The best and healthiest milk comes from traditionally farmed cows that live in fields, eating grass. Watch this clip of cows being turned out onto the pasture after spending winter indoors. It says it all.
Sadly not all cows enjoy the sun on their backs or lush grass under their hooves. US style mega ‘zero grazing’ dairies have been introduced into the UK. Behind the innocent looking white stuff that ends up on the supermarket shelves, there is a mega industry under huge pressure to produce more for less. Zero grazing dairies means that cows are kept indoor for the whole of their adult lives in concrete and steel pens. It is all about production, 24/7. In the UK approximately 20% of milk production is now from mega dairies and that is on the increase.
Cows are ruminants, they are designed to graze pasture, kept as part of a rotational, traditional farming system, dairy is healthier, sustainable and has low environmental impact. A diet based on grass results in cow’s milk that’s higher in an essential fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fat that reduces inflammation in the body and has been tied to a lower risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Grass-fed milk has double the omega-3 fat content as conventional milk. Changing that to keep cows indoors creates huge welfare and environmental issues. All for the sake of making more profit and saving you a few pence.
Milk is cheap, even the highest quality milk is affordable, it is not a luxury item or an item we should be undermining to save pennies. It is estimated that moving to organic milk would cost the average family of four just £1 per week.
It is clear that we should buy milk with caution but it is wise to know the facts. It is very easy to a condemn a whole industry whenever there is bad press and the dairy industry has had it’s fair share. 66% of dairy farmers have gone out of business over the last 20 years and we are loosing around 1 traditional farm per week. Dairy farmers are under huge pressures and we need to support those that are fighting to maintain high standards at affordable prices. Not all milk and dairy is the same, there are vast differences in production yet small difference is price for the superior version so it is well worth investing in quality dairy.
How can you compare and buy ‘free range’ milk
Buying organic milk and dairy is the easiest way to ensure grass fed, free range milk. There are various organic standards in the UK but all of them include grazing access. e.g. Duchy, supermarket own brands, Yeo Valley, Moo and smaller independent organic farmers, sold directly or via retailers.
Free range milk is also now widely available, looks out for this Free range dairy logo at Asda, Morrisons, Booths and some Co-op stores. As consumer awareness increases, the industry responds with labelling to help you differentiate between products. The concept of labelling ‘free range’ milk has now been introduced. Free range dairy used to be normal, so it is not a new product, but the need to label it as such is. See http://www.freerangedairy.org for more information.
Waitrose has a ‘grass promise’ on their own brand essential milk but it is the same price per litre as Tesco and Sainsbury own brand, so a great choice if you are budget conscious.
There are also high end milk producers that make the cream of the crop, literally! Worth a look even just for interest to compare against the industry. A raw milk microdairy http://www.the-calf-at-foot-dairy.co.uk. Unhomogenised guernsey milk from Able and Cole https://www.abelandcole.co.uk/guernsey-milk
We are lucky in the UK compared with other EU nations and countries worldwide that we still have a large amount of traditional dairies, where cows get access to grazing, but this is rapidly declining. Unless the label states organic, free range, grass promise or you can trace the milk to a specific dairy or corporative that has a policy to give cows access to pasture there is a real possibility your milk or diary has come from an intensive dairy system.
Cheese, yogurt, ice cream and butter
Labelling on dairy other than milk has not caught up in terms of free range or grass promise. The industry focus in on milk. For example I contacted Waitrose to ask if they grass promise extended to cheese and butter and their response was no. They did not have a direct relationship with the farmers so where unable to guarantee it was produced from pasture feed dairy cows.
Buying organic cheese, yogurt and butter is a guaranteed way to ensure the diary is free range. Some producers will label the product as such but you’ll need to read the label carefully.
Imported cheese from outside the UK is likely to come from zero grazing dairies. Italy, Spain, France, Germany etc. all have a very high ratio of non grazing dairies. Even high end, luxury cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano = no grass. So read the labels and ask questions.
Parting thoughts, dairy and specifically milk is considered an essential item, but it is not a necessary part of our diet for calcium, that is a myth, see https://wp.me/p7RDjy-77. Consume dairy because you really enjoy it, look for organic, free range, traditional, high quality milk, ice cream, cheese, butter and yogurt and thus enjoy it even more!
Alternative plant based milk, yogurt, ice-cream and cream (I am not convinced about cheese) are readily available and on the increase see this post for ideas https://wp.me/p7RDjy-8U
Moo to you too, the Ethical omnivore.