Free range? Not so much...

If you live in the Western Cape (South Africa), you'll probably know of a brand of dairy products called Fair Cape Free RangeTM. You may have felt compelled to purchase this dairy in the place of another brand, “because it’s free range”. Well, I did: if you are going to consume dairy, free range dairy is the ethical choice, isn't it? The bottle even says so:

However, somewhat less conspicuous is the trademark symbol (I’ll give my mom the credit for noticing that – merci Mam!):

“Fair Cape Free Range” is the brand-name of their dairy products: nothing more. It’s not certified free range. Common sense tells me that if it were truly free range, it would be significantly more expensive – not 15% more, but closer to 40% more expensive – right? After all, that's pretty much why factory farming took off in the first place: to cut costs.

I decided to visit the farm. It happens to be about 10km from my parents' home – convenient enough. After a couple of emails and phone calls (during which I was informed that the farm was only really open to the public in September), I organised an appointment with Sonja, Fair Cape's PR. (I must commend Fair Cape for their transparency and the relative ease with which members of the public may visit their farms.) So, on July 22nd 2010, Brendan and I took ourselves on a little drive through the beautiful Durbanville Hills, to Fair Cape dairies.

These are the fields of oats, canola, cottonseed and soy that are pictured on the bottle labels as “lots of juicy pastures”. The four sheds in the distance (pictured on the bottle label below) are where the "mooing mamas" spend their days.

These sheds are specially designed to let hot air escape, so that summer temperatures inside the sheds are up to 10 degrees lower than out in the sun. The cows are Friesland cows originating from Europe, so they are not accustomed to the Western Cape's high temperatures. Of course, they use them because their milk production is much higher than that of indigenous cows.

The feed, having been harvested from the fields and dried in bales, is fed to the cows as Total Mixed Ration (TMR) just as in any feedlot system – contrary to what the label says, the cows don’t have access to “plenty of natural grazing”. On the positive side, the feed is non-GM, and the cows are not fed antibiotics unless they fall ill – in which case the milk is safely discarded.

The manure that is flushed from the floors of the milking parlour is diluted and aerated in the small dam pictured above. The solids that are extracted from this system (using a “separator”, below) are sprayed onto the fields as fertiliser, and the water is reused to flush the parlour floors.

This is Sandy:

The feed is poured from a tractor on the floor along the railing:

Apparently, keeping the cows in two feet of muck-and-straw is necessary to keep them nice and cosy through the winter months. Every spring, when the weather begins to warm a little, the sheds are cleaned out – after which the school tours start pouring in. [Aha – now I understand why they wanted me to delay my visit till September!] According to experts in the production of free range dairy, the sheds should be cleaned out twice daily.

Cows with a view? The irony kills me... 

At the time of my visit, the farm had about 2300 cows, and the parlour’s milking capacity was about 1300. At the time, they were milking about 900 cows a day. Each cow was milked three times daily, producing on average 39 litres of milk per day.

This high-tech and "ultra-gentle" milking circle takes 60 cows at a time. It rotates slowly, and by the time a cow is back at the point where she walked on, she has finished being milked and can walk off. Inside each enclosure on the milking circle is a trough containing concentrates (or high quality feed), from which the cow may feed while she is being milked. The concentrate assists with milk production and helps to maintain the cow's health. It also calms her down and encourages her let-down mechanism (whereby the milk is released).

The blue dip that is painted onto the cows’ teats after milking, prevents infection caused by flies sitting on the teats - which would typically result in mastitis. In a natural environment where the cows are not lying in their own dung, this problem would not be so prevalent.

The female calves remain with their mothers for 2-3 days after birth, after which they are bottle fed for 2-3 weeks. Then they are put onto TMR and water. To put this in perspective; in a natural environment, calves may suckle for several weeks or even a few months.

