In this guide to dairy milk, we assess the policies and practices underlying UK milk brands, recommending better buys and ways to support a dairy system that is more in tune with today’s environmental and social challenges.
In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 31 dairy milk brands.
We also look at industrial farming, animal welfare, pollution, packaging and give our Best Buy recommendations.
About Ethical Consumer
This is a shopping 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.
What to buy
What to look for when buying dairy milk:
Is it organic of pasture fed? Restricted and zero-grazing have become common practices within the dairy industry; restricting dairy cows access to outdoor pasture. Look for the organic and Pasture Promise labels to address these issues, or buy direct from a local farm that you know has high welfare standards and sends its cows out to graze.
Is it local? Supermarkets and other large retailers are notorious for treating their farmers poorly by squeezing farm gate milk prices down. Lower prices result in the animals and environment also losing out. Look for a local milk producer where possible, but be sure to ask whether their milk is organic or pasture fed.
What not to buy
What to avoid when buying dairy milk:
Is it factory farmed? Restricted and zero grazing have become common practices within the dairy industry; restricting dairy cows access to outdoor pasture. This has animal welfare and environmental implications. Look for the organic and Pasture Promise labels to address some of these issues, or buy direct from a local farm that you know has high welfare standards and sends cows out to graze.
Does it contain GMOs? Genetically modified seed binds growers to powerful and exploitative multinationals that promote industrial and chemical agriculture. Where cattle are fed animal feed, soya beans are commonly used. As soya is one of the most common GMO crops, seeking organic dairy is the only way to ensure that the supply chain and any animal feed used is free from GMOs.
Do you need dairy milk? Dairy farming has inherent animal rights issues and a larger carbon footprint than plant milk alternatives. Could you cut down your daily milk intake or replace it with one of Ethical Consumer’s recommended plant milks?
Updated live from our research database
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While dairy milk is a staple for many UK households and pasture-fed dairy has shaped many of our rural landscapes, cultures and identities, the romanticised image of cows grazing in lush green fields has become less of a reality.
A 2014 study found that only 31% of dairy farmers in the UK still practised the traditional system of summer grazing and winter housing, with the remaining farmers moving cows indoors for more of the year, and 16% keeping some or all their cows inside for all of the year.
Forward to 2018 and an estimated 23% of farms keep some or all their cows inside for all of the year. This increase in zero-grazing practices sees more cows confined inside large sheds for their dairy-producing life and has been linked to poorer animal health when compared to pasture grazed cows.
The reason behind this shift to more intensive systems comes from market pressures to increase production whilst keeping costs low.
Jyoti Fernandes of the Landworkers’ Alliance summarises the situation well:
“Consumer demand for cheap milk has resulted in a need for economies of scale in the dairy industry that has driven the ethics of dairy production down. The governments' relentless push for the dairy sector to enter the global market propels farmers into competition, with animals reared to lower standards in order to keep prices down.
Cheap prices also mean that farms can't afford to hire more employees to help out, so farmers are tired and stretched in their capacity to look after their animals, which of course, has an effect on animal welfare”.
Not only is this stretched farming system problematic from an animal and farmer welfare point of view, but it can lead to the breakdown of social structures in rural communities. For example, fewer permanent farm labourers and the merging of smaller farms into large-scale operations that sell to large retailers can result in less money filtering down to rural communities and people leaving in search of secure employment.
Promotion of plant-based diets without supporting farmer transitions also risks isolating dairy farmers further.
To address the dairy industry’s systemic issues, reform is desperately needed.
Calling for changes in policy around dairy farming is key to supporting necessary changes and the Brexit process and climate emergency perhaps offers opportunities for this.
Supporting the work of the Landworkers’ Alliance (LWA) is a good starting point for enabling this sort of systemic work. Their current campaigns include lobbying for policies that support food and farming systems compatible with net-zero emissions that will limit warming to 1.5°C.
