Why its so important to choose your milk carefully – August newsletter

Welcome to my August Newsletter

When I was young we bought milk from the milkman and it was, like most households in the 1970’s, delivered on the doorstep in a red, blue or gold top. At school I drank warm creamy milk delivered in little glass bottles with a straw that had been standing in the sun all morning. Those were the days of me threatening to be sick all over the games mistress after lunch when the lactose had not particularly settled well in my lactase free digestive system! I digress. Buying milk used to be simple but not any more – cows milk, goats milk, and milk imitations all jostle for position on supermarket shelves. Whatever you do decide to buy it’s most important to choose your milk carefully, not only for your health but for how you see the future of dairy farming. The variety of products are excellent if you are vegan, lactose intolerant, have a food ‘allergy’ or believe that milk makes you ‘phlegmy’. The dairy business is a mix of industrial farming, agricultural policy and medical health interests but there is no denying that the recent growth of small scale dairy farming has led to the production of high quality milk and milk based foods. However as you know, British dairy farmers have been under intolerable financial strain for too long. With the threat of mega diaries still coming to Britain the whole future of milk production may change forever.

Bovine somatotropin (also known as bST , BST and BGH), is a peptide hormone produced by the cows pituitary gland. Like other hormones, it is produced in small quantities and is used in regulating metabolic processes. Since 1994 it has been possible to synthesize the hormone using recombinant DNA technology to create recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), or artificial growth hormone. Monsanto (yes that company again!) developed rBST and sold the business to Eli Lilly for $300 million. Bovine growth hormone is given to cows to make them mature faster and produce more milk. An extra amino acid is attached before it’s injected into dairy cows. So consider a certified organic label on a milk carton or bottle. Also, look for a brand that isn’t homogenized and comes from a small dairy in your region. This needs to be minimum requirement. After this you can choose what milk suits you best bearing in mind your individual requirements.

Goats milk
Goats milk is more robust in flavour and more expensive than cows milk. Its biggest selling point in the UK is that the milk protein (casein) is a little differen. So depending on a persons dairy ‘allergy’ or degree of lactose intolerance he or she may find it easier to digest than cows milk. Goats are not given growth hormones and their milk is naturally homogenized. Because the fat globules are smaller than the ones present in cows milk the fat doesn’t separate out.

Plant based non dairy milks
The plant based non dairy milks are now very popular. However not all plant based milks are fortified with vitamins, particularly Vitamin B12. This is especially important for vegans and vegetarians. You can make your own soy and almond milk but don’t forget that the end results won’t have the calcium and vitamins contained in an enriched commercial product. Soy foods, a cornerstone of traditional Asian diets and soy milk are almost as rich in protein as cows milk, with less fat and zero cholesterol. However there is come controversy as to how much soy you can eat without it effecting your thyroid gland or causing other digestive problems. If you are using soy milk in tea and on cereal that’s fine however I wouldn’t suggest drinking litres of the stuff! Rice milk is low in fat and fortified with vitamins and calcium and is easy to digest. Coconut milk is thinner in consistency, fortified and lower in calories. One of the biggest revivals of the way we drink milk, is raw milk. Raw milk is still quite controversial and I will outline some of the issues raised. However as always it is up to you as an individual to choose what suits you and your family best.

Whats the difference between raw milk and processed milk?
Before pasteurisation all milk was essentially ‘raw’ milk. Although there are well documented health benefits associated with drinking raw milk, there were also health risks.These included tuberculosis, brucellosis and bad bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli and Campylobacter. When pasteurisation was introduced, it sterilised the milk of these harmful elements. It is for this reason the Food Standards Agency Health Warning “This milk has not been heat treated and may therefore contain organisms harmful to health” must be put on bottles of raw milk.

How safe is raw milk?
Before pasteurisation, raw milk had associated health risks. Tuberculosis and Brucellosis were found in many herds at the time, and these diseases could be passed on through the milk. The milking process was basic allowing contaminants into the milk that contained bad bacteria.However things have changed. In the UK, Tuberculosis and Brucellosis are virtually eliminated from all herds following an eradication programme over the last few decades. Todays herds are milked in an hygienic environment, using advanced milking equipment that is kept sterile. The milk is regularly analysed and milking plants regularly inspected to ensure that the cleanest milk is produced. In this way all the benefits of the good bacteria in the milk are kept, without having any of the problems associated with bad!

The Benefits of Raw Milk
Raw milk contains multiple, redundant systems of bioactive components that can reduce or eliminate populations of pathogenic bacteria.
Raw milk consists of important enzymes that aid in assimilating the nutrients present in milk.
Raw milk serves as one of the best sources for calcium consumption.
One of the major raw milk drinking advantages is that it contains the beneficial bacteria, which otherwise get destroyed, when the milk undergoes pasteurisation process.
The British journal The Lancet reported that resistance to tuberculosis increased in children fed raw milk instead of pasteurised.
Drinking raw milk could reduce children’s risk of suffering allergy-related conditions such as eczema and hay fever.
As an organic product raw milk often has a higher level of Omega 3.

What’s happening in Dairy farming?

