While butter may be made from natural ingredients, it has a high level of saturated fats and may have added salt. In addition there are animal rights concerns.
Butter, margarine and spread – what is the difference?
In the UK we have strict regulations over what can be called a butter or a margarine.
Butter: The UK food standards agency classifies butter as a product with “a milk fat content of more than 80% but less than 90%”.
Margarine is “obtained from vegetable and/or animal fats with a fat content of more than 80% but less than 90%”. According to DEFRA only a “small number of producers in the UK make a fat spread that would legally qualify as margarine.” In this report only Tomor is classified as a margarine.
A spread is “a blend of plant and/or animal fats whose fat content is less than 80%”.
The dairy cow
The dairy cow is the hardest worked of all farm animals. To ensure a constant supply of milk, cows are usually artificially inseminated two or three months after they have given birth and are required to sustain a growing calf inside while simultaneously producing milk. This routine inevitably takes its toll, and many cows in the UK are slaughtered, physically exhausted, before their fifth birthday.
Due to the animal rights issues associated with milk production, all the butter companies lost a mark under our Animal Rights category.
Where once upon a time the idea of keeping cows indoors permanently was considered absurd, it is fast becoming a norm. It is estimated that in the EU over 10 million dairy cows are housed in tie stalls (where the animals are tied to the stall) and/or zero grazed.
Zero-grazing is where cattle are fed in a system that does not involve any time at pasture. This is the practice often favoured by farmers when housing large number of cows.
In January 2015 it was announced that the Duke of Westminster had opened a “mega dairy” (a large scale US-style dairy farm) on Grosvenor Farms, Cheshire. The Sunday Times stated “up to 800 of his 1,400-strong herd live in two large sheds with individual sleeping cubicles 14ft by 4ft. They never go out to graze and are milked on a circular, rotating walk-on, walk-off platform.”
While less than 10% of the UK’s 1.8 million dairy cows live in herds larger than 500, applications for mega-dairy farms are increasing. In 2014 Lower Leighton Farm, in Leighton, Welshpool was given the go-ahead for a 1,000 cow mega dairy.
While pollution and human health are large considerations in creating such large milking factories the risks to the health of a cow is also substantial. The European Food Safety Authority said in a report: “If dairy cows are not kept on pasture for parts of the year, i.e. they are permanently on a zero-grazing system, there is an increased risk of lameness, hoof problems, teat tramp, mastitis, metritis, dystocia, ketosis, retained placenta and some bacterial infections.”
To reflect the changing practices of dairy farming in the UK and around the world, companies whose core part of the business is dairy will now lose a whole mark under Ethical Consumer’s factory farming category unless it has a specific policy which requires farmers who supply milk to ensure their cows have access to grass for at least a minimum of 100 days per year or it is produced under organic standards.
Animal welfare labels
Out of all of the animal welfare standards, organic is considered to be the best. However, some criticised practices are still allowed, including:
- artificial insemination,
- killing male calves,
- cows enduring the dual loads of pregnancy and lactation for seven months of every year.
Organic certification does means that cows must:
- have access to fields,
- be fed a diet as natural as possible and one which is free from genetically modified organisms (GMOs),
- spend the majority of their lives outdoors; when they are brought indoors during bad weather they must have appropriate bedding and space.
In this report the following brands produce butter with organic certification: Yeo Valley, Rachel’s Organic, Waitrose, Morrisons, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Tesco.
The Red Tractor logo on dairy products signifies that the milk was produced in the UK on a farm which has been independently assured to meet the standards of the National Dairy Farm Assurance Scheme (NDFAS). However, these standards are simply the UK and EU legal minimums.
Palm oil scores
St Helen's Farm
Key: Scored out of 20.
PF = palm oil free Best (14-20) Middle (8-13) Worst (0-7)
A survey in 2013 by Consensus Action on Salt and Health looked at over 300 products and found a large proportion (62%) of ‘fats and spreads’ failed to achieve salt targets set out by the Department of Health in 2012. It found that on average people consume 11g of spreads a day, and that “whilst people are aware of the high fat content of fats and spreads and the risks linked to obesity, they rarely think about its contribution to their daily salt intake and their blood pressure.”
It also found that some diet spreads contained higher amounts of salt than full fat versions.
The organisation’s advice to consumers wanting to make healthier choices is:
- Opt for unsalted spreads and butters
- Think twice about diet spreads with less fat – they may have a higher salt content.
- Have smaller portions or use it less often.
- Opt for olive oil, canola (rapeseed) oil or other vegetable oils high in monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat when cooking, as they have no salt and less saturated fat than butter.
Ornua, previously known as the Irish Dairy Board Co-operative Ltd, is a large co-operative based in Ireland. It states on its website that its farms are part of the Irish Food Board’s (Bord Bia) Sustainable Dairy Assurance Scheme. The scheme audits farms against animal welfare criteria, although many of the provisions are considered to be voluntary and the standards do not prohibit zero-grazing.
Ornua has many subsidiaries around the world including in countries considered by Ethical Consumer to be governed by oppressive regimes: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Iraq, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
The company owns Adam Foods, the UK’s largest supplier of pre-packed hard cheese supplying every major UK food retailer. It produces Pilgrims Choice cheese and Kerrygold butter.
St Helen’s is owned by the Kavli Trust. The Trust invests part of Kavli’s profits into research, cultural activities and humanitarian work. St Helen’s produces dairy products made from goats’ milk. According to the company the goats are housed indoors in light and airy barns.
Rachel’s Dairy is owned Lactalis Nestlé Chilled Products, a joint venture between Groupe Lactalis and Nestlé.
Lidl’s score went down from an ethiscore of 2.5 to 1.5 due a boycott call against the company by Viva! for selling kangaroo meat, which is available in the UK.
Viva! stated that:
“The trade in kangaroo meat helps drive what is currently the biggest massacre of wild land animals on the planet. For almost every female kangaroo killed to fill your freezers with kangaroo meat, two other lives will be snuffed out. Around a million baby kangaroos die each year because of the trade in kangaroo parts. There can be no justification for this. Commercialising wildlife is deeply irresponsible.”
Walmart’s ethiscore decreased from 1 to 0.5 due to the fact that its supply chain management score has been reduced from a best to a middle rating. This is because in its 2015 Sustainability Report it did not include details of audit results. In the previous year it had included a clear breakdown of its Global Audit results with a breakdown of the scale of violations.
While its parent company may not be doing too well sourcing sustainable palm oil – only 54% of Wal-Mart’s palm oil was said to be certified sustainable8 – Asda, on the other hand, has achieved 100% RSPO certified palm oil.
2 Statistics: Dairy Cows Compassion in World Farming 01/07/2012
3 Dairy Duke’s cows never see daylight Sunday Times 04/01/2015
4 The battle for the soul of British milk the Guardian 02/10/2014
5 High court rejects Welsh ‘super-dairy’ legal challenge Planning Resource 16/06/2014
6 Scientific report on the effects of farming systems on dairy cow welfare and disease European Food Safety Authority 08/10/2009
8 Walmart 2015 Global Sustainability Report
This product guide is part of a Special Report on Palm Oil. See what's in the rest of the report.