Normally, the cows are impregnated by artificial insemination – using “the best Holstein-Friesland seed in the world”. However, for their first impregnation, the young cows are too nervous and edgy to withstand this procedure, so they are sent to pasture to spend a few weeks with a bull or two. This is the only time in their lives that they will eat growing grass and range freely in a pasture. Once they fall pregnant, they are milked until about two months before they give birth (gestation period is 9 months, like humans). After their first pregnancy, the cows are re-impregnated continually, with a gap of a few weeks between birth and the next pregnancy. The oldest cows at Fair Cape are about 10-12 years old. Presumably, the cows are sent to the slaughterhouse once their production rates drop low. The natural lifespan of a cow is about 25 years.

The male calves are sold either to beef farms or to veal-production farms – which makes you realise that actually, in buying factory-farmed dairy, you are implicitly supporting the meat industry...

On their way back from the milking parlour to the sheds, they may be able to snatch a treat of fresh grass, if they can crane their necks far enough over the railing.

Some time after this outing, I emailed Joel Serman of Fair Cape, asking him how Fair Cape justifies the use of the terms “free range”, “graze”, and “pasture”. I received a generous reply, where he affirmed that
“there are no regulations for Free Range in South Africa which has resulted in a number of unscrupulous operators slapping the words ‘free range’ onto products with no indication of how and why they justify their decision.”
Essentially, Fair Cape’s defense of the use of the term “free range” is explained by Joel:
“We did not call the milk “Free Range”, we called it “Fair Cape Free Range” i.e. Fair Cape’s take on free range. Whenever we mention the words “Fair Cape Free Range” on any of our products, this is combined with the 6 bullet points which explain exactly what Fair Cape Free Range is.”
The bullet points are listed on the label:

Although the term “free range” seems a bit ambiguous (probably due to its widespread abuse), a quick Google search gave me Wiktionary’s definition:
“Of, pertaining to, or produced by animals that are allowed to roam freely, rather than being confined indoors.”

If you have another look at the label, the part where it describes how wonderful the cows’ living conditions are, you’ll find some phrases that not only are misleading, but downright lies:

The terms “pasture” and “graze” are defined by the Concise Oxford Dictionary as follows:
pasture n. & v. –n. 1 land covered with grass etc. suitable for grazing animals, esp. cattle or sheep. 2 herbage for animals. –v. 1 tr. put (animals) to graze in a pasture. 2 intr. & tr. (of animals) graze. 
graze1 v. 1. intr. (of cattle or sheep, etc.) eat growing grass. 2. tr. a feed (cattle etc.) on growing grass. b feed (on grass). 3 intr. pasture cattle.

Joel’s response was
“You have raised a few very important points, specifically around the wording on the label which I would like to review with my team.”

Soon after, I contacted Wendy Knowler, who subsequently published an article for her column ConsumerWatch – entitled “Cows free to range... in a shed”.


  1. Wow. Well done, what an isightful read and a bold investigative feature. Keep exposing these discrepancies!

  2. From your article, we learn about some good practises, as well as some 'less-good' practises.

    It would be interesting to have the 'less-good' practises measured, or put in perspective. I.e. It's hard to know if the statement: "Apparently, keeping the cows in two feet of muck-and-straw is necessary to keep them nice and cosy through the winter months" condones or condemns the practise.

    1. NickG It is what we call "Irony" and the author is definitely condemning the practice. He does say that the sheds should be cleaned on a daily basis. That is what we call a clue as to his thinking.

  3. Good point, NickG, and I agree. There should be a rating system for ethical farming practises, and explanations of farming practises that is easily available in the public domain.

    With regard to the "muck-and-straw" statement, I was of course being sarcastic. However, I understand that it's something of a dilemma: either the cows live in clean sheds all year round, and freeze in the winter months, or they live in their own sh*t, and stay warm in winter...

  4. Well Done Mu. Thanks a lot for this. I'm a little squeamish to ask the question, but do we have any idea where Fair Cape Free Range would lie on a 'Free Range Scale' relative to other South African Dairy Farms? i.e. how much worse is it when looking at Clover, Parmalat etc. Would the main difference be in the feed (i.e. artificially manufactured with added hormones etc.), or the housing, or the 'not-so-gentle' milking, or all of the above? Or is the main point that you can't actually get in to see any others?

