Dairy’s Dirty Secret: A squealing calf is tossed, terrified, into a truck. First-rank reporting shows what happens next

RTÉ Investigates: Milking It is a grisly exposé of the mistreatment of livestock in parts of the Irish dairy industry

RTÉ Investigates: dairy calves being kicked at an Irish mart captured by undercover filming

A squealing calf, visibly terrified, is picked up and tossed into the back of a lorry already full of distressed animals. It is one of many upsetting images in RTÉ Investigates: Milking It – Dairy’s Dirty Secret (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm), a grisly exposé of the mistreatment of livestock.

“The Irish authorities are a disgrace,” Peter Stevenson, chief policy adviser for Compassion in World Farming, tells the RTÉ reporter Fran McNulty towards the end of a gruelling documentary. We’ve just seen male cattle endure an overnight journey to a veal slaughterhouse on the Continent. They arrive disoriented after an 18½-hour trip.

The film’s allegations of mistreatment of cattle come amid a boom in Irish dairy. Since changes to the EU milk-quota system in 2015, the industry has embarked on an enormous expansion programme. Milk production has jumped 68 per cent in recent years, McNulty explains, adding that the Irish dairy sector produces 10 per cent of the world’s infant formula. “We missed out on our Celtic Tiger,” Pat McCormack, president of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, says. “This was our Celtic Tiger.”

But the dark side to such growth was exposed in 2019 and 2020, when footage emerged of cattle from Ireland being kicked and beaten at a feeding facility close to Cherbourg. There was an outcry in France but, RTÉ Investigates says, no significant changes in the treatment of exported cattle.

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According to one farmer, the industry’s “dirty little secret” is that many mistreated cattle are bull calves. They are the unwanted byproduct of the dairy boom, irrelevant to milk production and unsuitable to be reared for beef.

Some are exported for veal production. Others are culled. One facility tells McNulty it disposes of “300 a day” and is “up the walls”.

“The vast majority of farmers are not involved in this practice,” Pat McCormack of the ICMSA says; processors add that they will not accept milk from farmers who send young cattle to factories.

RTÉ has caught a lot of flak following the revelations about payments to Ryan Tubridy. But Dairy’s Dirty Secret is first-rank reporting that confronts Irish agriculture with an uncomfortable truth: unprecedented growth in the sector has come at a horrific price. As one farmer says, “We must raise our standards a lot higher than they are.”