By Sherry Bunting, published in Farmshine, May 5, 2023
The purpose of Pennsylvania’s 1930s Milk Marketing Law was to regulate and support the Commonwealth’s dairy industry. Today, it continues to set a retail minimum price for milk through the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board (PMMB) while most other states have zero protection against supermarkets using milk as a loss-leader to attract shoppers.
To me, that’s the real problem. Nationwide, consumers don’t know or appreciate the true value of milk after years of rampant and extreme loss-leading. I’m not talking about random sales to clear inventory, I’m talking about day-in-day-out well-below-cost prices as a retail business model.
Supermarkets chains have gotten into doing their own milk bottling or refuse to pay for services or quality as a way to avoid eating all of the cost of their own decisions to knock the price of milk back several dollars per gallon. They know milk is in 95% of shopping baskets. It’s a staple. If their store brand is the cheapest around, they’ll get your business and sell other high margin items at the same time.
Dairy farmers and milk bottlers, quite frankly, should not be on the hook for that. Period. But indirectly they are.
At the federal level, no one wants to address this because USDA also benefits when it comes to buying cheap (skimmed) milk for food programs like school lunch, where they also reimburse Impossible not-burger, nacho chips and pop-tarts — but not whole milk, only skimmed.
Is it any wonder consumers balk at spending $5 for a gallon of milk in Pennsylvania but will pay $1.50 for a cup of water, even more for a cup of water with artificial additives?
Is it any wonder consumers don’t think of milk’s nutritional value next to other protein and vitamin drinks? Intrinsically, the higher margin drinks are perceived as more valuable because the price is higher. Milk is perceived as worth less than water!
This makes Pennsylvania a sitting duck in a national, no, a global market. Why? Because Pennsylvania sets a minimum retail and wholesale milk price each month.
Pennsylvania’s Milk Marketing Law prevents supermarkets from selling milk under the monthly announced state-minimum price. The over-order premium (OOP) portion of this price was intended to help Pennsylvania farmers. The Milk Marketing Law already gives the retailers and bottlers a 2.5 to 3.5% profit margin over average industry costs within that set minimum-price buildup.
The OOP is currently set by the PMMB at $1.00 per hundred pounds of milk plus a 44-cent per hundredweight fuel adjuster. This come out to 13 cents per gallon paid within the state minimum retail price that is meant to be the farmer’s over-order premium (OOP).
A variety of loopholes have diminished how much of the state-mandated OOP gets back to Pennsylvania dairy farmers as intended by the law. It has encouraged interesting business models that involve more out-of-state milk coming in to displace Pennsylvania milk in some Pennsylvania stores (and some creative accounting for sure).
Whether in tankers or packages, more out-of-state milk is competing with an unfair advantage when the built-in OOP is either collected and not paid to farmers or remains completely undocumented — floating around and up for grabs by the supply chain.
Senate Ag Minority Chair Judy Schwank had an interesting exchange with Chuck Turner of Turner Dairy near Pittsburgh during the recent Senate Ag hearing on the matter. She asked whether or not the aseptically processed, shelf-stable milk, which she buys, has the OOP built into its price.
Turner explained that for the members of the Pennsylvania Association of Milk Dealers, the OOP is factored in as a cost that they incur when they procure milk within the state and then return this OOP to their Pennsylvania farmers based on their sales of Class I fluid milk products within the state.
On the other hand, when a Nestle or some other company, like fairlife, makes a shelf-stable flavored milk that ends up in a retail dairy case in Pennsylvania, the OOP doesn’t enter into their thought process on these products coming most likely from Indiana (and New York), he said. To his mind, that means it does not “collect” OOP.
In reality, such out-of-state packaged fluid milk products that fall into the Class I fluid milk category are ‘collecting’ the OOP — even ultrafiltered and aseptically packaged milk. These products compete for Pennsylvania consumer dollars. Whether out-of-state fluid milk products are unflavored or flavored, fresh or shelf-stable, they are part of the unknown number Schwank said the Senate Ag Committee needs to know.
