argument strenght …… It could also mean very few farmers!

    And again, if all these farmers have done a course in homeopathy then these observational results are just their ‘opinion’ and therfore subject to bias.

    If a homeopath administers a homeopathic remedy expecting to see a particular effect ……. it’s no surprise that they then think they observe it.

    It doesn’t matter if it’s a single farmer or a ‘collective’ – collective bias isn’t any more acceptable as proof than the bias of an individual!

  • SB I did say “could” and I have posted another post in response to yours but it hasn’t come up, must be in the spam bin.

    But again, are these results observational, please put my other post up Zeno,

  • Fed up

    I can’t see any reason why they were spammed, but your post was buried on page 9 of today’s spam.

  • Hey you know fed up, leave these guys alone, if they don’t want to eat organic that’s the greatest natural selection experiment, same with that pussy cat thing, let them eat crap, vaccine up to the hilt and the world will be better off without them.

    It’s a great laugh posting here, you can say what you like, they write the greatest shit anywhere. Their heros are the ERnsty Singh thang, what a bunch of geeks.

    How boring waiting for post for complaints feedback.

  • You sound like a chiropractor, shitebuster.

  • my earlier post is up no sb.

  • Saw this story just before Christmas I think, and reluctantly gave up eating Yeo Valley yoghurts too. They were good, but it’s a very simple thing to make a shopping change!

  • I have great faith in the ability of placebo triggers (such as homeopathy and prayer) to treat vague maladies (especially those which defy modern medicine) in people able to bring themselves to believe in such approaches. I also believe that animals such as cows are as suggestible as humans in this regard. But unless ‘Steve’ is able to persuade the cows that the sugar pill he feeds them is ‘medicine’, it seems unlikely that they would respond in any way. Nevertheless, if I chose to imbibe the udder juice of any other species i think I would prefer that those secretions were adulterated with sugar pills rather than some antibiotic chemical. But like all humans with half a heart I do not sanction the captivity of cows and the crating of calves which is necessary to procure a supply of milk for human consumption. So I hope your vendetta dissuades people from using yoghurt, which anyway has no value to humans other than as a topical treatment for thrush.

  • I just ate some yeo valley yoghurt today. The message about the homeopathic treatment was on the inside of the carton. I can have no faith in a company that thinks that homeopathy makes sense. I won’t eat their yoghurt or udder products ever again. Seriously. I intend to take the other pot i have in the fridge back to sainsbury’s and ask for a refund as the homeopathic treatment was not listed on the outside of the packet. Whatever homeopathic remedy was given to the cow will have been diluted even further and be that much more potent, yet it is not even listed on the ingredients. why wouldn’t they list this if they believe. You can’t have it both ways.

  • The initial link now redirects to the homepage, but if you search their site for homeopathic you can find that article still online here:

    http://www.yeovalleyorganic.co.uk/2011/10/07/alternative-treatments-for-our-cows

  • Jaxxson

    Thanks for pointing that out – I’ve updated the blogpost.

  • Just so happens… I had a similar exchange with YeoValley around the same time. This is what I emailed them on 27/03/2011:

    I like your yoghurt products. But I have just decided that my family is going to boycott your products. Why? Because I’ve read on the inside of one of your yoghurt pot sleeves that you believe in homeopathy. Please… All that idyllic green family business stuff, the beautiful valley in the heart of Somerset, all of that is done to nought by that single word “homeopathic”. I’m entirely sympatethic to green values. But homeopathy? Sorry, that’s in the same category as witchcraft…

    In response, I got the exact same blurb from Sally that I read above.

    A few months later, I noticed that all references to homeopathy have been removed from their yoghurt pots.

  • That’s interesting, Jan. I’ve not looked at their yoghurt pots since, but I’ll check them the next time I’m in a supermarket.

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