Meat of the Matter: Milking a Story

Mainstream media and activist websites alike love to play up the drama with any allegation of animal abuse, but to be honest, this story didn't require stretching the truth much at all.

As The Guardian newspaper reported, photographs of what were called "industrial rows of cramped pens, each imprisoning a solitary calf, will shock those who still believe in the fairytale of the pastoral dairy farm, where blushing maidens milk smiling cows."

Over the top? Sure, but in this case, a picture does tell a sobering, if not shocking, story.

In Great Britain, according to the story, animal welfare regulations allow calves to be housed in pens until eight weeks of age, but the advocacy group Animal Equality claimed that the calves that were photographed at Grange Dairy in Dorset, a county in southwest part of the country along the English Channel were as old as six months old.

The photographs are inconclusive as to the animals' age, but the configuration on the farm — row upon row of hutches packed together like a refugee camp— is a visual offense to most people's sensitivities, no matter how many weeks or months old the calves might be.

The Picture Tells the Story

The Guardian reported that British food standards officials determined that there was no evidence of animal welfare violations. Marks & Spencer, the upscale retailer that sells milk from the farm, issued a statement acknowledging that the company was "disappointed" to see the report, but will not cease purchasing milk from the supplier.

All sectors of animal agriculture are prime targets for anti-industry activists, of course, but these kinds of production systems don't do anyone in the business any favors.

The organizations that make a living provoking the public on the "horrors" of raising livestock don't need any additional ammunition with which to persuade consumers that the entire business of producing meat, poultry and dairy is cruel, abusive and unnecessary.

The fact that "welfare regulations" permit the set-up used on the Grange Dairy is no excuse. How many times do producer groups have to endure some bad actor playing the "no laws were broken" card when caught in an egregious affront to public sensibilities? It never works.

When people watch videos online, or open the newspaper and see photos of calves crammed into row after row of cages, no amount of spin or PR-ese is going to mitigate the damage to industry's image.

Fact is, calves, or any other animals, don't need to be packed into confined housing. Livestock need not spend their entire lives under a roof (especially cattle). Genetics and breeding need not be focused solely on efficiency, without regard to maternal health, morbidity or — let's not mince words — public perceptions of how a farm animal should be raised.

But look what happens when production systems are engineered for efficiency, as opposed to sensibility.

"In reality, the daily practices of most dairy farms are more distressing than those of meat production," The Guardian story stated. "When [a cow] gives birth, her calf will typically be removed within 36 hours, so the farmers can steal and sell you the milk that is meant for her baby."

How do you think that sits with consumers who've never been on a farm and know nothing about dairy production?

But wait — there's more.

"Following that callous separation, the mother will bellow and scream for days, wondering where her baby is. The answer depends on the gender of the calf. If male, [the calf] will probably either be shot and tossed into a bin, or sold to be raised for veal, which delays his death by just a matter of months."

Please tell me: What's the public relations response to that accusation?

Worst of all, the emergence of various plant-based milk alternatives gives activists the perfect excuse to turn the public off to cow's milk. It's one thing to urge people to chuck that steak and dig into a soyburger. That's a tough sell.

But if you've been inside a grocery store in the last couple years, you've no doubt noticed that the dairy aisle now devotes a significant percentage of space to almond, cashew, coconut and soymilk blends. Those products were initially launched to appeal to lactose-intolerant consumers, but their growing popularity is an opportunistic opening for anti-dairy activists to wean people off the real thing.

Here's the litmus test: When you look at the photos that ran in The Guardian, and are splashed all over dozens of websites, what do you see?

If the answer is, "What? I don't see a problem," you need to check yourself.

The point isn't whether some study demonstrated acceptable rates of morbidity among bovine populations in confined housing.

It's being able to put yourself in the shoes of a shopper staring at the dairy case, thinking, maybe I'll just buy this other milk, because I'm not too happy about what they do on those farms.

Editor's Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.