Ethical shopping guide to Milk, from Ethical Consumer

Ethical shopping guide to Milk, from Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

The report includes:

  • Ethical and environmental ratings for 20 dairy milks
  • Best Buy recommendations
  • Company profiles
  • Milk and animal welfare
  • Mega-dairies
  • supermarkets & milk price wars
  • micro dairies


This product guide is part of a Special Report on the Dairy Industry.  See what's in the rest of the report.

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Best Buys

as of Nov/Dec 2012

As our ratings are constantly updated, it is possible that company ratings on the scorecard may have changed since this report was written.


Organic milk offers the best welfare standards available in the dairy industry at present. The following organic suppliers score well on the table:

Calon Wen. Available in Wales and the border counties.

Yeo Valley. Available in supermarkets across the country.

Bowland. Sold through supermarkets in the North West.

Graham’s. Available throughout Scotland.

Duchy Originals. Sold through Waitrose.

Dale Farm.  Available in Northern Ireland.


None of these brands are eligible for our Best Buy label because of the inherent animal rights issues connected to dairy farming.


Of the supermarkets, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and the Co-op are also the highest scoring of the mainstream food retailers in our Supermarkets buyers’ guide.

to buy

image: milk


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Dairy milk


Heather Webb examines the dairy industry from animal welfare issues to badger culling and recent farmgate price battles.


Image: milk in ethical shopping guide


The dairy industry in the UK has taken quite a battering over the past decade:



Others have less sympathy for dairy farmers:

  • The National Farmers Union (NFU) has drawn criticism for supporting proposals for mega-dairies. The president of the NFU stated early this year that he believed the UK needed more “super farms” to keep food prices from rising too high and to maintain high animal welfare standards. Evidence from other countries where mega-dairies exist have shown the opposite for animal welfare.
    The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) has written about their ‘Not In My Cuppa’ campaign against mega-dairies.
  • For many, the farming of cattle for dairy products presents many animal rights and welfare issues: male calves are surplus to requirements; dairy cows are increasingly being forced to produce more milk and they are often killed after only four or five years.
    The vegetarian and vegan campaign group Viva! and the Soil Association give somewhat conflicting views on animal welfare standards in the industry.
  • Action Aid has criticised how the industry is heavily subsidised – both by the British government and Europe – enabling companies to undercut domestic suppliers in countries such as Bangladesh. See 'Milking the Poor' below.




Milk in the UK


Supermarket own brand milk accounts for around 70 per cent of all the milk bought in the UK. Three milk processors dominate supermarket milk supply: Arla Foods, Robert Wiseman Dairies, and Dairy Crest. Each of these companies also produce their own brand of milk and have been criticised recently for their role in reducing farm gate prices of liquid milk.  They are reviewed in more detail below.

Supermarkets are covered in a separate article.




Workers in short supply


Due to a national shortage of skilled dairymen, many farms across the UK look to employment agencies who recruit personnel from around the world. A May 2012 report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted the high prevalence of forced labour within the agriculture, food processing and catering industries. The report found that many migrant labourers were subjected to low pay, excessive hours, illegal deductions of wages, unfair dismissal, bullying, and discrimination.(6)

In 2010 the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) began an investigation into the alleged illegal supply of workers to dairy farmers around the UK. According to the Gangmasters Licensing Act it is illegal to use agricultural labour which is unlicensed; employment agencies must be registered under this act in order to supply workers to farms. Those dairy companies caught up in the investigation had been using labour from Marden Management, an unlicensed employment agency based in Wiltshire. The company had apparently co-ordinated with a recruiting agency in the Philippines which had charged workers for arranging jobs, permits and visas – a service which is in breach of the licensing standards in the UK.(5)

In this particular instance Marden Management had a pool of around 70 Filipinos on its books. The GLA had not stated which companies were involved and is yet to conclude its investigation, however it was reported that farms under investigation were supplying Arla and Dairy Crest.

Companies which are certified organic by the Soil Association are covered by provisions prohibiting forced labour, although there are no other workers’ rights guarantees included in this particular standard.(7) Only two companies – Yeo Valley and Calon Wen – have the Soil Association Ethical Trade certification which requires adherence to all the workers’ rights provisions in the ILO conventions. The Soil Association expressed a wish to include the extra workers’ rights provisions in its organic standards in the future but when this will happen is not clear.(8)

Companies in the report with a turnover of over £100m and which did not have a formal supply chain policy, received our worst rating.




Milking the poor


In 2011, Arla had to defend itself after an Action Aid report, Milking the Poor, claimed that EU dairy subsidies had helped Arla undercut local Bangladeshi milk producers. The report stated that the company earned more money from sales of milk powder to developing countries than it did from the sale of high quality cheese to Danish consumers.(16)

In response, Arla stated that the report had contradicted itself and was based on inaccuracies. The company stated that Arla’s products cost 30 per cent more than local products and that local production had been growing.(17)

Action Aid’s report also highlighted that the company had set up a ‘Children for Life’ project which supplied children with one glass of Arla imported milk a day. Yet, a 2007 study for the Food and Agriculture Organisation stated that “School milk feeding schemes based on imported pre-packed milk were seen as counter-productive to sustainable smallholder
dairy development”.

