Working on the supply chain gang

In our attempts to win badly needed recognition and value for traditional, family dairy farms, it often feels like we are bound in chains. Changing attitudes to milk is not easy, in a modern day dairy supply chain comprised of so many links, each trying to extract profit along the route from farm to fridge. As local dairies have been swallowed up by big players, the supply chain grows longer twisting and turning this way and that to feed more chains – supermarket chains, hotel chains and restaurant chains.

In a recent article for BBC Good Food, investigative journalist Joanna Blythman wrote about the rise of restaurant chains, whose formula is either a “cut-and-paste fusion of other dated chain concepts – burgers, pan Asian, Tex-Mex, steaks – or they’re a national ‘roll out’ based on one original, authentic restaurant”. She goes on to explain how rapidly expanding chains are driving independent restaurants from the high street and overlooking local food suppliers, in favour of sourcing from big companies that can deliver to cloned outlets all over the country. Procuring supplies in bulk, from one supplier cuts costs and simplifies the ordering system for these dining ‘multiples’ and they have the power to drive a hard bargain. But, in an attempt to deliver a consistent and standardised experience across so many outlets, taste and provenance are sacrificed. Of course, such practices are not proudly highlighted on the menu, with restaurants instead using attractive décor and clever presentation to create the “halo of quality” described by Blythman.

In the dairy industry, restaurant chains and other catering and hospitality customers are known as the ‘Middle Ground’. The term represents a large sector of the milk market that includes almost everyone, except large retailers and doorstep delivery. It is a notoriously tough place for milk, devoid of loyalty from buyers working on very tight margins, with scant regard for provenance or quality. Many hotel and restaurant chains now engage grocery procurement consultants, who examine every corner of clients’ fridges and cupboards and use computer software to trawl the markets for the cheapest meat, fruit, vegetables and dairy available. In other instances, milk is virtually given away by fruit and vegetable wholesalers simply seeking to get more fruit and veg through the door. All of this means milk suppliers are forced to compete fiercely to maintain market share and keep processing plants operating close to capacity, to cover operating costs and the farmers that produced it are denied the true value of their milk.

So, how can we hope to keep dairy farms in business, when their milk so often ends up in the hands of margin driven abusers, rather than conscientious consumers? Our ongoing Coffee & Cows campaign is part of an attempt to address this irresponsible attitude to milk amongst those middle ground customers. It’s great to see coffee shops making a clear commitment to a fair deal for the farmers who provide their coffee beans, but why won’t they do the same for the farmers and cows who supply their milk? I’m pleased to report we are witnessing first-hand how attitudes to milk are changing amongst some independent coffee shops around the country, with an increasing number now switching to Pasture Promise free range milk. But, so far, our calls for a fair deal for farmers and cows have been ignored by the bigger chains, who buy thousands of litres of milk every.

Free Range Dairy | Coffee & Cows Campaign Slide

It’s encouraging to see there are some positive initiatives to establish clear sustainability credentials in the catering hospitality sector. A great example is the one run by the Sustainable Restaurants Association (SRA), who have a sustainability framework based on three pillars: Sourcing, Society and Environment. SRA members are encouraged to develop a holistic approach to sustainability to secure a Food Made Good Rating, based on the activity of members across the three pillar described above. We are fortunate that in the matrix the SRA have drawn up, members are awarded points for choosing Pasture Promise free range milk and a number of hotels and restaurants are now making a more ethical and sustainable milk choice.

Thanks to the persistence of dairies and suppliers we work with, we are making some headway and despite the frustration that all these chains cause. The supply chain does provide a vital link between the primary producer and the end user and when designed well, is a part of the solution rather than the problem. What we need to do is look at the weak links, challenge those who are devaluing the food they handle and drag them out into the light for all to see. At the same time, we need to look at shortening the chain wherever possible, cutting out those who just add weight to the chain, rather than adding value. By doing this, we can build a chain that delivers real value along its length.

Please support our attempts to win a fair deal for the farmers and cows who do deserve more for working on the supply chain gang. Don’t just look at what’s on the menu, ask where it comes from and demand to know more about the supply chain that delivers it. Together we can promote greater transparency in the procurement practices of hospitality and catering businesses and stop the abuse of milk and other goods. Look out for our Coffee & Cows posters in coffee shops and post photos on social media with the hashtags #CoffeeandCows and #PasturePromise wherever you discover Pasture Promise free range milk on offer.

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