You’ve probably read a bit about the problems dairy farmers are having but things got even more serious recently with the threat of factory farming. The future of British dairy farming may be about to change and not only will farmers suffer but cows will pay the price with their welfare if it does. Industrial-scale farms will feature huge numbers of animals, with little or no access to open fields, round-the-clock milking and a high risk of poorer levels of welfare.

The World Society for the Protection of Animals research shows that cows kept in factory farms are likely to suffer lameness, mastitis and an increase in diseases. Lameness is extremely painful and already the single biggest welfare problem for dairy cows affecting an average of 17 % of cows at any one time. Lameness is worse amongst cows kept indoors and in Holstein cows, the high yield breed of choice for factory farms. Mastitis, a painful infection of the udder, has also been shown to be more common in cows farmed in intensive systems. Both illnesses are contributing factors for premature culling. There is a high risk of quick spreading disease such as TB or foot and mouth and the impact is greatly enhanced.

Don’t cows belong in fields?
Industrialising British dairys will take cows out of fields and into factory farms. Not only does keeping them indoors in ‘battery style’ housing inhibit their natural behaviour, but many dairy farmers report how their cows – young and old – bound across the fields on the first day of spring when their winter sheds open and they are released into the green fields for the warmer months. Cows are sociable creatures and prosper when living in small, stable groups. Vast factory farms would force cows to live in groups of up to 500, with herds often changing for the factory’s convenience. Overcrowding and constant regrouping can be a major cause of stress, bullying and aggression, with young cows often coming off worse.

There is no suggestion that factory milk will be cheaper, fresher or taste better. In fact research shows that factory milk may contain fewer vitamins and antioxidants. If we want the milk we have come to expect, as rich as possible in vital nutrients, we must keep Britain’s cows grazing outdoors for significant periods of the year, and not drive milk quality down by chasing ever higher yields. If we open the factory gates to farming on this scale, the gulf between the new reality and people’s perception of how their milk is produced will be ever wider. There is growing consumer conscientiousness about where food comes from, how it is produced and quality of life and welfare of the animals that produce it. We have recently seen the rejection of battery eggs, better pig welfare championed by celebrities like Hugh Fernley Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver

So whats the latest with the mega dairies?
Plans for the UK’s first mega dairy were withdrawn in February 2011. However the story does not end there. There are and will be renewed plans very soon to try to reintroduce these. They go back and tweak a few of the issues and make a repropsal and so it goes until they are accepted. If a proposal such as Nocton Dairies was ever built it could change the face of our farming and our countryside forever.

To give you an idea of the size of this proposed ‘factory farm’ here are some stats:
Proposed 22 acres of sheds stretching the length of seven football pitches.
The sheds house 8,100 cows.
40 trucks containing 420,000 pints of milk rolling up and down B roads every day.
Enough manure annually to fill Wembley Stadium – this manure spread on surrounding fields would risk contaminating rivers and streams.
This is what the 650 inhabitants of the sleepy village of Nocton, which currently boasts a post office, a primary school and a village hall, would experience if a mega-dairy was built in their village. Is it ok to build one of these mega dairies but only if it’s not on our doorstep?

So what do Nocton say?

Well its hardly a shock to learn that this was a leading quote in one article about Nocton: “Cows do not belong in fields,” say the Nocton Dairies developers. Nocton Dairies claimed that on-hand vets and trained staff would be able to respond to any of the health issues that were likely to be exacerbated in an intensive indoor system. But with 600 cows per worker, their care would inevitably have been more function-based or “robotic” than based on traditional stockmanship principles where each individual cow is known to the stockman.

In the past 40 years, global livestock farming has changed beyond all recognition. The consequences for animal welfare and have been disastrous and it has also contributed to extremely serious environmental, human health and food security problems. Developers looking to exploit what they see as being economies of scale have looked at the vast, industrial “cow factories” of the USA, and liked what they saw. But in the USA, there is now a growing backlash against this type of farming. There is increasing evidence that in America’s industrial CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feed Operations), the cows, the milk, the farmers, the public and the environment have all suffered immense long-term consequences. The CAFOs were brilliantly highlighted in the film Food Inc, which some of you may be familiar.

Low milk prices have long been driving British dairy farmers out of business. Although intensification is being hailed as a beacon economically, factory farming is far from being the only solution. Britain needs to place less focus on short-term gain and milk quantity, and more on longer-term gains and healthier cows. In 1985 there were 28,00 dairy farmers now there are 11,800. One dairy farmer a week commits suicide – these are the stark facts. The chief villain are the supermakets which by driving down milk prices are forcing farmers to intensify production or go out of business and leave the way for foreign imports One litre of milk costs 75p, the farmer gets 26p which is exactly the price it costs to make it.

To be honest a lot of consumers just don’t care, and I’ve got into heated debates about this subject over many a dinner table! My argument against factory farming or the CFO’s is once they are let in, there is no stopping their spread and control, so they must be stopped first. Fundamentally its up to you, if you are happy with factory farming then by all means make your own choices, but if you are in any doubt as to the benefits then please do pause for thought. So while you are walking round the supermarket really look carefully at the milk you buy, not only for your health, but also where it was produced. Buying imported milk is insane. If you can support your local dairy farms in your area, then please do. If you’d like more information on this subject Not In My cuppa or The Soil Association are great places to start.

previous post: Post Olympic thoughts….

next post: Fabulous France