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This week we have faced calls to cut ties with one of our dairy farmers after pictures emerged of calves being held in individual pens, in breach of animal welfare standards. We hold our hands up. Keeping calves over eight weeks old in such pens is unacceptable. One of our farmers made a mistake. However, we are not going to sever our ties with this farm and we are not going to weaken our valued links with Britain’s farming community. 

Here’s why. At Marks & Spencer we take animal welfare extremely seriously. We would never knowingly compromise on it. After all, our business is founded on a long-standing mutual trust between us, our suppliers and our customers. So if a trusted supplier makes a mistake, we believe it is right to stick with them, help them to rectify the issues and, in turn, make them a more robust business. It is not in our nature to cut and run at the first sign of a problem.

Within hours of being alerted to the issue at Grange Dairy in Dorset last week, we mobilised a team of independent specialists, including one of the country’s leading vets, to the farm. They checked the health and wellbeing of every single calf, and found that there was no distress among the animals, confirming that animal wellbeing wasn’t compromised. 

Inspectors from Dorset County Council’s trading standards division also visited Grange Dairy. They did not detect any breaches of animal welfare. The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has backed our decision to continue to support the farm; in fact, this body has actively called on us to stick with this farm and with British farming in general – a sentiment with which we wholeheartedly agree.

We are very clear on this issue. Any calf over the age of eight weeks old should not have been housed in these pens. However, we believe this to be a one-off incident; a good farm making a bad decision, and we stand by our standards. 

That is why we have commissioned the RSPCA to inspect all 40 of our dairy farms. They will carry out these independent inspections as soon as possible, measuring us against their own independent accreditation standard, and report back. We will publish the results of those inspections in full. And if we are required to take any action, we will do so immediately and with full transparency.  

Farming is a complex business that relies on a delicate financial and moral equilibrium between farmers, retailers and consumers. This is a reality of modern business. If this balance occasionally and unwittingly tilts in the wrong direction, it is our duty as one of the UK’s biggest retailers to help put this right.

But there is a wider issue at play. British farming is in a precarious position. The number of dairy producers in England and Wales has fallen dramatically and yet the UK dairy industry accounts for around 18% of UK agricultural production by value. As a British retailer, it is right that we support this vital sector.

And as the country heads into uncertain times, we believe solidarity with other sectors of domestic industry - rather than knee-jerk reactions against them - is crucial.

We are proud of our record in animal welfare. We have topped Compassion in World Farming’s annual Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare since 2013. We work year-in-year-out with the RSPCA, Compassion in World Farming, the Humane Slaughter Association and FAI Farms, which collectively acts as a critical friend providing us with the latest thinking on animal welfare and good husbandry practice. 

We have always taken a different approach to our dairy suppliers at M&S. In 2000, in recognition that that our dairy farms should be long-term partners, we launched our Milk Pool, under which we guarantee our dairy farmers a fair price for their milk on condition that they continue to meet our high animal welfare requirements. From there on in, we have consistently paid our dedicated pool of dairy farmers one of the highest price for milk of any major high street store or supermarket. This works for us and it works for our farmers. 

Severing links with suppliers can devastate communities and industries. That is not the way we do business. We stand by our farmers and we stand by British farming. When mistakes are made, we deal with them; we don’t shirk from our responsibilities. Because ultimately, we believe that working together with our suppliers for the long term is for the greater good and drives better results. And better results at M&S means excellent animal welfare, higher farming standards and amazing quality products for our customers. 

Which is exactly why now is not the time to cut and run.