Promoting the nutritional value of milk is an ongoing challenge, as Zoë Kavanagh, chief executive of the National Dairy Council, tells Matt O’Keeffe.
Zoë explains: “We are in an era now where a certain part of our population, particularly the 20-to-30-year-olds, are questioning the role dairy plays in the diet. The catalyst for this questioning is social media. These young people are using social media as the definitive source of their information on dietary requirements. That allows individuals masquerading as experts to use social media to disseminate a lot of confusing information about diet and thereby create a lot of inaccurate and unnecessary scaremongering around dairy.”
Role of dairy in the diet
Zoë believes that the role of dairy in the human diet is understood by most people: “We know that here in Ireland, where we are operating a grass-based milk production system, 98 per cent of the population enjoy dairy, consuming milk and dairy products every day in their diet. One marketing challenge for us in the National Dairy Council (NDC) is to ensure the future mothers of Ireland, in particular, understand the science and believe that they are making good choices in their diet when they consume dairy. We need to make sure that they maintain that dairy consumption in their diets so that their future families can be healthy.”
Complete nutrition source
The NDC chief waxes lyrical on milk: “The beautiful thing about a glass of milk is the fact that it is a source of complete nutrition. It is incredibly affordable and it is the right product for Irish farmers to produce, given the abundance of grass that we grow in Ireland. Two thirds of Irish land is given over to agriculture and 80 per cent of that is grass based. We have grass-fed cows converting inedible protein into a highly nutritious product that includes protein, calcium, vitamin B12 for energy and vitality, as well as iodine for cognitive thinking. There is, unfortunately, some confusion and a growing disconnection from the common-sense approach to diet. That’s the big challenge we need to take on now. We need to ensure dairy does not fall off people’s shopping lists, because it is such a powerful product to have as part of your daily nutritional intake.”
Confronting vegan ideology
Zoë addresses the opposition to dairy and livestock farming in general, being driven mainly, she believes, by vegan ideology: “A small percentage of the population pursue a vegan diet and lifestyle. They are perfectly entitled to do that. Dietary choices at an individual level are a personal decision. There are many people pursuing responsible vegan diets but the area where, frankly, we will not remain silent is when, in Ireland, there are suggestions around animal welfare issues. In this country, we have the privilege of animals grazing 300 days every year. They have all of the animal freedoms one would expect. The care and attention to welfare is demonstrated through the performance of the herd, where all the indicators of a low-stress environment are easily identifiable. That includes yield and body condition score. Our dairy animals are well looked after by 17,000 dairy farm families every day of the year. The inaccuracies in the anti-dairy campaign include suggestions that there are problems with animal welfare practices. It is a highly regulated food-production sector and our farmers are recognised as the best dairy producers in the world because of the natural, grass-based diet our cows enjoy and the fact that our family-based dairy farms ensure the kinds of intensive production methods common in some other countries are not practised here. It is an outdoor system, that ensures our cows live and produce milk in a low-stress environment.”
The NDC agenda
The NDC dairy promotion programme is impressive, as outlined by its chief executive: “Our main objective is to clearly position dairy as part of our food-health solutions. We will do that in the coming period in a variety of ways. Our latest campaign is called ‘Irish Dairy – the Complete Natural’. The NDC launched it last November and it is targeted at a younger audience to build relevance in their lives and [awareness of] the positive role dairy can play in their lives.
“Combined with that, we also have a series of events which demonstrate the role dairy plays across the life stages. This month [March], we have a week-long promotion around the role milk can play in the health of primary school kids. Then there is an event on April 26 called HealthFest. That targets transition-year students, of which 3,500 will come out to the National Sports Campus where they will undertake a training programme that includes mental and physical health and good nutrition. Through our whole sports activation initiative, we are positioning dairy at the centre of exercise-recovery strategies. That can be casual exercise or more serious sports engagement, where dairy has a very positive role to play in muscle and bone health.
“The role of iodine is another dairy health initiative that we are promoting. It’s hugely important for cognitive function, and we will be running seminars featuring health professionals outlining the matrix effect, not only of milk but also of cheese, where the sum of the parts deliver positive health benefits.”
The four food attributes of dairy
Zoë has an overall view of the importance of dairy in the national diet: “In terms of the regular shopper in the supermarket store, we have an ongoing communication programme, reinforcing why dairy should be an integral part of the daily diet. Ultimately, this is about building dairy into Ireland’s food health programme. Population health is very important. A country needs to supply its people with food that is nutrient-rich, affordable, culturally acceptable and appealing. Those four food attributes are perfectly captured in dairy, and we have an entire dairy portfolio produced naturally in this country.”