For years, milk producers thought their product so essential that it didn't need marketing - you don't promote water or air, after all. But when sales declined because of anxieties about cholesterol, the rise of eating out and competition from soft drinks and bottled water, they realised it was time for a makeover. Out went the goody-two-shoes image, and in its place came the birth of cool. Milk was repositioned by major ad campaigns. The first was the "Got Milk?" campaign, launched in California in 1993, in which celebrities and high-profile sports figures were adorned with a white milk moustache: Naomi Campbell, Serena Williams, Melanie Griffiths, the cast of Friends - all were featured with one. The idea has now travelled to Britain, where milk's unhip image is challenged by the National Dairy Council's The White Stuff campaign, launched in 2000 (and co-funded by Defra). It plays the macho card (white stuff/right stuff), suggesting that milk drinkers are as tough as aviation heroes, reinforced by a punchline demanding, "Are you made of it?" (calcium and strong bones, that is). Recruiting homegrown celebrities such as George Best and Chris Eubank, it increased UK sales.
The Americans also tried to staunch the flow away from milk by introducing flavoured milks. Forget chocolate, strawberry or banana; today, you can choose between "Orange Scream: a whole new concept in milk" (contents: cellulose gum, pectin, soy protein, high fructose corn sugar, sugar and annatto colour), cappuccino-flavoured milk, caffeine milk, even root beer milk. And anyone for carbonated milk, with carbon dioxide for added fizz? In Britain, the industry is promoting the provision of milk in primary schools, and installing milk bars in secondary schools. On average, each bar shifts 10,000 litres a year.
The final, and perhaps most insidious, dimension of the dairy fightback is funding research. Michael Zemel is director of the Nutrition Institute at the University of Tennessee; his study demonstrating that the consumption of skimmed milk, yogurt and cheese can lessen the risk of obesity attracted international publicity, as well as an enthusiastic press release from the National Dairy Council, which omits to reveal that it funds him. A recent Zemel study shows that people who included three servings of Yoplait Light yogurt in their diet lost significantly more weight than those in the control group (another of his funders is General Mills, makers of Yoplait Light). The British Nutrition Foundation, however, cites the yogurt study as if it were independent research.
How come it's taken so long to learn about milk's less health-giving properties? Partly it's to do with how research is conducted. Until recently, no one had done the science - the epidemiological and population studies. What's more, though the milk advocates maintain that humans have kept animals for milk products for thousands of years, milk-drinking on the scale we have it now is relatively new. Fresh, raw milk was rarely consumed after childhood until the late 19th century, except in nomadic countries. Milk is essentially a modern, industrial phenomenon - its consumption only really took off after the discovery of pasteurisation in 1864.
In the west, we've moved very fast (in historical terms) from undernutrition to overnutrition, from insufficiency to excess. While milk had a major role to play early in the last century, today's nutritional needs are different. Says Lang, "I'm not saying that milk is lousy. It does have lots of nutrients and is a rich source of energy, quickly taken up in an easily digestible form - good when children were short and you needed growth. But should we be basing our diets on it today, as though without dairy we couldn't survive? I'd say no."
Alongside the researchers raising questions about milk sits the more inflammatory animal rights movement, which has recently focused its attention on dairy farming and what it argues is its intrinsic cruelty. For a long time, those concerned about animal welfare seemed magically to exempt milk from their preoccupations. They suffered from what Richard Young of the Soil Association calls "the vegetarian fallacy": non-meat-eaters who still drink milk and so perpetuate the cycle that ends in crated veal calves destined for European dinner tables. Now many of them have begun to contend that, organic or not, there's no such thing as humane milk. For in order to lactate, cows - like humans - first have to get pregnant. Calves are essentially the waste by-product of the industry. What happens to them once they've done what they were created to do - stimulate a cow's milk production by the very fact of their being conceived?