  5. I don't know where FC is on that scale, Phil.. But, just from their marketing, I imagine that within dairy factory farming, they're probably better than most in terms of their treatment of the animals. I say that because they are so transparent - they invite school tours, for goodness' sake! I'm hoping to visit the likes of Clover and Parmalat soon. And Camphill village,to see what it's like at the other end of the spectrum...

  6. thx for your excellent work! Will never consider using their products again.

  7. There they go off my shopping list.

    Also heard that Pick 'n Pay Free Range eggs are also not that Free Range as they term the hens ability to turn in their coops as Free Range.

  8. This is an eye opener considering I was one of the suckers that bought fair cape products both for myself and my son! So much for "free range" being the better option!. Thanks for this.

  9. Great article, thanks! I blogged about this issue in general a while ago, but numbers and facts on how it's run in SA are scarce.
    What a disgrace that businesses are free to fool people like that at a cruel cost to the animals.

  10. Thanks Muriel for this detailed investigation, and for exposing Fair Cape's misinformation.

    However, it does appear that their practises are better than some of the other commercial dairy farms around.

    Look forward to reading about your other visits.

  11. Nurah Tape-SallieMarch 2, 2011 at 12:49 PM

    Thank You so much Muriel. THis has left me really mad. We've been buying their products thinking we're "doing the right thing." Where can one get genuine free range milk?

  12. @PertoP

    "free range" is never what we think it is - in SA by law free range merely means chickens must have access to a run (access can mean for 30mins a day, all the chickens at the same time) and must not be caged. They are often still in dark warehouses, with much less than one square meter per bird.


  13. Hey Muriel,

    Your article and emails is doing the rounds on the green blogs - congrats on taking the initiative and the great work.


    I look forward to helping empower consumers.

  14. Oh my! once again false advertizing... is there no reprocussions because from what I see they are playing on words and peoples ignorance... this brand is definately off my list and will spread the news around. Thank you for looking after our well being. regards Denise Guastella Cape Town

  15. @Nurah: I know - their advertising is sickening. I know exactly how you feel: I don't know what milk to buy. If Fair Cape represents the best of commercially available milk, then it's a bit of a hopeless case. What I've decided to do is a) to cut down on the amount of dairy I consume; b) to support small farmers and buy fresh milk that I know is ethical, and c) to use soy/rice milk (locally manufactured) when I can't get ethical milk...

  16. We are vegetarian, but we eat some 'freerange or organic' eggs, and Woolies organic milk. Would like to be vegan, but I can't drink tea without milk. However ethical the milk is, there are still calves ... We live in Porterville and regularly see trucks carrying sheep and cattle to the abattoirs. Focuses our minds on why we are vegetarian. Still feel guilty about the calves and non-productive cows.

  17. well done :) great research and well written
    thank you for this

    I will not be supporting this label

    Betty Bake

  18. do you have a twitter account - I would like to follow you if you do

    Betty Bake

  19. OK, so their lable is misleading and I agree that their sheds should be cleaned every day, but I would still prefer to buy their milk than many other dairies that are definately not making any effort to care for their cows or the environment. I would like to see a comparrison between Fair Cape and other dairies so as to make an informed decision.
    Perhaps this is the best of a bad lot... maybe not, but only a comparison can give us that information.

    I am very fortunate to live in the country and have access to real free range milk but thousands of other people do not.

  20. Hello Muriel, Thanks so much for this! Someone actually posted it on facebook and after minutes of sharing it ... I saw others share it and like wildfire the word was out and Fair Cape lost many customers. I am furious at such a blatant lie/marketing trick. they should be ashamed. yes it might not be as bad as other companies, but gees, come on ... dont lie to us! I actually stopped dairy all together a while back and decided not to give milk to my toddler either so I am thankful to that ..... BUT ... this was the milk I used to buy back in the day. What about Woolworths Organic? You can also try goats milk from the Wellness Warehouse. If you consume milk quickly and drink it fresh then it doesnt have that typical goats milk taste which I never liked. very good for kids if you have any. We also tried the rice milks and quinoa ones etc but then just skipped it all together and use rooibos with cereal/porridge. Muriel have you thought about submitting your story to Carte Blanche. I actually started the process but then you had to click a box that said the above content is yours and not via internet/websites so skipped it. Could you do this for all of us? And thanks again for the info!

