One of the topics I want to be sure to cover in this supermarket-free blogging series is milk – a foodstuff that has recently found itself in the media spotlight…
A few years ago I didn’t think about milk at all really. I bought semi-skimmed, usually from the supermarket – and that was about as far as my thinking on the matter went. I’m not even sure I knew what price I paid for it.
Then I had kids and suddenly the world was obsessed with milk. Do you breastfeed or use formula? Is your baby drinking milk and putting on enough weight? When do they move on to cow’s milk? Can your child tolerate it? When do you switch from full fat to semi? Are you giving them organic?
So now I think about milk. We have a fridge full of it – green and blue tops, and if I don’t use organic I feel as if I’m poisoning them. Not really. Sometimes though, I still over-think milk – it must be a hangover from the baby years…
At the moment though, the nation is thinking about milk too, as a result of Tesco dropping the price of 4 pints of milk to £1. £1!
As I mentioned in this post, I didn’t have my own reaction to this news because, by the time Tesco announced it to me (via email – they don’t seem to have got the message we’re not speaking!), my mind – and indeed my ability to make up my own mind – had been hijacked by my Twitter feed which thought it was a bad thing.
Is cheap milk a bad thing though?
Firstly, let’s look at the facts. It’s not just Tesco which is charging £1 for 4 pints. Asda, Aldi and Lidl have apparently been selling it at this price for some time, and Waitrose and Sainsbury’s very quickly followed Tesco’s lead. From what I can tell, the Co-op and Morrison’s, although not adopting the 4 pints for £1 formula (if you’ll pardon the pun), have also dropped the price on their milk.
Obviously the supermarkets involved are in favour of the new price, plus I’ll bet there are a lot of happy customers out there who appreciate paying less for milk. Or, to look at it differently, getting more milk for their money.
There have to be potential disadvantages (don’t there?) to milk being sold at such a low cost. The biggest one that jumped out at me while I was reading around this topic was the financial hit that farmers may take as a result. This is where I will hold my hands up and say that I don’t have the knowledge I would like on this subject, but it seems really obvious to me that if you, as a farmer, have a product that doesn’t sell for very much money, you aren’t going to earn a lot from it.
According to this article in the Guardian on 7 March 2014, Tesco, Co-op, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons say that dropping the price of milk won’t affect the level of farmers’ pay. It will be interesting to know though, in the long term, how supermarkets are going to protect the amount they pay farmers when milk is sold so cheaply.
It is also worth reading this post on the Big Barn website that claims that the move by Tesco to charge £1 for 4 pints will result in mega-dairies being set up, as small dairy farmers will go out of business. Gulp. I’d not heard of mega-dairies but Big Barn provides a link here if you want to read more about them. Big Barn is campaigning for it to become legal to sell raw milk more widely. They claim, it’s better for us and will keep thousands of dairy farmers in business. That also got me thinking of what is actually done to milk to allow it to be transported around the country and then stay fresh in my home for several days. I’m not sure I’m emotionally prepared to do the reading around those processes yet…!
Another disadvantage, as raised by this article in The Grocer on 5 March 2014, is the issue of food waste. Just because supermarket shoppers are able to buy more milk for their £1 coin than before, there’s nothing to say that they are now able to consume this greater volume. For a customer who cares only about value for money, and not about food waste, what is there to stop him or her buying 4 pints, using whatever suits their needs and throwing what might be seen as the extra ‘free milk’ away?
I did a small price comparison to find out what it might be reasonable to pay for (non-organic) milk. Firstly, I found out the price that Tesco was previously selling 4 pints, which was £1.39. Next, I looked up the price that the farm that provides my veg box sells milk for (it is not produced on the farm) and discovered that it’s £1.25 for 2 pints of full fat or semi-skimmed, with no mention of organic. Finally, I looked back at the price list that the dairy which delivers my milk gave me and found that the prices for non-organic milk were as follows:
1 pint: 82p
1 litre: £1.50
2 litres: £1.79
3 litres: £2.67
Both, therefore sell milk for significantly more than £1 for 4 pints. Whether or not this is a ‘fair’ price, I do not know. What I am learning though, is that when price-comparing on any item, I probably shouldn’t be using the supermarket as a marker of what is reasonable because supermarkets are likely to have a lot of power with suppliers that I am not fully aware of.
As I’m at pains to point out, my knowledge on milk and dairy farming is limited and I daren’t extend the scope of this blog post as a result! If, however, you want to find out more about how dairy farmers operate and what they have to contend with then I recommend Chapter 3 of Eat Your Heart Out by Felicity Lawrence, Penguin 2008.
It has information about the reduction in the number of dairy farmers, the pressure they are under to increase milk yields, mass milking, animal welfare and ‘middle men’ such as milk processors, who are involved in getting milk from the farm to the supermarket shelf.
It is fair to say that my fantasy of milk coming from cows who roam around outside, quietly enjoying their grass on the pasture until their farmer comes to milk them, is gone forever. Is it simply a matter of time until I no longer believe in the milkman?