DMI’s innovation = secret projects with strategic partners

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Friday, Sept. 13, 2019

CHICAGO, Ill. – ‘Proprietary’ describes much of what the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy initiates as a checkoff-funded industry collaboration under the umbrella of Dairy Management Inc. (DMI).

Some of that work is so proprietary, even the 81 voting DMI board members don’t see details as they vote to approve partnerships, new product developments, promotion grants to launch new products, as well as the ‘sustainability’ initiatives and alliances that come from this collaboration and filter down as requirements for all dairy farms through their respective processor and cooperative milk buyers via the FARM program.

Board members are quick to point out that USDA and DMI attorneys are privy to proprietary details that are kept confidential. They point out that food industry partners and processors must show they are investing more than they are receiving, and that their “innovation” has potential to be a ‘catalyst’ for others to follow.

DMI describes program accomplishments in the IRS 990 form, specifying that, “DMI partners with foodservice industry leaders to help create dairy-based innovation to drive dairy sales and build trust in dairy products.”

The description details the way partnerships are boosting dairy use, especially cheese, by restaurant chains.

At the same time, DMI describes its strategy to revitalize fluid milk by ‘reinventing the consumer milk experience.’ (Reinventing milk was examined in a separate article in the August 23 edition of Farmshine.)

The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy (under the official tax-exempt name of “Dairy Center for Strategic Innovation and Collaboration, doing business as Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy”) fuels these partnerships with mandatory checkoff funds and is the place where these partnerships are born from the board of DMI staff and processor / co-op chairs and CEOs. (See related article).

Here, we examine the mainly cheesey partnerships DMI has pursued since 2009-10. That is the year in which the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy was formed under DMI.

In 2017, (DMI) had four domestic, U.S.-focused partners: Dominos, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and McDonalds. Based upon the success of our U.S. partnerships with Yum! Brands, which includes Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, we expanded our partnership focus and added two pilot international partnerships in 2017 — KFC, focused on Latin America and Pizza Hut, focused on Southeast Asia.

“The goal of the international partnerships is to increase U.S. Dairy Exports to these markets,” the DMI 990 form states. “DMI partners with these large catalytic companies because they are industry leaders who have the potential to deliver incremental and sustainable dairy sales. Moreover, these partners are closely watched by others in foodservice. Their innovation, whether product-based or technology based, created a catalytic effect, where others follow their actions. These partners were chosen because they commit to invest in innovation and marketing in support of dairy-based products: and they are willing to partner on other dairy industry priorities.”

According to the report, DMI supports a range of programs and initiatives with these influential and global foodservice industry leaders. The programs focus on providing dairy expertise and investment in the areas of consumer insights, new product development, new store and new technology testing, consumer communications and corporate social responsibility. Further, DMI provides on-site scientists and/or culinary experts who lead product development of dairy-based food and beverage products.

The main agencies of DMI handling these proprietary partnerships are the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC), which are both listed under the control of DMI on the form and are both under the leadership of former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

DMI also “provides expertise and consultants in the areas of marketing, consumer insights and research, nutrition, sustainability, animal care, food safety, regulatory environment and dairy communications.”

As a signal of success, DMI states that dairy is represented in 70% of their collective menu items among these partners and that these partners spent $11.1 billion between 2012 and 2017, collectively, on advertising their menus, including items that are “dairy-based” like pizza, tacos, ice cream and coffee drinks. But there is no data on how much of the total $11.1 billion was spent on actually advertising the dairy-based menu items.

DMI states that since these partnerships began in 2009, the combined milk equivalent tonnage of these partners, collectively, “has grown by 2.2 billion milk pounds, averaging 4% growth per year (since 2009).”

This is close to the overall global trend of 3% growth in cheese consumption annually.

In the 990 discussion, specific menu items are noted as examples, as well as how ice cream and cheese are reformulated by in-house experts provided by DMI.

Working with Domino’s, DMI helped “create the ‘Smart Slice’ School Pizza, which was in more than 10,500 schools by 2017 and meets the USDA dietary guidelines for being fat-free or lower in fat than regular cheese pizza.”

Also in 2017, Dominos began promoting awareness of the Undeniably Dairy campaign by including “farmer messaging” on 7 million pizza boxes weekly nationwide. DMI states that this “helped Dominos grow milk equivalent tonnage by 8.5% in 2017.”

DMI also partnered with Pizza Hut on the “cheese in more places” products, including the Ultimate Cheesy Crust Pizza with 16 pockets stuffed with nearly one pound of cheese.

As for Taco Bell, DMI states that this partnership has helped the restaurant chain evolve in how they use dairy, from incorporating it as a garnish to being more of a key ingredient …growing their milk equivalent tonnage by 7% in 2017.

However, partners like Taco Bell have also initiated “stealth health” menu-boarding since 2017, to encourage customers to consider condiments other than cheese and sour cream, such as salsa and pico de gala. And partner McDonald’s removed the ‘cheeseburger’ option from the Happy Meal menu last year. A customer can ask for a slice of cheese on the burger, but that option does not appear on the menu board. It’s called “stealth health.”

As for the international partnerships, DMI states that U.S. cheese sales at Pizza Hut Asia Pacific increased 29% in 2017. In fact, DMI leaders communicate that consumers in China, for example, look to the U.S. with confidence in food safety. They say their market research shows that the larger and more technologically progressive our farms are here, the happier moms are to buy U.S. dairy there. In fact, dairy checkoff leaders note in communications that small farms with older facilities conger-up images of concern for consumers in China who have not forgotten their 2014 melamine scare, which the Chinese government ultimately blamed on milk handlers for the network of small farms in China.

While cheese sales increased through these partnerships from 2009 through 2017, according to DMI, fluid milk sales declined even faster in those years than the 30-year trendline

Global supply chain structures also became more prominent as multi-national dairy ingredient suppliers connect with DMI partner-brands.

On the fluid milk side, DMI’s stated goal is to “reinvent the milk experience for consumers.” At the same time, the overall goals are focused on dairy innovation via business plans and structures that are more global in nature, focus on foodservice chains that represent domestic and overseas markets and utilize further processed, reformulated, and blended dairy ingredients while also creating menu items that use these proprietary ingredients to fit USDA’s low-fat dietary guidelines as the restaurant trade moves into ‘stealth health’ mode.

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