Dairy in a changing climate
As dairy milk has both a bigger carbon footprint and land use requirement than its plant milk equivalents (see more on the climate impacts of plant and dairy), shifting to plant based milks seems like a good option for reducing our carbon footprints.
This recommendation is supported by the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) recent report which highlighted the need for a major shift in land use if the UK is to become a net-zero carbon economy by 2050 (a far cry away from Extinction Rebellion’s demand of net zero by 2025).
In relation to dairy, the CCC’s recommendations include reducing consumption of ‘carbon-intensive foods’ (including dairy) by at least 20% per person; improving livestock health and slurry acidification and giving more land to tree planting. These recommendations call for less but better dairy, sourced from small biodiverse farms with high welfare standards.
If the CCC’s recommendations were to be pursued, they would also present additional environmental benefits through tackling the pollution from poor slurry management as discussed below.
Research into pollution
As highlighted in our last guide to milk, a report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism claimed that 424 ‘serious pollution incidents’ were recorded from pig, poultry and dairy farms between 2010 and 2016, having a potentially major impact on the environment. The common offender was said to be slurry from dairy farms.
Its ‘Dirty Business: the livestock farms polluting the UK’ report describes some farmers acting as ‘repeat offenders’ and treating the pollution fines they receive as part of routine running costs. Incidents were reported to be commonly caused by the “storage, handling and spreading of waste”, due to “lack of investment in infrastructure” or “inadequate planning and management of these substances”.
Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and The Co-op were supplied by companies operating farms linked to serious incidents and two other incidents were linked to an intensive farm – Pawton Dairy – that supplies Arla Foods. All companies mentioned in the report lose half a mark under Ethical Consumer’s Pollution and Toxics category, as do other companies linked to pollution incidences.
The Bureau has since investigated the need for mandatory monitoring of ammonia pollution from UK dairy farms – a contributor to the UK’s air pollution crisis.
They conducted tests around eight dairies in the UK (including six intensive dairy units that housed more than 700 cows and a conventional farm that allowed grazing). Ammonia hotspots were found at two of the intensive dairies and in specific locations around the outdoor farm.
To address ammonia pollution and to support farmer transitions to more sustainable forms of production, a culture shift is needed. Policy reform (such as that advocated by the LWA) is key to supporting this, in addition to paying farmers more for the milk they produce – in order to have the financial capital to invest in infrastructure, etc.
What is ammonia pollution and what are its impacts?
Ammonia (NH3) gas is the only pollutant on the rise in the UK, and its key source (about 65%) is from livestock farms – particularly from slurry (a mixture of faeces and urine).
NH3 is released when slurry is left uncovered or when it is spread on fields as a fertiliser. Some of the gas ends up as a nitrogen deposit in rural areas, affecting biodiversity. An article by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism references studies across the UK and Europe that highlight how agricultural ammonia is affecting biodiversity: “grasslands are losing species, which can hit pollinating insects, and fungi that help trees and other plants to grow are being killed off”.
NH3 also mixes with industrial and car fumes to create a form of ‘particulate matter’ that has been linked to higher death rates, respiratory problems and cardiovascular diseases. Cutting ammonia emissions is therefore essential if we are to clean up our air and restore rural biodiversity and is a key part of the governments Clean Air Strategy.
For further information see this report on ammonia.
Concern over plastics may be behind the increase in people subscribing to doorstep milk deliveries, with a quarter of people surveyed by Mintel considering this to be the more environmentally friendly way of buying milk. This is a complex issue, with the impacts depending on the return and reuse rate of glass bottles and the transport method used for delivery.
The ‘Dairy Roadmap’, an initiative run by Dairy UK, the NFU (National Farmers Union), and AHDB (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board ), also has more sustainable packaging on its mind. Its 2018 report gave an update on progress against a number of targets: 85% of HDPE milk bottles are currently recycled, more than 95% tertiary packaging is reused or recycled and 80% of paper used in cartons is FSC assured.
