Big retailer milk with a local face

By Pamela Mason

Can milk sold in a supermarket be local? The answer is both yes and no. Hardwick Farm near Abergavenny in Monmouthshire, which I visited in the spring, produces milk for Tesco. So when people in Monmouthshire buy milk from Tesco labelled with a Welsh dragon, some – an unknown, and anonymous – portion of the milk could have come from Hardwick Farm or one of the 80 other dairy farms in Monmouthshire that have a Tesco contract.

Hardwick Farm is a family-run dairy farm about a mile from Abergavenny. Farmer David Jones has 150 milking cows – so not a large herd by modern standards – that produce a total of 4000 litres of milk a day. He milks with robots which allows the cow to decide her own milking time and interval, rather than being milked as part of a group at set milking times. The milking unit consists of a milking machine, a teat position sensor, a robotic arm for automatic teat-cup application and removal, and a gate system for controlling cow traffic. The cows are milked for 10 months a year during which time they are housed in a barn where the robotic milking machine is located.  When the cow decides to enter the milking unit, a cow ID sensor reads an identification tag on the cow and passes the cow ID to the control system. The cow’s teats are automatically cleaned, the milk cup is applied to the teat which is followed by milking and finally teat spraying.

This system removes the need for manual labour in milking and the cows are milked up to four times a day. This method of milking has become increasingly popular and the price of a robotic unit is currently about £100,000. The cows at the Hardwick are fed a silage mix of 50:50 grass and maize, all of which is grown on the 500-acre farm. The ratio of feed consumed to milk produced is similar to that with a traditional milking parlour, with increased efficiency lying in the reduced labour. The only addition to the feed is a 3 per cent protein concentrate. The farm also grows wheat and rape seed for sale off the farm.

The milk is collected from the farm by the dairy processor, Muller, then taken for processing and packaging at the Muller depot in Bridgewater, Somerset, some 74 miles away. Milk prices paid to farmers have fluctuated during recent years from around 38 to 18p per litre, reflecting the investment put in to the industry when prices were high, the consequent increase in production, followed by a fall in prices. Tesco bases its payment to farmers, which is currently [April] 28.7 pence per litre, on the cost of production, which includes feed, fertiliser, fuel, veterinary costs and depreciation. Tesco updates the prices every three months and farmers submit invoices to an independent consultancy to allow an average price for milk to be calculated.

Tesco, like many milk purchasers, is starting to ask questions about antibiotic use. Antibiotic resistance is increasing and farmers have a contribution to make in tackling this issue, particularly by reducing the use of antibiotics critical in human medicine. At Hardwick Farm sand is used as bedding. Sand does not support the growth of bacteria such as E. coli and Strep uberis that cause mastitis, thus reducing the need for antibiotics.

David thinks that Brexit could provide an opportunity for dairy farmers. The UK has the second largest net dairy deficit in the world, behind China. This trade deficit is largely driven by cheese imports, which made up around half of the value of the UK’s total dairy imports in 2015. The UK also imports significant quantities of infant formula, butter, yoghurts and buttermilk while exporting milk and cream. This deficit could possibly be reduced by making available more of the British milk supply for home consumption at the expense of imports, but this is dependent to some extent on milk prices. David thinks Brexit will not cause a problem for dairy farmers in the short term. In the longer term, however, if farm payments are retained in Europe but not in Britain this would make it difficult to maintain standards of animal welfare. For now, he seems happy with his Tesco contract.

During the recent BBC TV Milk Man series of programmes, Gareth Wyn Jones also discussed Welsh dairy farmers who have contracts with Tesco http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08dzwzc.

Pamela Mason is the author, with Tim Lang, of Sustainable Diets and is active in food projects in Monmouthshire.

 

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How supermarkets can help tackle food waste

By Sarah Thomas, Public Affairs Officer, National Federation of Women’s Institutes, Cardiff

NFWI_0916_food_waste_logoFood waste is once more high on the WI agenda following the ‘Avoid food waste, address food poverty’ resolution passed at the WI’s Annual Meeting in June 2016 calling on all supermarkets to sign up to a voluntary agreement to avoid food waste.

WI members have a long and rich history of working to help everyone prevent food waste by using leftovers, and encouraging people to make the most of local and sustainable food.  Whilst progress has been made to ensure a sustainable food supply and to tackle food waste since the WI’s pioneering efforts in its early days, our members recognise that there is still much more to be done and that supermarkets have a unique position in influencing both food production and consumption.

As a nation the UK wastes more food than anywhere else in Europe, costing the average household £470 per year. Farm land roughly the size of Wales is being used to produce all the food that then goes on to be wasted in our homes, generating the equivalent carbon emissions to one in four cars on our roads. Globally, if we managed to redistribute just a quarter of the food currently wasted, there would be enough food to feed the 870 million people living in hunger. Yet, despite encompassing social, economic and environmental issues, decisive action to tackle food waste has been slow.

A new report published by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes in April is calling on all supermarkets to work much harder to help consumers reduce their food waste and save money.  Wasted opportunities: How supermarkets can help tackle food waste is based on a survey of WI members across Wales, England and the Islands, 5000 of whom shared their views on food waste in the home and investigated practices on the supermarket shelves.

How often are we tempted to purchase more than we need due to multi-buy, multi-pack and other similar offers? Are supermarkets wasting good food by rejecting produce because it is not a uniform shape or size? Whilst supermarkets tell us that they are only responsible for a fraction of overall food waste, our members have found that their marketing and buying practices are having a huge influence on how we buy, consume, and ultimately waste, food.  Below is a snapshot of the findings:-

  • Members found that three-quarters of supermarkets offered multi-buy promotions and told us that they would prefer to be offered a reduction on single items;
  • Members are confused about date labelling, with only 45% correctly identifying that ‘best before’ dates are there to inform consumers about food quality;
  • Members found a huge disparity amongst ‘like for like’ branded and own-branded products when comparing ‘once opened’ instructions;
  • Members oppose supermarket grading standards that mean produce can be rejected because it does not look perfect. More than 90% of members said that they would be happy to buy blemished or misshapen fruit and veg however they found that more than two-thirds of stores didn’t offer them and, if they did, they stocked only one or two products.

Last weekend, our members took part in a Weekend of Action by visiting their local supermarkets to present the WI Food Manifesto to their local supermarket manager and press for action to be taken to address these issues.  Our Food Manifesto calls on supermarkets to adopt four commitments to help reduce food waste in the home and across the supply chain:-

  1. An end to overbuying
  2. Extending the product life of foods in the home
  3. Fully utilising the farm crop
  4. Supermarket transparency on food waste.

With their links to suppliers, consumers and farmers in the UK and around the world, supermarkets are in a powerful position to lead the fight against food waste. Food waste must be tackled. As summed up by a WI survey respondent:- “Ploughing perfectly good food back into the ground because of over-production or grading issues is criminal when people are near the breadline.”

The NFWI will be monitoring the responses of supermarkets in adopting our manifesto asks and during the coming months will be engaging members in the next stage of the Food Matters campaign which will be focusing on food poverty.

Further information about the Food Matters campaign, including the report and manifesto, is available on the WI website:- www.thewi.org.uk

Dustbin image by Speedkingz, Shutterstock.