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Milk: do we need a dairy godmother?

As milk prices drop and British dairy farms go bust, the Tories want to create a supermarket ombudsman. Can consumers help?

By Alex Renton | Times Online

Milk Bottles
Alex Renton

Walk along the dairy shelf next time you are in a supermarket, and you can watch an accident happening. It is a serious one, meaning the loss of dozens of jobs every month. It pictures pretty well how wrong the relationship between farmers, retailers and consumers has gone in this country — a matter that Labour and the Conservatives have now agreed must be addressed. The latest move comes from the Tories, who this week pledged to set up a new supermarket ombudsman, charged with powers to prevent leading retailers from using their size and influence to squeeze the profit margins of farmers and other suppliers. Such moves, it is hoped, may prevent the disappearance of an industry that has helped to shape the British countryside.

At present, the problem is stark on the chill cabinet shelves. Take a 1-litre carton of full-fat, non-organic milk. It costs 70-80p. Of this, the farmer will get between 21p and 28p. But the cost of producing it is around 28p, too. As a result, two thirds of dairy farmers in England and Wales have gone out of business in the past decade, and still one packs up every day.

“It’s simple,” says Jimmy Mitchell, who has a large dairy farm — 650 cows and 10 staff — near Kelso in the Scottish Borders. “The milk price is not enough. Before 1994, when milk was deregulated, we’d make 4p or 5p a litre. Now in the Tesco scheme [a long-term contract that acknowledges production costs] I make 0.13p. Which is better than a kick in the a***, and I applaud Tesco for it. But where’s the money to invest in health and safety, in improvements, in meeting all the new regulations?”

There is a traditional answer to the recurring problem of a low milk price. Throughout the 7,000-year-old history of milking animals for human breakfasts, dairies have been able to turn surplus milk into something more valuable, such as butter, cream, cheese and yoghurts.

On our dairy shelves are some very valuable products. The farmers’ 25p litre of milk can be turned into something selling for 15 times as much, if it’s a health yoghurt made by Danone or Yoplait. You simply add some bacteria, flavouring and a marketing campaign. But these companies manufacture in France and Belgium — where 40 per cent of our yoghurt is made — and source their milk there.

Much the same goes for basic cheese: unless it sports a Union Jack, it’s likely to have been made in New Zealand, Ireland or Latvia. Last year more than 40 per cent of all Cheddar sold in Britain came from abroad. Butter is similar. Of the most popular supermarket brands, only one, CountryLife, is made of British milk in Britain. The bulk comes from Denmark and Ireland, even though the farmgate price of milk is consistently higher in Europe than it is here.

Britain now imports nearly half its butter, and imports of cheese are up 60 per cent in ten years. “We tend to import the added-value products and export the low-value milk products — our cream may go to Denmark, be made into butter and sold back to us by Lurpak,” says Arnaud Haye, a senior analyst at the industry body DairyCo. This, he agrees, is absurd: it is what happens in failing Third World economies, who export their raw commodities cheaply and have to buy back the manufactured goods made from them. This is not a good thing, for British farmers or any of us.

The National Farmers’ Union talks of Britain losing its “critical mass” of milk suppliers: we’re no longer able, it says, to meet the country’s “core milk requirement” of slightly under 13 billion litres a year. Milk prices have dropped about 15 per cent this year, which is why in September we saw dairy farmers across Britain and Europe pouring milk out in the streets in protests. Supermarkets’ margins — the amount of the price they take — on milk have doubled in ten years: now the processor and retailer, who may be one and the same, take over three quarters of the price of a pint. But, though our milk is cheap, since 2004 Britain, a land of dairy farming, has been a net importer of it.

Mismanagement, bankruptcy and scandal have been part of the dairy industry, ever since people first realised that there was profit in bringing fresh milk from countryside to town. Throughout history, milk and its products have been the cheap food that supplied much of the protein needs of the poor in Britain — white meats, they were called. But milk goes off: it is a prime breeding ground for bacteria.

From the beginning these advantages and these problems attracted fraudsters. Milk could be watered down, whitened with lead; when it got iffy, its condition could be disguised with various chemicals. By the late 18th century there were 20,000 cows in London’s suburbs, according to the historian Carolyn Steel, in her book Hungry City. They were milked at 3am and the product brought into town. On its journey the milk was subject to all sorts of indignities — thickened with flour, dyed and dosed with preservatives.

The novelist Tobias Smollett wrote in disgust of the milk that passed under his London window: “ . . .The produce of faded cabbage leaves and sour draff, lowered with hot water, frothed with bruised snails, carried through the streets in open pails exposed to foul rinsings discharged from doors and windows, spittle, snot and tobacco quids . . .”

Getting the milk into town became easier in the age of steam trains, and it meant that the dairy herds could spread across Britain. The first Sainsbury’s opened in Covent Garden, London, in 1869, selling fresh “railway milk” from churns on a marble counter and a coin-operated mechanical cow that could be pumped from the street. Soon after came milk delivered to your doorstep, by that key figure of the 20th century urban landscape, the milkman. Ironically, price-cutting by the modern Sainsbury’s and other supermarkets has now, more or less, killed him off.

