Stores urged to improve labelling of British dairy products

Retailers should use better branding and clearer labelling to inform shoppers when they are buying British dairy products, the Environment Secretary has said.

Elizabeth Truss made the call following a meeting between ministers and the National Farmers Union to discuss the future of dairy farmers across the UK.

Dozens of demonstrations have taken place over the past three week, including milk trolley challenges and bringing cattle into supermarkets.

Aldi, Lidl and Asda agreed to pay 28p per litre to farmers for milk, while Morrisons launched a brand of milk and cheese to directly support producers.

Farmers estimate that it costs between 30 and 32p to produce a litre of milk but were being paid an average of 23.66p in June - after a drop of 25% in a year.

Ms Truss, with ministers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, met members of the farming industry in London today.

"It was an encouraging meeting and I believe we can help build stronger foundations that give the industry the long-term stability and commercial opportunities it needs to manage global volatility," she said.

"I recognise the seriousness of the current situation for the dairy industry and for farming as a whole. Our hard working farmers and the £100 billion food and farming industry are vital for our economy and our countryside.

"A global surplus of milk is causing low prices around the world - well beyond the control of farmers.

"I want to see this situation taken seriously by the EU who have the means to help farmers manage this volatility and build resilience."

Ms Truss said she would be "emphasising" the need for a futures market and insurance for dairy products when she meets agriculture ministers next month.

A new working group with the UK farming minister and the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board is being set up to develop best practice models in the industry.

"It is in everyone's interest that supermarkets, caterers and the food industry have a security of supply of milk," she added.

"As well as milk, more than 50% of the UK dairy market is in products such as cheese and butter.

"Yet we have a dairy deficit as less than half the butter and cheese we eat is made from British milk.

"I want to see better branding and clearer labelling of dairy products in supermarkets, retailers and throughout the catering industry so that people know when they are buying British, and we have agreed to have further discussions with the food industry on this.

"Dairy exports topped £1.4billion last year but I am determined to see this rise even more."

Ms Truss said she had invited the dairy industry to play a "bigger role" in future trade missions such as in China in the autumn, where there is growing demand for British produce.

Last night, tractors and protesters blockaded one of Tesco's biggest distribution centres in the UK, as well as a Farmfoods depot, near Avonmouth, Bristol.

The protest was the first to focus on cheese - rather than milk prices - and highlighted the amount imported by the supermarkets.

David Handley, chairman of the FFA, said the store's value range grated cheddar cheese had three countries of origin, while its "everyday" range yoghurt used German milk.

"This is Tesco, every little helps unless you are a British dairy farmer," he said.

The dairy farmer, from Monmouth, said the supermarket paid a cost of production figure to some farmers for liquid milk and mature and extra mature cheese.

James Hole, a dairy farmer from Somerset who acts as a co-ordinator for the FFA, added: "The supermarkets are trying to offer the cheapest products and that is not coming from the best origin that it can come from.

"Let's use our own before we go anywhere else. A fair price on the shelf and a fair price at the farm gate."

A spokeswoman for Tesco said the supermarket already pays above the cost of production for all of its milk lines - more than 30p per litre - and mature and extra mature cheddar.

This means farmers "automatically get a premium" for every pint of Tesco milk.

"We are meeting with farmers this week, as part of the ongoing engagement we have with British Agriculture as its biggest customer," the spokeswoman added.

A spokeswoman for Farmfoods declined to comment.

The president of the NFU said he is "desperately hoping" the Government sticks to promises made in the meeting.

Merrill Raymond said: "From today there are going to be meetings with everyone in our supply chain. It is obviously agreed that the supply chain is not working as well as it should be."

Mr Raymond said "nothing immediate has changed" but added that Government officials have promised to open up communication with consumers and supermarkets.

"There were promises made ... and I desperately hope that they will keep them because there is so much at stake. But we have now got that line of communication and we will carry on driving those messages ... with a common goal of trying to sustain this industry."

Mr Raymond sent a message to supermarkets: "Make British produce prominent on retailing shelves, back British. Labelling has got to be sorted out. They're going to look at the voluntary labelling policy that was designed a couple of years ago. This will all help give farmers a bit of confidence."

He said the protests were likely to continue.

"People are desperate. I would suggest that this won't be the end of the protests because people are desperate and they have got to show their frustration in what ever way they see fit."

He added: "They are very concerned, they don't even know if they're going to be in business. They feel determined to show their hands, show their concerns. There's a lot at stake. We cannot allow the farming industry at this time to actually reduce otherwise we are going to be relying on imported food a lot more in the years to come."