Male udderless cows are of no value to the dairy industry, so if prices for male calves are low and the veal route unprofitable, most are killed within a couple of weeks for baby food or pies, to make rennet, or sent to rendering plants to be turned into tallow or grease or, in other countries, animal feed. Female calves, on the other hand, are bred as replacement stock for their mothers. The provision of beef essentially originates in the dairy industry: if we didn't drink milk, we wouldn't have all that extra meat to get rid of.
Though a male calf's life is unenviable, its mother's is no better. To ensure almost continuous lactation, she endures annual pregnancies. Her calf is removed from her within 24 hours of its birth. Calves hardly ever drink their mother's milk.
Like agribusinesses everywhere, milk producers have tried to increase output while cutting costs. The victims are the cows. Today, from the age of two, they're expected to produce up to 10,000 litres of milk during their 10-month lactation stint (before they dry off, are re-inseminated and the whole process starts up again). Milked once or twice (or even three times) daily while pregnant, they produce around 20 litres a day, 10 times as much as they'd need to feed a calf. The amount of milk cows are required to make each day has almost doubled in the past 30 years, because having a smaller number of high-yielding cows reduces a farmer's feed, fertiliser, equipment, labour and capital costs. That's why the variety of cattle breeds in Europe has declined so much - everyone wants the high-yielding black-and-white Holstein-Friesens.
You don't need to be sentimental about animals to pity the poor bloated creatures, dragging around their vast, abnormally heavy udders. Many each year go lame, and they rarely live longer than four or five years, compared with a natural lifespan of around 25 years. Then they are slaughtered.
The official view is that not only do dairy farmers care about their cows, but that it's in their interests to keep them healthy. The reality is that overmilking, problems with cleanliness and the choice of high-yielding breeds together cause more than 30 incidents of mastitis per 100 British cows each year. Mastitis is a painful infection of the udder. Cows' mastitis has implications for human health, too, because to control infection farmers use more antibiotics. Although milk from cows being treated with antibiotics must be discarded and can't be sold, there are far more antibiotics in commercial use than are tested for.
The industry's most indefatigable foe, Robert Cohen, a former scientific researcher and author of Milk: The Deadly Poison, has declared, "We are at war... Monsanto is the enemy." The object of Cohen's wrath is Posilac, Monsanto's trade name for rBST, recombinant bovine somatotropin, which is injected into cows to get them to produce more milk. This synthetic growth hormone, approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1993, boosts a cow's milk output up to 15%. According to the FDA, hormone-treated milk is "not significantly different" from untreated milk. Cohen, along with other critics, disagrees. He went on a 206-day hunger strike to pressurise (unsuccessfully) the FDA into banning Posilac.
Cohen et al maintain that greater levels of IGF-1 (Insulin-like Growth Factor-1) in rBST milk are linked to breast and colon cancer, hypertension and diabetes. On the other hand, respected health bodies, such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, World Health Organisation, American Council on Science and Health, and American Medical Association, have all confirmed the safety of milk supplemented with rBST.
Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the rBST milk saga has been the introduction since 1993, in 13 US states, of Food Disparagement Acts. Hitherto only a living person or company could be libelled, but under this legislation you can now libel fruits, vegetables, cattle, even fish, and be sued for large sums. Opponents claim that the acts are just another weapon designed to intimidate critics and curtail evolving nutritional knowledge. It was under this act that Oprah Winfrey was sued when, in the wake of the UK's mad cow disease outbreak, a guest on her show disparaged beef.
In one sense, this needn't bother us, since the EU, along with Canada, Japan and 100 other countries, has banned rBST milk because of its effects on animal (rather than human) health and welfare. On the other hand, there are no restrictions on the import of rBST dairy products, or a requirement to label them. And even if we scrupulously try to avoid GM products ourselves, we're drinking milk from cows unable to do the same, since 6% of animal feed in Britain is made up of GM products (maize, soya and corn).
