Opinion: Dairy industry must fight scaremongering

The dairy sector gets more than its fair share of bad press and this week the rubbish printed by the Daily Mail about milk production just about hit rock bottom.

Dr Sohère Roked sparked outrage among farmers for urging the public to reduce milk consumption, claiming poor production practices led to pus and hormones in the product.

Dr Roked argued that UK cows were injected with hormones to keep them milking all year round. This is a myth that relates to bovine somatotropin, which is used to stimulate higher yields in some countries, but is banned in Europe. She also talked of “pus in milk”, but did not explain that this relates to somatic white cells essential to tackling infection and good health. All this was under the heading “So that’s why you’re dog-tired”.

Well, the dairy industry is dog-tired of the inaccuracies about dairy farming and dairy products being perpetually presented as fact. It is absolutely right that DairyCo should co-ordinate a robust response to such statements, particularly when made by a supposedly informed doctor. It is also heartening to see individual farmers objecting to the piece on Twitter and Facebook.

However, suggestions that libel action should be taken against her are misguided. It is highly unlikely anyone could win the argument that the article seriously harmed reputations, even though it was infuriating for the industry.

The writer’s comments were ill-judged, but farmers would struggle to win a libel case because the views in the eyes of the law were her honest opinion, a fair comment on a subject of public interest.

“Misrepresentation of the facts and ignorance about dairy farming practices may pose a bigger risk to the future than prices, especially if it affects long-term sales and stunts market growth.”
Jane King, Farmers Weekly editor

Dairy continues to be challenged all round – prices remain dangerously low, with too many farmers face being paid less than the cost of production for their milk. The sector has critics in every nook and cranny, from the welfare lobby to those opposed to large-scale dairies and health campaigners. Milk and cheese, for example, may be some of our most nutrient-rich, natural products and yet they are constantly linked to rising obesity.

Misrepresentation of the facts and ignorance about dairy farming practices may pose a bigger risk to the future than prices, especially if it affects long-term sales and stunts market growth.

Whether we like it or not, the industry has to accept responsibility for improving perceptions and changing minds through communication, transparency and education.

Battling individual critics through the courts does not help our case one iota as it’s negative and too defensive. Far better to concentrate on getting our own house in order by consistently doing the right thing on farm and helping everyone understand through positive, honest messaging.

The big economic, environmental and social pressures are hard to address while milk prices remain so depressed. However, it costs nothing for dairy farmers to be proactive in the public debates about dairy. Remind the public and the influential media about the vital job done in providing healthy food, sustaining rural communities and looking after the land. And in doing that, perhaps the consumer will be a little more questioning of the scare stories peddled by our critics.

Jane King 

Editor

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