Supply and demand are the real story behind chaos in cream markets

istock photo purchased and used with permission
As shortages of cream products become more obvious in retail and foodservice channels, USDA’s Dec. 8 fluid milk and cream report acknowledged raw milk cream supplies are “tight to extremely tight” in the eastern U.S. at the same time that processors nationwide are trying to ramp up production of cream cheese, butter and seasonal products to meet sustained strong demand. In the midwestern markets, USDA notes Class I bottling needs have risen instead of declining like they normally do in December, and in the eastern markets, Class I bottlers are taking in more milk for steady to strong sales. istock photo

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — What’s the real story with the availability of cream products and whole milk, especially in the population centers of the eastern U.S., and why the continued base penalties, base reductions, warnings of greater deductions on future milk checks — even for the base-obedient producers? Why the talk of overproduction of milk — especially in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region — when headlines are noticing a crimp in supplies?

A paradox, for sure.

One clue that makes this a true supply and demand situation — as opposed to purely a sign of supply chain disruptions — is the most recent USDA dairy products report showing 1.6% less butter was produced in October compared with a year ago, attributable to increased demand for cream and declining milk production.

The U.S. also exported more fat in the product mix than prior years.

In relation to this, October butter stocks, according to USDA NASS, are down 13% from September and 6% lower than a year ago after being double-digit percentage points higher than year earlier for the previous two to three years. The seasonal increase of 11.2% more butter produced in October than September was not as robust as previous years and it met an increased drawdown that has left cold storage stocks short heading into the holiday baking season in competition with cream product-making season.

While processor leaders from IDFA did a second Washington D.C. fly-in last week, talking with members of Congress about the trade disruptions, exports have continued strong and domestic shortages of milk and cream products are popping up all over the place – especially in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region.

It’s clear that trucking and worker shortages contribute, but it’s also clear the issues go beyond the frequently-cited packaging shortages, given the fact that bulk product is also becoming limited in foodservice channels.

So much so that the Dec.4 New York Times covered what has become a worsening cream cheese shortage in New York City. This pertains to the bulk cream cheese base that bagel shops purchase to tailor-make their own schmears. Consumers report retail packs of cream cheese in short supply at chain stores in New York while the bulk cream cheese base is tenuous for foodservice.

In both New York and Pennsylvania, shoppers confirm scarcity of cream cheese and other cream products while stores are placing limits on purchases. Reports from Boston indicate stores are “screaming” for half and half. Others observe that eggnog production is exacerbating already tight cream supplies, but acknowledge the issues are bigger than just the seasonal beverage production.

Fox News picked up the story Dec. 6 and 7. They interviewed NYC bagel shop owners to learn how they are navigating the problem. One owner talked about begging his vendors for product, then locating some cream cheese in North Jersey and driving 90 minutes in his own truck three times to transport a total of 2000 pounds of the schmear.

The Fox and Friends morning hosts checked with Kraft-Heinz, the parent company of Philadelphia Cream Cheese, conveying the company’s statement that they are seeing a 35% spike in demand for the product, which they then blamed on panicking restaurateurs stockpiling it.

“We continue to see elevated and sustained demand across a number of categories where we compete. As more people continue to eat breakfast at home and use cream cheese as an ingredient in easy desserts, we expect to see this trend continue,” Kraft-Heinz spokesperson Jenna Thornton told Fox News in a written statement.

Fox and Friends host Steve Doocy, who does a lot of cooking, chimed in that he can’t find cream products, and they all wondered out loud, what’s the deal with no whole milk in the stores?

Facebook responses to queries about what’s happening in different areas confirm many are having trouble finding half and half, heavy cream, cream cheese, even butter, and some reported spot depletion of whole milk or all milk.

A Pennsylvania store owner texted a note claiming he simply can’t get whole or 2% milk for his store.

A ‘Lunch Ladies’ group on facebook discussed numerous incidents of milk order shortings, delays and non-deliveries lasting more than a week, in some cases several weeks.

In both eastern and western Pennsylvania, shoppers are reporting purchase limits and limited or non-existent supplies of whole milk and cream products at major supermarket chains. (In my own shopping over the weekend, a Weis location just outside of Lancaster had a decent supply of milk, but only a few off-brand unsalted butter packages in the case. I was lucky to pick up the very last Land O’Lakes butter pack lingering way back in the corner. In the baking aisle, the canned evaporated milk shelf was bare.)

