… Even in the face of massive opposition by USDA, DMI and others
Editor’s note: Farmshine contributor Sherry Bunting continues her opinion and analysis on where the milk bus is heading and some thoughts on what to do about it.
By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Friday, January 17, 2020
BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — Activist non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are increasingly driving the milk bus as dairy industry organizations, checkoff organizations and government agencies partner with entities such as World Wildlife Fund (WWF) on dietary and sustainability goals.
The leaders who are working with NGOs and government agendas long enough might think they speak for us as consumers, as society. They don’t. But through our organizations partnering with them, they ultimately and incrementally not only speak for us, they are driving the bus.
If we are listening, we’ve heard the model described by industry experts and thought-leaders in articles, at conferences, and in roundtable discussions: Build huge cheese and protein ingredient plants at designated growth locations. Innovate with ultrafiltration and reverse osmosis technologies. And begin to balance the export-driven dairy industry focus and consolidation by transporting ultrafiltered solids “more sustainably” – minus the 88% water portion – and do the reconstitution, extended shelf-life and aseptic packaging on location in the regions that are currently fluid-milk-centered markets, such as the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.
Rampant supermarket loss-leading on fluid milk by the nation’s largest retailers on one hand, with USDA-regulated farm-level price enforcement on fluid milk on the other hand, has produced the vice-grip in which the fluid milk sector has found itself over the past four to five years in particular.
Dairy producers were in the grip the past five years, but now that farm-level prices have ticked a bit higher the past five months, fluid milk bottlers suddenly find themselves unable to weather the margin compression, as we see in the recent high profile bankruptcy proceedings of Dean Foods and Borden, not to mention the smaller companies along the way.
As long as producers were the ones receiving the ugly side of the stick, the conversation could be generally centered on “too much milk” or “market forces” or “trade and tariffs.”
Now that farm-level milk prices have moved up (even though export volume was down), the unsustainable, low-margin, commodity treatment of fresh fluid milk is being seen as a primary factor fueling fluid milk processor bankruptcies – for those looking into these issues more deeply. In fact, checkoff leaders cite the milk bottler bankruptcies as proof that milk should be reinvented. Some have gone so far as to say — in presentations to industry groups — that the goal of innovation is to “move consumers away from the habit of reaching for the jug and toward these new and innovative products.”
While per-capita milk sales have been declining for 45 years, the past 10 years have seen faster rates of decline. This has been no accident. From dietary guidelines, to checkoff’s government speech requirements, to memorandums of understanding, to sustainability objectives, dairy’s own national checkoff organization has partnered with USDA, WWF, and others to move milk in a different direction – yes, intentionally.
Meanwhile, consumers are showing a thirst to know more about milk nutrition, and they are responding by buying more whole milk even in the face of this extreme neglect and alternative direction.
Case in point. While Coca-Cola, now 100% owner of fairlife, cites double-digit growth of the its 3% market share, the USDA Class I packaged milk sales show a different perspective.
The most recent report for October shows that the “other fluid products” category had year-to-date volume growth of over 300% but amounts to just 269 million pounds (10 months) — less than one percent (0.7%) of market share.
Meanwhile, whole milk’s growth for year-to-date volume of 12.5 billion pounds comes in at just under 1% (0.9%) on 33% of market share, which makes fresh whole milk the top VOLUME gainer this year, and it has surpassed sales of 2% reduced-fat milk.
Flavored whole milk is also growing by double-digits some months, with year-to-date sales through October of 629 million pounds – up 8.9% on 1.7% market share.
Under Organic brands, whole milk sales are up 4.4% year-to-date, with 412 million pounds representing 43% of organic milk market share.
Consider this: While whole milk is prohibited in schools and daycare centers, and it goes virtually un-promoted and is often poorly stocked in the dairy case, those sales still manage to be the largest volume growth category under all of these constraints.
Innovation can be good, but the fact remains that whole milk naturally meets many of the desires consumers have even though labeling makes its fat percentage a mystery, and even though it has to overcome a low-fat and fat-free promotion campaign pitted directly against it… In the face of all of that, whole milk’s growth is not too shabby.
In short, fresh whole fluid milk has the potential to solve many of the problems it was previously blamed for in diet and health trends, and it has a ‘clean’ label and local sourcing and flavor and nutrition going for it.
