“The dairy industry puts grass or images of pastures even in press releases”, explains María Ruiz Carreras shortly after presenting her doctoral thesis, ‘Interest groups, speech and dietary guides. The case of the European Dairy Industry‘, which has obtained an excellent qualification cum laude, with international mention. The research, directed by Núria Almirón, doctor of the Center for Animal Ethics of Pompeu Fabra University, reveals the use of natural elements, colors such as green or blue, among other elements to transmit messages in their communication that have little to do with the reality of farms. “The industry puts a lot of emphasis on the environment, but it seems very unfortunate, since grazing is in decline in many European countries, where cows are even tied up for milk production,” explains Ruiz Carreras.
The communicator has been able to analyze 98 public documents in which the industry actively tries to make its own narrative, but also reacts to the criticism that environmentalism, animal rights and society make of its activity. “The proposal was to analyze the discourse of the interest groups of the dairy industry at a European level with a pre-sample of 200 documents”, explains the author of the thesis. Unlike other issues that have to do with lobby, were very easy to find, “since they are documents designed for politicians and journalists to find and use them.” The results of the analysis are clear: dairy companies try to normalize and naturalize the exploitation of cows, objectifying these animals and their offspring, and denying their capacity for sentience, autonomy and individuality.
When asked about her interest in this sector, María Ruiz Carreras highlights its numbers, both because of the importance it has in Europe and because of the suffering it generates in animals over time. “If we look at the number of animals that are exploited, I could have chosen the fish or the roosters and chickens. There are fewer cows, but their exploitation lasts longer. In fact, they could live for 20 years, but they last between three and five years due to the exploitation they suffer, and during that time they have a very hard time, ”she explains. The already doctor limits her study geographically in Europe, since it is especially interesting how the lobby In the legislation of the European Union, the thinktank and business unions.
In fact, the EU is the world leader in the production of cow’s milk, representing 30% of livestock production and 13% of agricultural production. The end of milk quotas, the decrease in consumption within the European environment and the fragility of exports have made them highly dependent on public aid. Some subsidies that go through making their products look essential for food. “The dairy industry presses to be in the dietary guidelines, it presses to be in the best possible position, so that governments or institutions never speak negatively, and it presses so that they do not speak about topics that do not interest them.” An example of this pressure would be the nutritional traffic light, which is rejected by the industry in favor of other systems, since it could harm products that are high in sugar, fat or additives.
This pressure arises from institutions such as the European Dairy Association (EDA), the European Milk Board (EMB) or The European Food Information Council (EUFIC). Some institutions unknown to the final consumer but that European legislators know closely. Some acronyms, recalls Ruiz Carreras, which are often behind the scientific studies that support the supposed benefits of dairy products. “The three fundamental audiences they go to, although they want to reach everyone, even the intolerant, are pregnant women, minors and the elderly. They use a scientific and health language, appealing to health both positively and negatively. They use sentences such as ‘children should have as many dairy products a day’ and speak of supposed consequences on growth or pregnancy if they are not ingested”, comments the researcher.
A strategy that comes a long way, warns the thesis, since the dairy industry relies more and more on campaigns subsidized by public money to promote the consumption of these products. “For them it is important that they eat dairy foods from childhood, and thus build customer loyalty for life. Even if it means getting into that babies can feed on their mothers or talking about osteoporosis. And it is that this sector plays a lot of money, since, in terms of business volume, it represents 15.4% of the total in the manufacturing industry, followed by the automotive industry (13%), machinery and equipment (9%). , and petroleum products (7.8%). A massive industry that has 12,000 production points throughout Europe and an alliance with more than 700,000 farms in Europe, according to the EDA Report 2017/18.
Calves, a problem that the industry never talks about
One of the most sensitive points when it comes to communication in the dairy industry is the issue of calves. “The exploitation of cows for their milk is a very specific exploitation,” explains Ruiz Carreras. “Many times we don’t think about it, but if they don’t get them pregnant, if they don’t artificially inseminate them, the milk doesn’t flow. Those calves that are born each year, which the industry calls “by-products”, if they are males they go to the slaughterhouse to end up as feed for other animals or similar products, while if they are females they will be used to produce milk”. A reality that rarely appears in milk advertisements and that the dairy industry never mentions in its communications, as this research shows. In fact, the researcher wonders to what extent society is aware that without the fertilization and birth of these calves there would be no milk, just as it happens in other female mammals, such as women. “I think that if animal rights activists insisted on the problem that calves represent, if they showed the scenes of pain when the farmer takes a calf away from his mother, the result would be different,” she says.
Exploited animals’ ability to feel or suffer is not in the repertoire of messages launched by the dairy industry. “They are very aware of their weak points, so they adapt their narrative to certain public issues. The sentience capacity, compared to the mere reaction to stimuli, is a fact that, from the point of view of animal ethics, makes individuals who possess it deserve the guarantee of a series of rights”, explains María Ruiz Carreras. in his study, where he concludes that, however, “through the texts prepared and disseminated by the industry, this capacity is obviated, establishing a suppression of the suffering suffered by bovine social actors, the cows exploited for their milk, as well as a suppression of their individuality and their capacity for action, through the recourse of not mentioning individuals”.
Problematic, too, such as complaints of animal abuse. “In the study carried out, from 2008 to 2018, the mentions of animal welfare are clear, that is, the industry is clearly adapted to the social debate. Something present in a very stable way throughout the analyzed decade”. That is why the study highlights that “animal suffering in general, nor the diseases or ailments that they may suffer, is not directly mentioned.” The strategy to avoid this, points out the doctoral thesis, is to compare the livestock activity with that of harvesting plants. An example of this is this analyzed text: “Milk is derived from animals and, although there are production cycles as in many other agricultural sectors, the ‘harvest period’ and the ‘processing period’ in dairy products are essentially daily (EUCOLAIT)”. It also highlights the resource of appealing to the naturalness of the process, as if artificial insemination or the mechanization of milk extraction were. For this reason, the industry is very careful not to see this part of its day-to-day life and changes it for other idyllic images of cows in freedom. Something that in the countries of southern Europe is beginning to be a mere memory.
And what about vegetable milk?
The study highlights that while they praise the almost healing properties of cow’s milk, the industry disqualifies vegetable alternatives to them. Something surprising, since most dairy companies already have a product line of vegetable drinks on the market. “It’s part of their double game. While science shows their industry is bad for the environment, they campaign that it’s good. The same happens with vegetable drinks: on the one hand, they say that vegetable milk cannot be a substitute because it does not have the same nutritional components, and they even want to ban that name, but at the same time they prepare and expand their range of product”. Some vegetable products that have a different image and name from those of the dairy products of the same company and that the consumer often does not associate.