Arla argued that this was an unfair criticism as they had business all over the world and, at the moment, it was not the right time to have local production in the country.




Goat’s Milk Producers


St Helen’s Farm is based in East Yorkshire and is home to over 3,500 goats. The company supplies supermarkets daily with its own brand of goat’s milk. It has proved so popular that it now supplements some of its milk with collections from other farms.

Delamere Dairy is a company based in Cheshire which sells soya, goat’s and cow’s milk. In 2012 it opened a new office in Hong Kong and arranged deals with chain stores in Vietnam and Singapore to supply goat’s milk. The company also sells products across Europe, in the Caribbean and the Middle East.(18)

A Viva! Investigation called ‘The Kids are Not Alright’ published in March 2012, accused Upper Enson Farm, a goat farm which supplied milk to Delamere Dairy, of animal cruelty.(19)

Viva! obtained footage of kids at Upper Enson Farm being ‘disbudded’ by having their horn buds burnt out. According to the government’s Farm Animal Welfare Council, disbudding causes pain and stress for the goat and the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 requires that it is undertaken by a veterinary surgeon, recommending it be done under general anaesthetic. This was found to be not the case at Upper Enson Farm.

The report claimed that consumers often mistakenly presumed that the welfare problems inherent in the milking of dairy cows did not apply to goats. However the truth was that British goats suffered as much as dairy cows, with kids taken away from their mothers almost immediately – the males either killed at birth or kept for meat and the females replenishing the herd.

Viva!’s report found that Upper Enson Farm was the only large scale commercial goat’s milk producer in the UK which allowed grazing. All other goat farms in the UK were found to be indoor, intensive, zero-grazing units. St Helen’s and Delamere’s websites appeared to justify zero-grazing as a way of protecting their goats from the British weather! Others viewed the practice of zero-grazing as keeping control of thousands of goats.

A search on the internet found very little, if any, organic goat’s milk available in the UK. Perhaps if you know of a brand you can let us know on the forums.




Company profiles


Because milk has been an unprofitable market for some time, many of the companies included in this report supplement milk sales with sales of value-added products such as cheese, cream, and yoghurt.

Calon Wen is a Welsh co-operative of dairy farmers, which makes and processes organic milk, butter and cream. It began life in 2000 and now has over 25 family dairy farms. The co-operative also provides milk for other Welsh companies such as Rachel’s and Caws Cenarth. The milk it produces is not homogenised.
Calon Wen was the first UK dairy company to achieve the Soil Association Ethical Trade accreditation and is available in Wales and the border counties.

Yeo Valley is one of the largest organic dairy companies in the UK producing tonnes of yoghurt, milk, butter, cream and ice cream each week. While the company owns 420 Lakemead dairy cows, it also uses organic milk supplied through the Organic Milk Suppliers’ Cooperative (OMSCo) for its products. Yeo Valley was the second UK dairy company to achieve the Soil Association Ethical Trade accreditation.
Yeo Valley scored worst for environmental policy due to a lack of formal environmental targets and independent verification of its reporting. However, the company is very progressive in other areas such as its commitment to use recycled packaging, use of elephant grass to fuel its head office at Blagdon, use of solar power in its educational facility and processing site at Crewkerne, and use of double deck lorries to transport products.

Daylesford Organic is a company based in Gloucestershire which supplies its farm shops in London. You can also buy its milk through Ocado.

Duchy Originals milk is sold through its partnership with Waitrose with all profits from Duchy Originals products going to the Princes Trust charity. Their milk is produced from Ayrshire cows and is organic and not homogenised.

In 2001, a small group of farmers based in the Forest of Bowland Area, Lancashire, decided to form their own company and develop their own brand of milk, providing local milk from their farms to the customer. Bowland is available in supermarkets in the North West of England and organic milk is available from Booths.

Graham’s Family Dairy is Scotland’s largest independent dairy based in Bridge of Allan. It produces both organic and non-organic milk.

Arla Foods is one of largest dairy companies in the world. Based in Denmark, it is a co-operative owned by farmers in Denmark, Sweden and Germany. It produces well known brands such as Cravendale, Anchor and Lurpak, plus Lactofree. Last year it secured planning approval for a new £150m UK ‘mega dairy’ in Aylesbury Buckinghamshire, despite protests from local residents. The new dairy processing facility (not an intensive farm) claims it will be able to process and package up to 1bn litres of fresh milk every year.(9)
See also ‘Milking the poor’ below.