  21. This information is indeed valuable and of significant interest, but I think it's important to consider the alternatives - milk that's full of antibiotics, grain-based fodder [not a cow's natural feed] etc. versus milk without such additives. As I read the story, there are several issues that I found I needed to independently consider: misleading advertising, bovine hygiene, and health options [for consumers. Exposing anomalies is good, but would be more helpful if alternatives could be provided e.g. where to get REAL free-range milk, beef, chicken, eggs,and so on in the Western Cape. Just the thoughts of a mum who spent half her time for the past 25 years searching for safe food sources!

  22. @Lee-Ann: Thanks so much for that tip - I'll get on to it this minute :)

    @Anonymous mum: I agree completely. I am not aware of any commercially available "ethical" milk, except perhaps Woolworths Organic milk (although they're producers will have to be investigated as well). I think that the solution for the time being is to support small farmers in your vicinity (if you can find any) that supply ethical milk - i.e. cows are in pastures and the male calves aren't sent to feedlots/veal crates etc. If it's a small local farm, it'll be easier to visit, and it'll presumably be more transparent. If you're in the Western Cape, Camphill Village sells milk (full cream, raw) through the Ethical Coop (ethical.org.za). Spier sells "ethical" chicken, and when it comes to eggs, stick to small farms that you can call up and visit...

  23. Hi Muriel, Thank-you for this information - I was also a Fair Cape purchaser and had fallen for their marketing. Otherwise I buy from Woolies, our local Organic Co-op or Clover / Danone who at least has RBST hormone free milk. Driving through the Natal Midlands where a lot of the Clover farms are, was also re-assuring as the cows were outside grazing in grass pastures - with trees for shade and clean looking water troughs. The farms had signboards on them announcing that they supplied Clover. Cate

  24. Thanks Muriel. appreciate this information. i too am - was - a Fair Cape purchaser and am put off completely by what i've read. i aim to find a supplier true to their word. thanks a mill and keep up the great work! Tara

  25. Nice article, Muriel. I disagree with some of your implicit assumptions, which underline a lot of vegetarian arguments, but it still irks me that companies can get away with this sort of false advertising. In a similar vein (although probably less of an issue for vegetarians), "dolphin-safe" tuna is just a label. There is no oversight body to check that tuna advertised as dolphin safe actually is.


  26. Thanks Raoul. My biggest issue with this company is their labeling, which "irks" me, too. I'm curious about what implicit assumptions you think I've made?

  27. Muriel, great piece.

    Please let me know when you do the visits to the other dairies.


  28. Why should we support any organisation that has to resort to pretending and "cheating" to sell its products. If they don't believe in it why should we?

  29. Thank you for opening our eyes yet again. Keep up the good work. Im finished with 'Fair Cape' and feel hoodwinked!

  30. Hi Muriel

    I have forwarded you the picture which wont currently load and would request that you kindly post it along with my response

  31. Saw this link posted on FB by a friend and decided to read....it is quite strange the these cows are in these sheds and are in their own muck in winter....I have been to FC many times (as my husband helps with the plumbing on those fancy milking contraptions)and on many occassions I have seen those cows lying outside on the green grass, I have also seen the farm labourers bringing cows in from the fields....Did FC actually say that their cows are always in those sheds? Been to Bonnita factory many years ago, FC cows have a much better life and milking process than they do....also their milking area at FC is impeccibly neat and VERY well thought out!

  32. Thanks for the great article. It's good to have people out there like you to make us aware of these things. Too many people are complacent about what they put in their trolleys and in their mouths!

  33. Hi Muriel

    Would love to see what Fair Cape Dairies has said in response to your blog, as well as the pic they sent you, could you please post it for us, I see they have sent you something???