Part of Sainsbury’s success came with milk’s graduation from cheap, effective food to officially good for you. By 1914, according to government advice it was “a most necessary food”, important for nutrition in children, particularly in preventing growth disorders such as rickets, and providing the newly discovered vitamins. And so the first government attempts to regulate milk’s supply and quality came about.

At the same time, in the United States, people were discovering just how bad “raw” milk could be, blaming it in part for the appalling fact that one in four young children in US cities in the 19th century did not survive to adulthood. It did indeed turn out that dysentery, cholera, TB and other diseases would breed in badly kept milk, or in dairy cows. It’s now thought that bovine TB killed Jane Austen. In 1903 it was established that diarrhoea-related deaths were far higher among bottle-fed babies.

And so came pasteurisation — the technique of heating milk to kill bacteria and some of the natural enzymes that milk contains. It increases shelf life, too. Thus “fresh” — though in fact heat-treated — milk became a kitchen universal in the Western world, available all year (where before it was only seasonally available, timed to cows’ calving cycles).

By the 1930s, a mother was not doing her job properly if she didn’t feed her children cows’ milk. But the fear of milk has never gone away: indeed Heather Mills, with her food campaigner hat on, recently told the BBC that “to drink cows’ milk is as daft as to drink rats’ or dogs’ milk — there’s pus and growth hormones in it”. It can, said Mills, give you cancer.

It cannot, and growth hormones aren’t legal in dairy in Europe. But is it good for you? Is there, in fact, any point in drinking it? Milk’s story abounds with myths and misconceptions, but the professional consensus is that milk is, as ever, a useful source of fat and vitamins, especially at breakfast time.

For children, starting the day well nourished is very important and milk and cereal are a cheap and simple way to do the job. But it is important to remember that milk is 95 per cent water: those excited claims on the side of semi- skimmed milk cartons — “Less than 2 per cent fat” — are fairly meaningless when the full-fat milk is only 4 per cent fat, and that is largely “good fat”, anyway .

The other big knocks that milk has taken recently come largely because of the enormous changes in its production. When British farmers were being chivvied to up milk production in the lean days of the Second World War, officials would award a certificate of congratulation if a farm’s cows produced more than two gallons each a day. Today in America, the “supercow” Holstein-Friesians on 10,000 animal dairy farms produce five times as much.

Of course, they don’t live like Daisy the dairy cow in her little straw hat: American supercows eat high-energy prepared feeds treated with antibiotics and steroid growth hormones. They are milked three times a day, producing ten times what a calf would require. As a result, they are rarely seen gambolling in the meadows.

Modern industrial cows do more quantity than quality: supercows’ milk contains much less butter fat and other nutrients than does milk from breeds that have not been genetically “improved”. One study comparing the chemical composition of milk and cheese in 1940 with that of 2002 found significant reductions in levels of minerals such as iron, magnesium and calcium.

Most British dairy cows do still spend much of their year on grass. The feed they get — which in the bad old days of BSE might contain bits of other animals — is now entirely vegetarian. But much of it is imported: if the soya is South American, it will have been produced at the expense of rainforest. Conventional dairy also relies a lot on crude-oil-based fertiliser for the pasture, which is one of the reasons costs have risen so much.

The science is complex, but the more grass a cow eats, the more nutrients (such as omega-3s and vitamins) there will be in its milk. These levels go up if the cow is farmed organically — though the Government’s Food Standards Agency will not go so far as to say that such milk is healthier.

There’s also a taste issue. Patrick Holden, who with his son is now turning out an award-winning Cheddar from the 80 Friesians he keeps on his organic farm in Wales, says: “If you don’t use nitrogen fertiliser the sward will develop with all these other plants: clover, of course, but also vetches and plantain and yarrow. When the cows eat them, they add minerals and other trace elements and that makes the taste of the milk, and the cheese. What industrial dairy has done is breed out taste.”

There are other problems with industrial milk production. The enormous liquid output of dairy farms includes slurry, which can be enormously toxic and environmentally damaging. And the reengineering of cows to produce copious, cheap milk raises questions about the animals’ happiness: the modern Friesian/Holstein has been bred to live a brief life of only three milking years, producing perhaps four times as much milk each year as did its ancestors of 50 years ago (and twice as much as an organic cow on a traditionally run farm). There are other unpleasant by-products: to produce milk, cows must have calves, and male calves are often so valueless that they are killed at birth.

Is milk too cheap? The farmers say it is absurd that it should cost less than a quarter of the price of some bottled water. Patrick Holden — whose other job is as director of the Soil Association — says: “The price pressures are just driving Britain’s small dairy farmers out of business. My neighbour is an example: he’s giving up next year. The farms that survive won’t be the family concerns that the public imagines, but the big, semi-industrial ones, run on cheap migrant labour.”

What’s the answer? Holden says that dairy must learn to tell its story better. “You can’t just blame the supermarkets, that is pointless. The choice is with us, the customers: it’s we who have to change the way we buy. So we farmers must help the public to relearn where milk comes from, to value it and the animal and the land and the people that produced it.”

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