If you're struck by the absurdities in the milk story so far, this last part will have you thinking you've woken up in the middle of a Dalí painting. It concerns the common agricultural policy (CAP), a system so opaque and complex that it seems expressly designed to elude (or should that be evade?) public scrutiny. In her recent briefing on the dairy industry, Land Of Milk And Money?, for Sustain, an alliance of more than 100 national public interest and farming organisations, Vicki Hird unearthed its follies. Here are some gems:
In 2001, CAP provided €16bn of direct and indirect support to dairy production, and yet, over the past 10 years, average farm income has all but collapsed. Most British dairy farmers sell milk at less than it costs to produce - they get around 18p for a litre that sells for 43p in the supermarket. CAP subsidies to traders allow dairy products to be dumped (exported below cost) on to the international market, destroying the livelihoods of thousands of small-scale farms in countries such as Jamaica and Kenya. Equally bizarrely, the EU imports Brazilian soya beans to feed to its cows, then sells some of the resultant surplus milk powder back to Brazil.
The WHO recommends that we consume not more than 10% of our total calories from saturated fat, but CAP encourages milk fat production and subsidises schools to buy full-fat (but not fat-free) milk and food manufacturers to buy surplus butter. And just when nutritionists have vaunted the healthiness of the fruit- and vegetable-dominated Mediterranean diet, those Mediterranean countries joining the EU, and therefore CAP, have increased milk production and consumption, and decreased fruit and veg production. This trend, known as "nutrition transition", is not, Hird argues, inevitable but shaped by food policy and pricing.
It gets worse: milk quotas are set by CAP at a level that guarantees a surplus, allowing cheap export, yet in the UK the current milk quota is not enough to meet domestic need. Milk quota (effectively the right to produce milk) can be traded as if it were milk. Until the end of 2003, even non-producers were allowed to rent and lease it - so, for instance, Manchester United has traded in milk quota.
And the final insult: a large proportion of subsidised skimmed milk powder surplus to European requirements is sold cheaply to veal producers, who then feed it to calves. In other words (and with only a dash of poetic licence), after the calves have been forcibly removed from their mothers, the milk they would have been drinking is turned into powder and fed back to them. At taxpayers' expense.
So what's the alternative? Compulsory veganism and the banning of milk? The dairy industry is the single largest agricultural sector in Britain, which is the third largest milk producer in the EU. It generates £6bn in retail sales, and can't just be wished away. Nor do most of us respond well to attempts to police our eating habits. Yet what we eat and drink isn't just the result of individual choice and cultural tradition: the contents of our shopping trolleys are at least equally shaped by government policy and official decisions.
Dr Tim Lobstein, co-director of the Food Commission, an independent watchdog on food issues, is scathing about dairy overproduction. He advocates the removal of all EU subsidies from dairy production, with the money going to support sustainable forms of food production, including some organic dairy farming. What would he say to struggling dairy farmers?
"I can't help to stay in business the producers of commodities that aren't helping human health - they'll have to find alternative employment. The EU should help farmers transfer to products more helpful to human health, such as horticulture."
Why, Lobstein asks, do we need to import onions from Tasmania or beans from Kenya? Perhaps the ultimate folly is the import of New Zealand apples into a country in which so much of that fruit is grown already. Hird's report recommends more radical CAP reform, the removal of free school milk, the adoption by the WTO of anti-dumping measures, as well as other structural changes that would produce "less, better milk from happier cows".
Of course, changing food policy and individual eating habits is hard and slow. The first major step is a national debate about milk production and consumption - a real one, not the kind the government has conducted on GM foods. Part of this debate will have to be a frank appraisal of whether milk can jeopardise human health. Finding a way of discussing milk that neither evangelises nor demonises will be tough. So, too, is distinguishing the dogma from the science, especially since the research is so often conflicting. Yet it seems increasingly clear that dairy prodicts alone probably don't protect bone health in the way we've long thought, and that calcium intake on its own has only a small effect on bone density.
At the same time (and Atkinds notwithstanding), while some fats are essential, the human body does not thrive on excessive amounts of milk fat. Yet milk's connotations are so primordial, its associations so pastoral and the interests that promote it so enormous, that changing the way we think about it, and drink it, will be a process every bit as challenging and root-and-branch as the loss of unquestioning religious faith.
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