  34. Fair Cape has sent me a response. I have a some issues with what they have claimed, and have asked them a few questions. I was hoping to receive responses to these before posting it all, but I think I'll go ahead and make a new blog-post... On its way!

  35. We would like to hear Fair Capes response to your blog as there is always two sides to a story and when you believe in something you always tend to blow it out of proportion. Enjoying the discussion so far, but not taking sides yet.

  36. Hi Muriel
    I have read with keen interest all of the info and bloggers comments and to be frank if Muriel has any chance of winning awards for investigative journalism then I suggest she does her homework more thoroughly. I.e. It would be comforting to know that she also would possess the drive and passion to disparage the other dairy producers, after her visits and discussions or emails with their managers about their milking and processing plants....has this happend yet..... also offering the concerned citizens out there a comparative glimpse through photos and labels etc. to see a bit more about their processes and slogans. What about the likes of Parmalat, Clover, Sonnendal & Fairfield??? Have we conveniently forgotten about them and HOW DO THEY COMPARE – it would then be interesting to see how they rate on the “Muriel Scale”. It is very comforting for me that Fair Cape have opened themselves up for this kind criticism and are being quite transparent about what they are and what they are not as I do not think anyone else will allow Muriel the time of day when it comes to the other commercial dairies, and like some of the bloggers noted Fair Cape seem to be doing a FAR BETTER JOB than many of their counter-parts in the industry so good-on Fair Cape for trying to make the difference that many of the other commercially run milk producers would not be able to hold a candle up to Fair Cape.
    So choose to believe what you read.... But perhaps we should try and do more homework before we play investigative journalist....
    Regards, Tanya Reeves

  37. Hi Muriel. Have to say – what a spectacular piece of irresponsible “journalism”. The majority of people in SA (including you as it happens) are not going to become vegan. So all you have done is turned people away from the dairy with the highest animal welfare standards in the country. The only reason you even got to do this article is because of their transparency. I laughed to myself when I read you plan to visit the other commerical dairy farms. Good luck. Fair Cape is the furthest thing from factory farming that there is in terms of commercial farming... had you investigated other farms you would have known that. If people are going to consume commercially farmed milk (which they inevitably are), Fair Cape is certainly the most humane. Sad that people will now be supporting less humane dairies because of this article. Sad.

  38. This comment has been removed by the author.

  39. Hi Muriel thanks so much for this!
    THERE IS truly free-range milk available, please visit this site: www.ethical.org.za
    I order from them and they are awesome! This is the response I got when I first enquired about their milk and eggs being truly free-range:
    Thnx for your query and apologies for the delay in getting back to you.
    We get all our dairy from either Bloublommetjies or Camphill. We get our eggs from Wedderwill or Kleinjongenskraal. They are all farms that operate ethically (are totally organic for the most part, bio-dynamic) and within the confines as expected by you and our other customers.
    To answer yuor question specifically: YES, they are truly free-range farms.
    Happy Monday.
    Warm regards,
    Bhanoo Sukha
    Accounts & Admin
    Ethical Co-op
    Fax Accounts on 086-513-6393
    PO Box 112, Philippi, 7781
    "It's easy to make a buck. It's a lot tougher to make a difference." ~Tom Brokaw

    To all of you who have responded so passionately, and who are vegetarian or vegan; it really is heart-warming and gives me hope to see that there are still people who care about the affect what we consume has on our animals!

  40. Remember that famous song...no matter what they tell you...no matter what they say.

    In support of blogg writer Muriel. Let me indicate in NO uncertain terms.There are NO DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE approved FREE RANGE DAIRY COMPANIES in SOUTH AFRICA. There is NO officially implemented and monitored and controlled Legislation/s at this time in South Africa. I have demanded that DAFF/APIS immediately intervene and immediately STOP this rank outright abuse of the term FREE RANGE in the Dairy Industry. Likewise STOP the abuse and scant regard for genuine bovine (REAL) dairy product consumers. So to the Fair Cape Dairy Company.

    NO matter how long you have or you attempt to deceive and mislead customers and consumers with wordings etc. Best you read the various Legislations regarding product marketing. NOT only by DAFF/APIS.

