Barrie Frost: Dairy industry’s sad decline leaves a sour taste

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although relatively recent, it now seems to be an eternity away. In 1974, I bought a milk round at a time when Britain’s dairy industry was the envy of so many countries. Now it seems impossible to understand just how we have turned this success story into the horrid situation it is.

When I bought my milk round, almost all households had a milkman who delivered fresh milk (not homogenised) to them. In the area of my milk round, all of us had an unwritten rule that milk delivered to the “doorstep” would be made before 8am, and we were the last link in a chain of operations.

The hard working dairy farmer left his milk for daily collection, every day of the year, by the Milk Marketing Board (MMB). He was guaranteed a fair price and prompt payment for all of his milk. The MMB transported this milk to the dairies in their area according to their requirements – liquid milk needs taking preference with any surplus milk taken for cheese making, ice cream and confectionery manufacturers etc.

If one area had a shortfall in milk production, the MMB would organise a delivery from an area which had a surplus. No one ever went without, no milk was ever wasted, no milk was ever imported.

The dairies pasteurised the milk, bottled it and delivered it to the thousands of self-employed milkmen who delivered it to the customers, collected the empty bottles from previous deliveries for re­use and once a week collected the money as milk was always supplied on credit.

Given that the whole of the dairy industry was so efficient and so well-liked by customers, how can we now be at a stage when dairy farmers are leaving the industry in droves, milk is imported and there are real fears about the survival of this once-cherished service?

Well, the European Union – eager to have a share of this industry but unable to compete – came up with a trump­ card. They declared that the MMB was a monopoly and that the market must be opened up to free competition. Similarly they deemed that any retail outlet must be allowed to sell milk. Unfortunately, our political leaders fell for this outrage “hook line and sinker” and agreed to this directive and thus the demise of the industry.

Was the competition fair? Corner shops and garages, who did not deliver the milk, were able to offer a discount beyond the scope of the milkman because they did not collect the empty bottles or sell on credit.

With no one to collect empty glass bottles for sterilisation and reuse from these sales, milk bottles were simply thrown away. Statistics showed in 1974 that a milk bottle was reused over 40 times before it was worn out and cracked.Yet, by 1989, this figure was down to just two. The finest renewable, green system which operated for much of the last century had been wilfully destroyed from totally unfair competition.

The loss to the dairies of throwing away the glass bottles they had provided was greater than the profit made from selling the milk. The alternative to the glass milk bottle, the waxed carton, was not popular and supermarkets did not want to handle thousands of glass bottles so they waited until the current plastic bottles were developed. Initially these could not be recycled and billions of them ended up in landfill sites. Even today, I believe, they are not fully recyclable.

When such a superb recycling system as the reusable glass milk bottle had 
been operated for many decades, just how can its destruction be permitted or justified?

As if by some kind of magic, supermarket milk has a nine day sell-­by date. Currently, many remaining dairy farmers are working for nothing and, indeed, many are working at a loss.

Cows need milking and do not offer the dairy farmer the luxury of taking his time to find a suitable buyer at a fair price and he has been continually “squeezed” to accept derisory returns.

We have an amazing ability to sacrifice major industries to appease the EU. The fishing industry was given away; the dairy industry destroyed; the postal delivery service mortally wounded and the coal mining industry abandoned. Just what comes next?

Why is there so little use of common sense in government?

Could it be that our leading MPs, educated at top public schools, do not wish to be associated with anything that could, remotely, be viewed as “common”?

Barrie Frost, from Filey, is a retired milkman and a regular contributor to The Yorkshire Post’s letters pages.