IP Dairy Farmer - March 2020

Posted on: 02/03/20

If there is one episode in recent years that illustrates the merciless attitude of some retailers towards suppliers it’s the Sainsburys-Tomlinsons disgrace.  So many thanks to the anonymous reader who kindly sent me notes from the December meeting involving Tomlinson’s SDDG suppliers.

At the meeting Melanie Cherchian, Sainsburys’ Head of Dairy, defended the retailer’s decision to move to “second tier processors” in 2016, on the grounds that “competition would give us leverage, which would be good for everybody”. Well Sainsbury’s leverage efforts certainly wasn’t good for the suppliers - Medina, Tomlinson’s, Muller or Arla - and was an unmitigated disaster for Tomlinson’s farmers were all contented Muller suppliers before this move. The notes from the meeting state “Tomlinson’s Dairy had a good record. They’d been processing for Asda, Costa and Morrisons, amongst others”. Then followed her admission that Tomlinson’s original tender quote was cheaper than its competitors. It reads as if Sainsburys can see that all was good until it got involved, and then the mighty sword of Sainsburys came down and caused havoc.

Barney Kay, the retailer’s Head of Agriculture, confirmed what the Tomlinson’s SDDG farmers already knew: “There is not going to be any money from Sainsburys”, he said, and just in case the position was unclear he then dealt the killer but predictable blow and confirmed that “anyone taking legal action (against it) will have their SDDG membership terminated”.

Even before the demise of Tomlinson’s Sainsburys was a mile away from being the UK’s most trusted retailer. It’s even further away now, and the point made by one farmer at the meeting sums up why. The farmers have had 12 months of cost to produce the milk, but only received 10.5 months of income. As one farmer asked: why did M&S pay its farmers in full, but Sainsbury’s can’t? There echoes the voices of many, but alas, they are going unheard where it matters.

Last month’s article highlighted the US Farm Program including the “See it? Stop it!” strap line, which prompted a number of responses - one of which grabbed my attention.

In the article I explained the Program “investigates credible evidence to determine if any mistreatment of animals has occurred”. If suspended, then in order to be reinstated a farm must implement a comprehensive list of actions, following clear and helpful guidance.

Now compare this remedy to recent action allegedly taken by Red Tractor in response to illegally obtained video footage inside a poultry unit taken by the vegan charity VIVA. The footage is unlikely to have been admissible evidence in a court of law, yet Red Tractor acted on the footage with the poultry farmer having lost his assurance, and thus automatically lost his processor contract. He is now out of business. Cue, no doubt, fanfares of trumpets from VIVA that another meat producing farmer is out of business.

Now on the information I have I cannot condone the video footage, but without going into detail I understand why, as a one man band, he momentarily ended up the wrong side of the standards. Note this farmer didn’t argue, and immediately held his hands up when questioned.

What rattles me is that VIVA broke into his farm, installed secret cameras and, having scrutinised Red Tractor standards, persuaded it to withdraw his farm assurance and effectively shut him down. Compare this to the US where they comprehensively investigate such reports with the target to give guidance and training. As the reader commented to me “There was definitely a more intelligent way for Red Tractor to deal with this - for example special temporary measures, training etc, rather than to drop the farmer”. For want of an analogy maybe it should have given the farm a yellow card, as opposed to a straight red.

Let’s face it, if a school, care home or hospital fails on inspection, they don’t send all the pupils and/or patients home and shut it down. Neither do the authorities place undercover camera’s in care homes or in our homes to record evidence of the treatment of humans and/or pets. Red Tractor is our main industry defense, and I fully subscribe to the need to protect the industry’s image and brands. However, given this example I have investigated perhaps it points to it needing to be better prepared in how to respond.

All farmers should aim to be complaint 365 days a year, but I accept 100% compliance is a big ask. Farmers have a duty of care to all animals and whilst some cases will inevitably warrant an instant suspension from the scheme the organization has a duty of care to farmers, and not necessarily to undercover animal activists who, based on this example, will undoubtably have an insatiable appetite to cultivate more surveillance.

Sadly, for most dairy processors and co-ops Red Tractor is still left wanting and gradually all are implementing their own brand protection standards. Another large GB processor is rumoured to be in the final stages of introducing its own standards within the month, for example.

There are common denominators among these additional standards, but it boils down to ensuring supplying farmers support and promote dairy farming, and reduce routine antibiotic use (a subject I will return to at a later date). They must also eliminate practices which are extremely difficult to defend - for example the euthanasia of perfectly healthy calves. On that latter point several readers have asked how long it will be before Red Tractor joins several milk processors in making it a standard that to sell assured milk the farm must value every animal and not dispatch of any healthy animals? One for it to answer.

Today’s consumers are very interested in animal welfare, environmental issues, their personal health and diet, sustainability of livestock production and whether the planet can sustain it all. Plus, of course, climate change, food packaging and waste. We all reluctantly have to accept meat and milk production are front of mind for our customers/consumers, and if we ignore their concerns the industry will permanently decline.

Arla’s Graham Wilkinson recently called for all farmers to look at their own dairy farm through the eyes of a consumer because every farm and every farmer needs to be at its very best, everyday. It’s one of the simplest and best calls to arms I have heard. Please positively promote the daily care and concern you have for your animals, and be united in being proud of the industry.