Bucolic scenes on UK milk adverts hide reality of life for ‘battery cows’ with consumers being ‘misled’ into believing dairy cattle graze in fields, says animal rights campaign.

Some of the UK’s biggest food firms are accused of misleading consumers after buying their milk from intensive industrial dairy units despite using images to promote their products that show cows grazing in green fields.

Tens of thousands of dairy cattle in England are kept in hangar-style sheds with no or very limited access to pasture. They will typically be milked three times daily, often on large electronic rotating milk parlours, producing up to 32 litres of milk each day.

The animal rights charity Viva! launched a campaign on the conditions of “zero-grazed” cattle. It cites research showing zero-grazed cows have a higher level of health problems, such as lameness and mastitis, and mortality. “These battery cows are denied their most inherent instinct: grazing on grass outdoors,” said Juliet Gellatley, the founder and director of Viva!, which promotes veganism. “Consumers are misled into believing that cows graze outdoors.”

Campaigners describe the units as a “disgrace” and there is mounting pressure on the dairy industry for better labelling and transparency in the supply chain, identifying products containing milk from cows with no access to pasture. At present, there is no requirement for mandatory welfare labelling on milk products.

The Observer has established:

  • Tesco’s fresh milk is promoted with an image of a grazing cow on its cartons. One of its biggest suppliers is the Lea Manor farm in Cheshire, part of the Duke of Westminster’s Grosvenor group, with 2,600 dairy cattle kept in open-side sheds, with no access to pasture.
  • Arla Foods has promoted its Cravendale milk brand and its Care welfare and environmental programme with farmer suppliers singing “everybody’s free” in fields. It has confirmed that its supply chain for other products includes milk from zero-grazing units. Viva! has complained to the Advertising Standards Authority. Viva! argues that the advert for Cravendale milk is misleading because it considers that it gives the impression that all Arla milk comes from cows with access to pasture.
  • Müller UK & Ireland has pictures on its website of cows standing in fields in front of a table with a glass and cartons of fresh milk. Its milk supply chain includes some cattle units with no or limited access to pasture, the dairy giant confirmed this weekend.

It has been estimated that up to 20% of the UK dairy herd of 1.9 million cattle have no or very limited access to pasture, but regulators do not collate figures on intensive units. The average annual milk production of a dairy cow has risen significantly over the years, with many cows now producing as much as 12,000 litres of milk a year.

The dairy industry says well-managed units provide high animal welfare. An expert report by the government’s animal welfare committee in 2021 found that “fully housed systems” and access to pasture both offered welfare benefits.

The Viva! campaign identifies some of the biggest intensive dairy units, including the Lea Manor farm near the Duke of Westminster’s stately home, Eaton Hall, in Cheshire. The complex produces enough milk for 430,000 people daily, according to Grosvenor. The milk is processed by Müller and supplied to Tesco.

Grosvenor says its facility is larger than typical industry standards, with natural light and space to roam. It says the “state-of-the-art” facility offers “exceptional standards” of animal welfare, cutting use of antibiotics by more than 60% in the past five years and reducing incidence of illnesses such as mastitis to “industry-leading levels”.

Viva! also identified two intensive units in the south and south-west of England which provide milk for the UK’s two biggest dairy processors, Arla and Müller. There is no suggestion or evidence of any breaches of regulations in the milking facilities.

Peter Stevenson, the chief policy adviser at the charity Compassion in World Farming, said: “The public still sees cows as being outdoors in fields and are unaware of their high yields to which they have been pushed and the fact that quite a chunk of them are zero-grazed. This intensive part of the dairy sector is an utter disgrace.”

Arla, a farmer-owned company, said last week that supplier farms met “strict and non-negotiable animal welfare standards”, but not all milk was produced under its Care environmental and welfare programme which stipulates access to pasture. It said more than 90% of its supplier farms were grass-based. “Within Arla, we have a variety of farming systems and do not believe that any one is better than the other,” said a company spokesperson. Arla has an ongoing trial measuring “cow happiness” in grazed and housed dairy cattle.

A spokesperson for Müller UK & Ireland said: “We purchase milk from around 1,300 dairy farms throughout Britain, which have different farm sizes and production systems. Animal welfare is a key priority for our business. Our products are marketed in compliance with all regulations and our farmers must comply fully with our own Müller standards as well as those of the Red Tractor dairy assurance scheme.”

Supermarkets say they know animal welfare is important to customers and only source from accredited farms, with regular vet inspections. A Tesco spokesperson said: “We work closely with our dairy farmers to ensure high animal health and welfare standards. Cows on Tesco farms are some of the best looked after in the UK.” Tesco considers that since a large proportion of its supplier dairy farms use outdoor grazing, it is appropriate to use an image of grazing cows to promote its fresh milk.

Dairy UK, the trade association for the UK dairy supply chain, said: “The leading determinant of cow health in the UK is the quality of the management on farms. Time spent housed or out in pasture has not been shown to be correlated with poor health, at least in the UK.” It denied it was misleading to promote brands which may contain milk from zero-grazing systems with images of cows in fields.

In the government’s food strategy, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) committed to consult on improving and expanding mandatory animal welfare labelling. A Defra spokesperson said: “All farm animals are protected by comprehensive animal health, welfare and environmental legislation within the Animal Welfare Act 2006.”

Original source: https://www.theguardian.com