A reader from Virginia reached out to say her local Walmart was full with milk Saturday, but not a jug to be found Sunday.

An anecdotal report from a shopper in Florida, after stopping at two stores, found no half and half, no heavy cream, limited fluid milk, a buying limit on cream cheese – but “lots and lots of non-milk ‘milk.’”

Coffee houses are also randomly affected, with reports out of New York and New England. in the Twitterverse noting both real-milk and oat-milk shortages as people tell of stopping at multiple locations for morning lattes. Mothers were also tweeting frustration this week over limited supplies of infant formula in some areas.

Perhaps complicating the issue – waiting in the wings — is the foray of DNA-altered yeast-excrement protein analogs being tested in the supply chains of large global corporations – like Starbucks. A headline from three weeks ago read “Perfect Day’s Dairy-identical Alt Milk lands at Starbucks.”

Starbucks is among the multinationals testing Perfect Day’s DNA-altered yeast-excrement deemed as dairy analogs in select West Coast locations. The Perfect Day company claims to be “on a roll” with the brand valued at over $1.6 billion and recently raising $350 million in its admitted efforts to “remove cows from the dairy industry, without losing the dairy.”

One aspect of the Perfect Day ramp up is the company works B2B with processors, not making their own consumer-facing products. If other companies are experimenting with the goal stated by Perfect Day last year of 2 to 5% augmentation of dairy processing with the yeast-excrement protein analog by 2022, there’s a scenario in this to think about: These protein analogs may be deemed “identical” to whey and casein in processor application, but they do not bring along the healthy fats, minerals, vitamins and other components of real milk.

Could current chaos in cream markets and product availability be a glimpse of future disruptions by protein analogs as the B2B model seeks to dilute real dairy under the guise of cow climate action? That’s a story for another day, but it bears watching in the context of the current paradoxical supply and demand situation right now.

For its part, USDA Dairy Market News reported Dec. 1 that milk output was rising in the East, but demand was still beating it. Then the Dec. 8 report said Northeast milk production had flattened under the pressure of rising input costs and penalties on overbase production.

Specifically, USDA DMN cites steady to higher bottling demand and active cheese production schedules soaking up supplies.

“Cream demand is strong throughout the East,” the Dec. 1st report said. “Some market participants have noted that widespread logistical issues – including driver shortages and delivery delays – pose a greater hindrance to cream-based operations than the tighter cream availability, itself, at this point.”

By December 8th, USDA DMN reported that eastern handlers were working to secure milk spot loads from other areas as local supplies are tight, noting that eastern cream supplies are “tight to extremely tight,” and some dairy processors reported very limited spot load availability.

The report also sought to explain the cream cheese shortage in retail and foodservice channels, noting multiple factors, including “logistics bottlenecks, labor issues and supply shortages at manufacturing facilities.”

While the report indicated stepped up butter production this week, one Pennsylvania milk hauler observed two empty silos and no trucks to be seen at the Carlisle butter/powder plant at the start of this week, which is unusual.

Related to cream cheese production in Northern New York, producers there say they were told plant worker shortages this fall meant less processing of their milk. This resulted in multiple occasions of having to dump milk that could not be processed, but the incidents were deemed “overproduction” with producers footing the bill.

Meanwhile, USDA DMN indicated more outside milk coming East to meet processing needs.

At the same time, dairy producers from multiple cooperatives in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region confirm they are still incurring stiff penalties on over-base milk. While some of the penalty levels have softened a bit from earlier highs, most are still being held to their base levels, or in the case of DFA, the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic producers are still being penalized for milk that is above 88% of their base.

This means in the face of reduced supply vs. strong demand, DFA continues its 12% reduction in base allotments that became prevalent, especially in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region, at the start of the pandemic. 

Furthermore, producers with other cooperatives report they have been warned to expect further deductions on their milk checks this winter – even if they did not exceed their bases — because there is still “too much milk,” they are told.

Attempts to gain further insights on the situation from major milk cooperatives and USDA went unanswered at this writing, so stay tuned for updates.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s