See our guide to non dairy and vegan milk for further information about the environmental credentials of other milk packaging options such as tetra packs and plastic bottles.
Dairy farming has inherent animal welfare issues that boil down to this simple fact: if you want a continuous supply of milk, you need to keep female cows (or goats or sheep) in a perpetual cycle of pregnancy and birth to encourage lactation.
It is therefore common practice for female cows to be artificially inseminated two to three months after giving birth; encouraging milk production whilst a calf is growing inside. Newborn calves are then removed from the mother, shortly after birth.
As male calves clearly don’t have a role in producing milk, they are either sent to slaughter for veal, raised for beef, or shot. Female calves are raised for milk production – continuing this degrading dairy cycle.
Dairy cows have also been selectively bred for dairy farming and now produce six to ten times what they naturally would for a calf. This can have health implications depending on how the cows are managed, including difficulties in moving, mastitis (an infection of the udder) and calcium deficiencies.
On top of this, as industrial farming systems continue to focus on increasing milk yields whilst reducing costs of production, intensive livestock practices have become more common in the UK.
This has resulted in average herd sizes increasing and zero or limited grazing practices becoming more common – limiting a cow's access to outdoor pasture. As we mentioned above, an estimated 23% of dairy farms in the UK use zero or severely restricted grazing, whilst others allow the cows to graze only a few months in a year.
This industrial process inevitably takes its toll. Many dairy cows are slaughtered in the UK, physically exhausted, shortly after their fifth birthday compared to the 20 or more years that a natural and healthy cow can live. If a cow produces less milk, becomes infertile or becomes ill or injured they may also be slaughtered for cheap beef.
Because of these inherent issues, all companies offering dairy products are marked down under our Animal Rights category – as highlighted in the score table. Where we differentiate between better animal welfare practice is under the Factory Farming, Product Sustainability, and Company Ethos categories.
If a company sells any uncertified animal products or its animal welfare policy suggests it uses restricted or zero grazing practices, it loses a mark under the Factory Farming category.
The following companies provided no detail regarding a minimum number of days their dairy cows are required to have access to outdoor pasture:
- Müller group
- Dale Farm
- Connect Plus
- Crediton Dairies
- St Helen’s Farm
Vague commitments to pasture feeding (depending on weather, etc) were provided by
Marks and Spencer prohibited zero grazing systems and required a minimum of 100 days grazing for at least four hours per day.
Morrisons required its organic milk cows to spend an average of 200 days per year grazing but provided no information for its non-organic milk.
Waitrose required its dairy cows to graze for at least 120 days per year.
Company groups that offer only organic or free-range milk are not marked down under the Factory Farming category and gain a positive Company Ethos mark. This includes:
All organic products gain a positive Product Sustainability mark.
Business benchmark on farm animal welfare (BBFAW)
The BBFAW annual report assesses company approaches to farm animal welfare and aims to improve corporate reporting, practice and performance on farm animal welfare management.
The 2018 report reviewed 150 companies; ranking them on a scale from Tier 1 (indicating companies that have taken a leadership position), down to Tier 6 (farm animal welfare does not appear to be recognised as a business issue).
All companies rated Tier 3 – Tier 6 lose half a mark under our Animal Rights category.
Milk brands included in the 2018 report were:
- TIER 1 – Waitrose and Marks & Spencer.
- TIER 2 – Morrisons and Sainsbury’s moved up one tier since our last milk guide. Tesco and The Co-op remained at Tier 2.
- TIER 3 – Arla, Aldi and Lidl. Aldi and Lidl showed improvement by moving up one tier since our last milk guide.
- TIER 4 – Walmart dropped a tier since the last milk guide.
- TIER 6 – Müller Group showed no signs of improving and was still ranked Tier 6.
Milk assurance schemes
A number of assurance schemes have emerged over the years to try and address concerns over animal welfare issues. However artificial insemination, early separation of calf from mother and the killing of male calves is allowed under all (it’s just a matter of when, where, by whom and for what).