Moo Milk and Dairy Pride are the two brands owned by Milk Link, a farmers’ co-operative which is “a vertically integrated dairy business with the aim of creating long term sustainable futures for its members”. It is the UK’s largest producer of cheese and also produces flavoured  milk drinks for Mars, Galaxy and Flora ProActiv.
In June 2012 Milk Link members supported a merger with Arla Foods, which will see one of the UK’s largest dairy farmer co-ops merge with one the largest European dairy co-ops, subject to the necessary regulatory authority approvals. The merger will mean that Milk Link’s 1,600 British dairy farmer members will become part owners of one of Europe’s leading dairy co-operatives alongside Arla’s existing Danish, Swedish and German farmers.

Another of the UK’s leading dairy farmer co-operatives is United Dairy Farmers based in Northern Ireland. Dale Farm is a subsidiary of the United Dairy Farmers and has operations throughout the UK and Ireland, producing and distributing a wide range of dairy products. The company was fined £2,500 in 2012 by the Northern Irish Environmental Agency after its dairy operation in Dunmanbridge, Cookstown was found to have infringed a condition of its Pollution Prevention and Control Permit.(10)

Medina Dairy owns the convenience shop brand Watsons which currently supplies milk and yoghurt to small shops up and down the country. Medina Dairy also supplies businesses such as Coca Cola, Hovis, Kingsmill, Yazoo, Sunpride and Kraft Foods and restaurants and hotels.
In 2010 the company was fined £12,000 for extending ‘best before’ dates on eggs at its London packing centre,11 and in 2012 the company was fined for causing pollution to Buzzards Mouth Sewer in Barking, Essex. It received a £30,000 fine and was ordered to pay Environment Agency costs of £7,853.(12)

Rachel’s Organic has been added to a long list of organic companies which have been taken over by large multinationals. In 2010, Rachel’s Organic was bought from Deans Foods by the French dairy company Groupe Lactalis. The word ‘organic’ was subsequently dropped from the company’s name but it continues to produce organic milk and yoghurt at its factory in Aberystwyth, Wales.
The parent company Groupe Lactalis is the world’s third largest dairy company after Danone and Nestlé.(13)
In 2006 Lactalis joined forces with Nestlé to create Lactalis Nestlé Chilled Dairy: a 60/40 partnership which manufactures brands such as Ski and Munch Bunch. Until recently Rachel’s has been run as a subsidiary under the Group, however in May 2012 Groupe Lactalis announced plans to integrate it into the wider Lactalis Group which would involve integrating the business with Lactalis Nestlé Chilled Dairy.(14)
In response to the press reports, Rachel’s stated on its Facebook page that there was an agreement between Lactalis and Nestlé in the UK to distribute Rachel’s yoghurt.
Since the announcement, Rachel’s has been added to the Baby Milk Action boycott list because of Nestlé’s marketing of breast milk substitutes. Lactalis also receives factory farming marks for its involvement in goat farming for milk in France (see below on goat farming) and a pollution and toxics mark – an American subsidiary which was fined $315,000 for excess discharges in violation of its waste-water permit levels.(14)

Robert Wiseman, one of the UK’s largest milk processors, was acquired by the German company Theo Müller’s UK subsidiary Müller Dairy UK in February 2012. Wiseman distributes milk to every postcode in Great Britain and supplies retailers including Tesco, Sainsbury and The Co-operative Group, as well as more than 12,000 convenience and independent stores.

Countrylife is owned by Dairy Crest, along with other household names such as Cathedral City and Clover. The company is one of the UK’s largest buyers of milk, with contracts with several of the supermarkets. The company runs Milk&More, an online milk delivery service which provides everyday groceries.





1  BBC, UK declared free of foot-and-mouth, 14th Jan 2002 
2 Dairy UK, A report into the UK Dairy Industry, The White Paper 2012 
3 PETA, 
4 Guardian, Investigation into alleged illegal supply of dairy workers, August 2012 
5 Joseph Rowntree Foundation ‘Experiences of Forced Labour in the UK Food Industry, May 2012 
6 Soil Association Organic Standards: farming and growing, August 2012 
7 Soil Association Ethical Trade Standards, July 2012 
8, Controversial Arla super dairy gets green light, September 2012 
9 Northern Ireland Environmental Protection Agency, Co Tyrone dairy firm fined £2,500 for pollution offence, February 2012 
10 Farming UK, Egg packing centre fined, September 2011 
11 Environment Agency, Spilt milk into waterways causes dairy distribution depot to be fined, July 2012 
12 Rabobank, Global Dairy top 20, 2012 
13 BBC, Jobs under threat at Aberystwyth dairy firm Rachel’s, May 2012 
14 US Environmental Protection Agency, Cheese Manufacturer Sorrento Lactalis to Pay U.S. $315,000 for Exceeding Discharge Levels Into Idaho, August 2010 
15 Action Aid, Milking the Poor, September 2011 
16, We are not ‘milking the poor’ in Bangladesh Arla insists, September 2011 
17 Manchester Evening News, Delamere Dairy milks far east market, April 2012 
18 Viva!, The Kids Are Not Alright, May 2012




This product guide is part of a Special Report on the Dairy Industry.  See what's in the rest of the report.





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