Just recently I came across a new milk label in a supermarket. Well, not a new label exactly, more like an existing label which had two words added to it – ‘free range’. I have since learned that this is the result of dairy giant Arla rebranding its organic milk offer, to help people fully understand the benefits of organic milk. But, I struggle to see what has suddenly made Arla organic milk ‘free range’. What have they done to it? What have they asked the farmers to do differently? From what I can see, the only thing that has changed is the label and I can’t help wondering what’s wrong with organic milk?
According to the Arla Foods website, the cows that produce Arla Organic Milk are “grazed outside for over 200 days every year”. So one assumes it is a requirement that all of the cows, on every farm supplying this milk, are grazed for over 200 days every year. But, is this really true? One of the main drivers for me to start building the concept of free range milk back in 2011, was the abuse of a widely held perception that all milk comes from cows free to graze in fields. We believe that free range milk should only come from farms where cows are assured the freedom to graze for at least half the year. That’s why the Free Range Dairy Pasture Promise logo sets a clear requirement for a minimum of 180 days and nights at grass, every year. We only work with farmers who we are confident can achieve this standard and who are clearly committed to keeping their cows in fields; many of them graze for in excess of 200 days and nights a year.
Our Free Range Dairy Network, established as a social enterprise in July 2014, does not buy or sell milk; we work in collaboration with farmers and independent dairy companies around the country to offer consumers a more informed choice about the farming system that delivers their milk. We are here for the cows as much as the farmers. Our mission is to provide traditional dairy farms with an alternative to the mass production of commodity white stuff, which places increasing pressure on both them and their cows. Organic milk has carved out a niche for a select group of consumers, but free range has the potential to give many more British dairy farmers a chance to define the value in their farming system.
Arla UK boss, Tomas Pietrangeli said in a recent article in The Grocer magazine, that they believed organic milk delivered the same needs on grazing as free range milk and more besides. But, for some reason that now seems to have changed, as we win more recognition for farmers producing free range milk under the Pasture Promise logo. Whilst Free Range Dairy Network does not have exclusive rights to the term free range, it will be a shame if the work we have done is hijacked by big dairy and spoils the badly needed added-value proposition we are building. Simply adding the words free range to milk labels without any clear qualification of the term, will make them meaningless and the value will be lost for all.
Today, around 4% of the milk produced in the UK is organic, whilst the other 96% is simply labelled as ‘conventional’ milk and stripped of its value and provenance in an increasingly consolidated supply chain. We hope that Arla and other organic milk producers will continue to promote the virtues of organic farming and allow us to define the value in the traditional family farms we represent, under the free range banner. Arla, say they have a £5 million budget to spend on promoting their new organic brand. Unfortunately, we don’t have those sort of resources to promote the Pasture Promise logo and the values it represents. Instead we rely on the support of the growing number of people who want to see cows in fields and our countryside flourish. We hope they and others like them will help us to ensure free range milk makes a difference for cows and farmers.