    You may get around/manipulate the initial blogg writer and other people. You WONT get around me. You will stand accountable and the clock is ticking.

    Again. Well done Muriel. We will beat these Industries at their own games!!!

  41. Hi there,

    Is anything that says Free Range actually free range then?

    I have been paying a premium on free range chicken breasts at food lovers market, and although there was no trademark next to free range, how am I to know - do I trust them?

    1. There are no legislated standards for free range chickens (or eggs, or dairy, or beef...) in South Africa. The only standards that exist for chicken production are industry standards (look up the SA Poultry Association's Code of Practice). Farms that conform to the standards are supposed to be monitored by the NSPCA - but because it's not legislated, who knows whether the farms are in line with the standards.. The industry is self-regulating, which in itself is suspicious, in my mind. If you look at the SAPA CoP, scroll down to "free range": the spacial requirements are "up to 10 hens per square metre", no cages. This is a good deal better than standard production, where the hens are in cages - so if you choose to eat chicken, free range is definitely a better option. Otherwise, try to source from a small-scale farmer whose farm you are able to see for yourself, or better, start to phase it out of your diet altogether :)

  42. I just followed the link you added to my wall post on Faircape's FB page. This is exactly the type of thing I keep telling myself I'd like to do, as in visiting the actual farms. Thank you very much for this! I'd like to add an idea that it seems many people who have commented here seem to be missing, and that is that is is initially completely unnatural for us to be drinking cow's milk in the first place? Consider that we're completely different species and each animal's milk is "custom designed" specifically for their own young (and not to be consumed into adulthood either). Unfortunately dairy products have been deeply intergrated into our Western diet styles which makes it difficult for many people to consider living without it. Please consider milk alternatives, we're not built to be consuming it in the first place...

    1. Thanks for the supportive comment. You raise a good point. The thing is, though, that talk of what's "natural" is misleading: some species of wild animals are known to rape other animals... "Natural" does not equate with "good". The argument that is often given in support of eating animals (that humans have evolved eating meat, therefore it's natural, therefore the practice should be continued) doesn't hold water: what should be does not follow from what is. Humans are fortunate to be highly adaptable to different diets. So, if we can make the (informed) choice to forgo eating animals (where it can be shown that eating animals is ethically indefensible) and remain healthy, we should. The same argument goes for dairy and many other animal products - the animals are exploited, and eventually killed, for their consumption (or the consumption of their "products") by humans. Yes, humans happen to have evolved to be tolerant to dairy - this does not make the consumption of dairy an ethically defensible practice. Happily, as you say, there are alternatives and replacements for almost all animal products :)

  43. Hi Muriel, it seems to me there's a lot of theorising on what cows would want without realising that farmers are simply looking after the practical needs of the cows. Yes, we all like to imagine cows grazing in fields, but the facts state that Friesland cows will overheat if they are allowed to do so. You also talk about cows standing in their own muck - yet again, aren't you being a bit sentimental without considering the fact that they would be freezing cold if their sheds were washed down every day?

    1. The farmers look after the needs of the cows so far as it is economically beneficial to the farm. You are correct in saying that the Frieslands need shade - but they are not indigenous and probably shouldn't be here in the first place, they are better suited to a UK climate (for example). Whether the farmers considered erecting shading structures in the pastures, that the cows could use freely, is a question worth asking.. In any case - my point was that the cows are not "free range" as advertised, they live in sheds.

  44. Wow...when I use to live in Cape Town I thought Fair Cape milk was the best option available... Plenty of false advertising going on! What I would like to know is how Fair Cape compares to Clover? I would imagine its a bit better that the rest unless of course one buys from small ethical farmers.

    Great article and blog! Thanks

  45. Fantastic article! We need someone like you to get into gear and take action - keep it up - you have obvious passion and a great talent :)

  46. http://welgevonden.co.za/daily-dairy/
    These guys supply to health food stores and farm stalls etc. all over the western cape

  47. Thank you for the information, i have decided to go the vegetarian path and always thought milk and diary products were ok but its not.