It doesn’t matter if the milk is sold above state-minimum price, the OOP is in there.
Take for example the fresh fluid milk brands that are bottled in Pennsylvania — that are not shelf-stable – but are priced on supermarket shelves above the state minimum retail price.
This happens when stores like Walmart and Costco want to differentiate their private label store brands as the lowest-price. What do they do? They put other brands higher.
Since supermarkets in Pennsylvania cannot go below the state’s minimum price to “loss-lead” with their in-house private label, they bump-up the price on competing name brands instead.
In some cases, this pressures sales volume even lower for name brands that are produced, processed and sold in Pennsylvania, reducing the OOP that goes back to the Pennsylvania farms. At the same time, some of the private-label store brands sold at state-minimum fall into the category of breaking the chain of produced, processed and sold in Pennsylvania, which affords them the ability to keep the farmer’s OOP.
Here’s my bottom line from the recent Pennsylvania Senate Ag hearing on the OOP:
For 15 years grassroots dairy producer groups have been grappling with the concerns shared at the hearing, and how the OOP may be affecting the use of Pennsylvania-produced milk in Pennsylvania consumer markets. The embarrassment of not knowing definitively how much fluid milk is sold in the state and how much premium is stranded off-record or on-record has been the subject of meetings, hearings, estimates, emotion, stonewalling and bickering for over 15 years!
Attempts have been made by lawmakers like former State Senator Mike Brubaker and current State Representative John Lawrence repeatedly putting forward bills that would have penetrated the armor surrounding this issue.
Now, in the past 12 to 18 months, we have the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau on high-alert, the Department of Agriculture now is involved and has come up with a plan.
The CDE and PDMP are studying the issues around the premium and the obstacles to processing investment with the help of a Cornell economist.
And the Senate Ag Chairman and Minority Chair offered their data-driven bills last session and will offer them again, because, of course, they are paralyzed by still needing that data they’ve been needing for 15 years!
Now, as the fluid milk market is in steep decline over the past 15 years (ironically the same 15 years in which whole milk and 2% milk have been federally prohibited as choices in schools and daycares)…
Now as most of the milk bottling assets, nationally, are owned by cooperatives and most of the rest by retailers…
Now as fluid milk plants are closing to the south and the west, while Pennsylvania has managed to hold on to a core of independent bottlers…
Now as the state courts the favor of Coca-Cola / fairlife or other new processors to invest in Pennsylvania … (Coca-Cola announced May 9 that New York will get the new plant).
Now as everyone is sitting up noticing that the tens of millions of Pennsylvania-paid ‘stranded’ OOP annually over the past 15-plus years may have been fueling growth beyond Pennsylvania’s borders while Pennsylvania’s own farms have been stagnated by more stringent supply management programs due to lack of processing capacity…
Here we are, back to the question of needing the data. Senators were interested in doing something, but Chairman Elder Vogel, said threading the needle will be difficult, and Minority Chair Schwank said “we have to have the data.”
Pennsylvania is enduring erosion on one hand in part because of the OOP and/or the minimum pricing, while on the other hand, these structures are believed by some to provide a stabilizing effect for the Class I bottlers that remain.
And so, the cats keep chasing their tails around the milk bowl!
Meanwhile, more producers have strived to get some of their milk outside of this game by selling it raw – an entirely separate market. The PMMB reached out to a number of them last year telling them they had to be licensed and do monthly reports, then backed off a bit for the time being. They are not the problem. Their milk is not pasteurized, and it is not part of the system in Federal Milk Marketing Orders either.
My biggest questions after the recent hearing, after 15 years of following this and for a time helping farmers who were involved in seeking changes more than a decade ago: Where would we be today if in any of the prior legislative bills, meetings, hearings, plans, would have moved forward in some fashion?
And yes, this too is related: Where would we be today if whole milk had not been removed from schools?
One thing is clear on the first question, we would by now have solved the math equation of A + B = C instead of estimating, stonewalling, bickering…
On the second question? We might be selling more milk.
Read Part One and Part Two of the PA Senate Ag Hearing about the ABC’s of the OOP here and here