Find out more about dairy milk assurance schemes and the standards that dairy farms must adhere to in order to use their label.
Doing dairy differently
We spotlight two farms that have a very different approach to dairy farming and animal welfare in our feature, "Doing Dairy Differently".
Full online access to our unique shopping guides, ethical rankings and company profiles. The essential ethical print magazine.
The price of milk
In November 2019, the UK average farm-gate milk price was 29.69p per litre compared to an average of just under 32p per litre for the cost of production – highlighting continuing issues around unfair pricing. In short, retailers continue to squeeze producers.
In response, a number of farmers’ milk ranges have been launched over the years that detail how much pence per litre goes to the farmer.
For example, Arla’s Farmers Milk is said to give “an extra 25p per bottle” back to the farmer, and Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer, Co-op, Waitrose and Tesco use ‘Cost of Production’ in their pricing models to ensure their dedicated suppliers get a fairer price for their milk.
Buying milk directly from a farm, however, is the best way to ensure that the farmer is getting a fair price for their milk, whilst building a relationship that goes beyond the passive consumer-retailer transaction.
OMG: GMO Animal feed
Most companies lose at least half a mark in the Controversial Technologies column in our rating system for the likely use of animal feed containing GM soya. Companies that sell organic animal products only, don't lose a mark as organic certification excludes the use of GMOs.
Arla continues to lose a mark under this category, but it has made some progress, stating:
“All soy fed to cows at Arla farms is either organic, ProTerracertified, RTRS-certified (Round Table Responsible Soy) or covered by RTRS-credits."
Badger cull update
Sadly, the badger cull continues despite widespread opposition from both scientists and the general public to badger culling as a control method for the spread of bovine tuberculosis in cattle.
Eleven more cull zones were approved in 2019 (creating a total of 43) and the death toll was expected to reach 63,000 this past culling season.
Campaign groups have historically called for boycotts of both the milk industry as a whole and of milk brands supplied by farms within the cull zones.
The rationale behind these calls was based on the notion that dairy farmers and the problems they have experienced with bovine TB were the key drivers of the cull. Encouraging consumers and retailers to apply economic pressure on dairy and/or beef farmers was therefore deemed the natural focus for a badger-friendly boycott campaign.
However, it has proven difficult to implement a badger friendly milk boycott due to the complexity of milk supply chains and the rolling out of the cull makes this even more difficult (unless the whole milk industry is boycotted). There is also little differentiation between companies – with many not wanting to put pressure on dairy farmers to either participate or not to participate in the cull.
This common stance is highlighted by Riverford’s response:
“We do not think it fair to pressure or penalise farmers who happen to fall in geographical locations where the cull is implemented, and who are simply trying to do their best for their animals and business within government policy”.
Avoiding milk altogether, or sourcing from regional milk suppliers outside of the cull zones is the only way to guarantee that milk has not been sourced from a farm involved in the badger cull. Of the companies covered in this guide, this includes Acorn Dairy, Daylesford, Bowland and Graham's Dairy.
Putting pressure on our government to consider more holistic approaches to bovine TB management is also key. Badger Action Network has useful resources to support you in doing this.
Company behind the brand
Arla is a global dairy cooperative, owned by more than 11,200 farmers in the UK, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Following the 2018 European heatwave, Arla showed its cooperative colours by paying out its full net profits (around £278 million) to drought-struck farmers who were struggling financially.
The Arla chairmen commented on this decision, stating: “As a farmer-owned dairy company, we care deeply about the livelihood of our farmers and we recognise that this summer’s drought in Europe has been extraordinary”.
In early 2018, Arla got clearance from the Competition and Markets Authority for a partnership with Yeo Valley. Arla Foods can now use the Yeo Valley brand in the UK for milk, butter, spreads, dairy and cheese, resulting in Yeo Valley’s Ethiscore dropping due to Arla’s poorer marks across our categories.
Want to know more?
If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table.
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