Stephen Cadogan: Free range farming nation with bags of food to export

The launch of Free Range Dairy Farmer’s Milk in the UK is good news for Irish farmers, even it it does show that UK retailers, and other opinion formers who have huge influence on what people eat, seem to know very little about food.

The Asda supermarket chain, which has about a 16% share of UK grocery sales, launched a new line of milk from UK pasture-based farms, where cows are guaranteed 180 days and nights outdoor grazing a year.

Asda said the launch is in response to “feedback from customers who were interested in the idea of free range milk and wanted to have more information about the kind of farms their milk comes from”.

The milk comes from the Somerset-based Free Range Dairy Network Community Interest Company, in which about 30 farmers are involved.

They had got some exposure on Jamie Oliver and Jimmy Doherty’s Friday Night Feast food lifestyle programme on Channel 4, and asked people to write to their supermarkets and ask them to stock free range milk carrying the Pasture Promise logo.

Asda have responded, and claim to be the first major supermarket in the UK to stock it, in over 100 of their stores.

According to the Free Range Dairy Network Community Interest Company, a YouGov poll by World Animal Protection found that 87% of respondents want to buy free range milk from cows that graze on pasture, and gives farmers a good price for their milk, and 86% of UK adults agreed that dairy cows in the UK should be able to graze on pasture and should not be permanently housed indoors.

Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) welcomed the move, saying there was no law in the UK to define free range milk, and around 20% of the 1.9 million dairy cows in the UK were zero-grazed, kept indoors the whole year round, with no opportunity to graze on grass or breathe fresh air.

CIWF welcomed the possibility that the Pasture Promise logo could be extended to other dairy products that use milk, for example cheese.

The blaze of publicity surrounding the launch ensured that everyone was very happy.

Conveniently, no-one bothered to point out that free range milk was already available in UK supermarkets, at a cheaper price than the Pasture Promise milk.

This comes from organic farmers, who have to meet legally binding production standards, including that their dairy cows must spend as much time outside on pasture as conditions allow, and must be fed a grass-rich diet.

Organic farms are audited annually to ensure they comply, so CIWF is off the mark in saying there was no law in the UK to define free range milk.

Organic cows in the UK typically graze for 215 days, and their ‘free-range’ milk has been readily available to the UK consumer for over 20 years.

We already knew that consumers are out-of-touch with farming and food production, now we know we cannot rely on what retailers and organisations like CIWF tell consumers.

Or are they happy not to let facts get in the way of a wave of publicity and free advertising for their organisations?

No mention was made either of the €825 million a year of Irish dairy products sold in the UK.

They originate on dairy farms which typically graze cows up to 300 days a year, every year.

With Irish dairy farmers typically paid the EU’s lowest milk prices, about 3c per litre less than British farmers, farmers here simply cannot afford to under-utilise grass, the cheapest feed available to them. That is the Irish free range guarantee.

And the same goes for our beef, which also deserves to carry the free range label.

Now that UK consumers’ interest in free range has been piqued, all we need is some exposure on prime-time UK TV, revealing that there is a free range farming nation next door to the UK, with bags of food to export. 

Then we can sit back and wait for the supermarkets to launch their new Irish free range products.


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