Whole milk checks all the boxes.
Trouble is, if whole milk sales grow faster, then the best laid plans for using innovation and sustainability and dietary edicts to lead farmers and consumers into dairy industry structural transformation would be in jeopardy.
What can be done? What can be accomplished?
Get USDA’s attention. Get the attention of the Administration and Congress and hold industry leaders accountable for the following steps:
Federal Order price reform has never been more needed. The regulated value center is mostly on the diminishing Class I fluid milk sector. That’s a big weight to carry. Many of the innovations and reinventions of fluid milk beverages are not even Class I. Small regional entities wanting to get into the fresh fluid Class I milk market have difficulty doing so because they must – in effect — pay the cartel. Now the recent bankruptcy and potential sale of Dean Foods’ assets to DFA, suggest we could see an even bigger cartel.
In that scenario, an even larger national footprint entity would run the table, deciding how fluid milk markets will be supplied, with what product mix, and from what plants. DFA CEO Rick Smith has already indicated some Dean plants should be shut down. DFA president Randy Mooney in his address at the DMI / NMPF convention a week before the Dean bankruptcy was announced said dairy resources should be consolidated to focus on plants that “make what consumers want”, instead of having “plants on top of plants” in a region.
Add to this the push to normalize ultrafiltration in FDA standards of identity for all sectors of dairy beverage and product development and production, and we see the stage being set for meeting “sustainability” objectives by removing water from the transportation scenario and moving more milk from designated export-growth areas into the markets with higher Class I utilization at a lower cost.
In effect, this trend would use the fluid milk markets to physically and financially ‘balance’ the designated growth regions and huge protein export plants more freely — weakening the position of farms operating in those Class I utilization markets.
Transportation cost is already diluted to where it is not the equalizer it should be for regional milksheds to take local milk first. Ultrafiltration and reinvention of milk in the name of innovation is all coming from the Sustainability Council of DMI’s Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. At a certain point, the trend – especially with the help of the world’s largest players in ultrafiltration including Coca-Cola – make location and transport even less relevant with milk’s 88% ratio of water taken out of the transport equation. These trends need full and transparent discussion instead of creeping along quietly under the mantra of “innovation” and “sustainability.”
Uphold standards of identity, not just the plant-based deal on the left hand that we are all watching so intently. While the industry talks about FDA’s milk standard vs. the imitations, the right hand is busy behind the scenes working on other dairy identity standards to make changes.
One such change is getting FDA to overlook reconstitution of milk solids with water on long-haul transport. This is a step that could enable Class I fluid milk markets to become the balancer for the huge commodity export plants that are being built in designated growth centers, and which get the make allowances built into manufacturing class prices.
Cheaper transport of excess milk – without the water — into Class I FMMOs would, and potentially is, allowing those suppliers to use eastern fluid markets as the export plant balancers.
Draw a line in the sand with a retail minimum on fluid milk. This step is necessary, at least as an interim step until the larger pricing issues have a full airing. A simple $2/gallon line in the sand certainly allows for capitalistic free markets while stopping the supermarket insanity that makes milk the Cinderella-sister that all other dairy case beverages, dairy and non-dairy, market off the back of and are free to make and keep the profit at milk’s expense.
Unless Walmart and Amazon and Kroger and others want to eat their own loss-leading decisions, themselves, they should not have the ability to price milk at $1.50, $1.15, 99 cents, 67 cents per gallon. This is crushing the supply chain and further diminishing milk’s stature.
Stop dumping skimmed milk on our kids. We’ve already lost at least one generation of milk drinkers, simply allow whole milk at schools for all the reasons that have been written about over and over in Farmshine. It’s also what is right for our kids.
Stop forcing producers to pay a checkoff tax that promotes government speech, and aligns with NGO-influenced government agendas on the future of food. At the very least, allow regions and local entities to keep and target all of their checkoff funds to promote what is made with their milk and to promote sustainable regional supply chains and food security.
Ask checkoff leaders to start promoting all milk instead of using the qualifiers “low-fat / fat-free.” Stop beating everyone over the head with the familiar “fat-free and low-fat” refrain. It’s not helping farmers, and it’s certainly not helping the health and obesity crisis, and it clouds the healthy choices consumers are able to make – once they learn the truth.
This is just a start.