22 Apr 2011

On and Off the Magic Milky Way (Part 2)

Within the wider dairy produce arena, I was also a Rachel's Organic and Yeo Valley Organic customer (two well-established UK organic dairy brands fondly remembered for their creamy yoghurts and scrumptious yet simple desserts. Obviously if I were still living in England right this moment, I wouldn't put the sentences in the past like this just isn't true anymore. If still in England I would indeed still purchase those brands as I am totally sold to their ethics, philosophy and quality produce.

Back to our UK years, if no organic milk was available from the store, I would reluctantly relent to the mass-produced non-organic standard alternative, and would (more happily) compromise with a couple of tins of Carnation milk, as the processed (evaporated) milk somewhat tastes nicer than standard milk, it tastes like caramel to me. What I would do with Carnation was cut it with a third water, before heating up in a pan for my daily breakfast muesli (Alpen, occasionally Dorset Cereals and even posher ones if I felt flush, or simply stick to Sainsbury's own continental style which was decent enough).

So yes, I consumed my muesli in a very continental way, blended with chocolate-flavoured hot milk (although this might just be my version of continental, I'm not quite sure, just that I can't stand the taste of milk on its own, and simply abhor cold milk - and yes I am daring to dedicate an article to milk while cultivating so many particularities about it!). The girl is strange.

Dairy high: Victoria Sandwich
With Carnation evaporated milk and its caramel undertones, the issue of cow welfare would be sneakily shifted to the back of my mind, to the back burner. Cow welfare? What is that strange girl on about? Oh yes, in the context of industrial farming, when you taste that mass-produced standard milk whose carton price has been squeezed even tighter by the notorious supermarket purchasing lobbies at the expense of the producer's profit margins and subsistence, and to give the end-consumer that elusive feeling that they are making a bargain while the one winner really is the retail chain, the dairy producer has no other option than turn to even cheaper feed for his cows and inflict more crammed living conditions onto them, while increasing his milk quotas, and that means demanding an even higher return on investment from the herd. Therefore expect a higher, faster, more intensive milk turnover with all the consequences that go along. Some French dairy producers push the boat even further by moving their production altogether to cheaper countries like Romania, spelling an even harsher life for the cows.

The objective is for the dairy cow to produce more milk and be milked round-the-clock to exhaustion, until both the milk and the animal's life have drained out! This gives the idiom 'milking it' its powerful significance. Cows develop a weakened immune system despite the battery of antibiotics that they are subjected to, many develop lameness. Besides their over-worked udders are susceptible to mastitis (sores, pus, blisters) that not only cause the cow terrible discomfort, but also run the added risk of discharge into the actual milk output, as Heather Mills (ex-Mrs Paul McCartney) had highlighted to the press once.

The cow's ultimate reward for that thankless life of labour is to have its already shortened life taken away while still a few years away from 'retirement', with the ultimate stress of the abattoir lottery (some slaughterhouses being less 'humane' to the animals on death row than others, shall we say...). And at the end of the line, that's our dairy cow ending up hacked, chopped, filleted and minced to pieces. From a froth of hot milk sitting nicely onto your cappuccino, all the way down the food chain to that steak fighting the French fries for space on your plate, that's all in one day's work when you are a cow!

Life as a standard non-organic mass-production dairy cow is pretty bleak, as we've just seen: the cow as a relentless milk factory on legs with basic - even miserable - life conditions, whose life ends up as a meat factory, the four legs up. This is basically and simplistically the picture, and it would be naive for the consumer to assume otherwise. I too used to kid myself until recently that 'maybe oh so maybe' dairy cows got spared the gun and simply produced milk at a leisurely pace, after their daily wander in some lush postcard-perfect clover-rich pasture, all in all enjoying a long and merry life before naturally dying of old age...

Dairy high: Pasticciu (Corsican custard speciality)
Enters the next instalment in our mass-production milk saga, relayed this time by UK charity WSPA (World Society for the Protection of Animals) via its punchily energetic and innovative Not In My Cuppa campaign fighting proposals for the planned controversial super-mega Nocton dairy farm in Lincolnshire (UK) that would have spelled further doom for the cows in the name of higher yield. The original proposal was for the mega dairy to house 8,100 battery cows, with a view to produce at least 38 million litres of industrial milk a year (19,300 pints per cow per year), enough for 2.5 billion cups of tea, according to The Soil Association. The mind boggles! Then the proposal was revised down to 3,770 cows, before the plans were withdrawn in February 2011. It's a victory and I am personally delighted! Yet Not In My Cuppa campaigners and supporters need to remain vigilant as similar proposals could spring up again in future.

Of course organically-certified dairy cows are not spared the fate of turning into meat chops. But at least - in principle, and I do weigh those words carefully - they are guaranteed more acceptable welfare conditions than their industrial-farming counterparts. Meanwhile as consumers we have the power to vote with our feet.

Leading by example: London's Kaffeine only uses organic milk
Thus for our cappuccino or cream tea, would we not be prepared to pay that little extra and demand from our favourite cafés to switch to organic milk alongside us, in order not only to safeguard our conscience but ultimately the dairy cows living conditions, and the incidence these conditions have on the quality and taste of the milk? Milk from miserable, overworked, weakened, exploited cows: no way! Milk from happier, less-crowded, better-fed, better-looked-after cows: yes please, we're in! I'll put the kettle on right away!

Further resources:
  • The Soil Association, a UK charity campaigning for environmentally-friendly farming practices
  • WSPA (World Society for the Protection of Animals), the world’s largest alliance of humane societies and animal protection organisations, representing over 1000 member societies in more than 150 countries, with consultative status at the United Nations and the Council of Europe
  • CIWF (Compassion In World Farming), the leading farm animal welfare charity.


  1. I wonder if it wouldn't be beneficial in many ways for us to switch from cow milk to goat milk...and goat meat. Goats can eat just about anything, including weeds, and they don't require level pasture ground which might be better used for growing crops. A scrubby and rocky hillside will do just fine. Goat meat is leaner and healthier than beef.

  2. You are raising a very good point Christine. Land management is a very crucial issue and the bovine industry does take up a lot of land that could otherwise be dedicated to agriculture. Goats might indeed hold the key to our future.