The dairy industry is at a crossroads. As members of the dairy food chain, we can either work together to meet consumer needs and grow demand, or we can stay splintered and wonder why there is not more demand for dairy products.

Working together must include the sharing of ideas for what the industry needs to accomplish in order to deliver quality, innovative products that consumers want. Often, ideas get put on the table, but die for lack of communication within the food chain. Following are five ideas that could help enhance the consumption of dairy products. Use these ideas to help jump start communications up and down the dairy food chain.

1. Serve on-the-go consumers.

On-the-go lifestyles have led to increased ‘dashboard and desktop’ dining.  But we have to think beyond drive-thrus and traditional retail outlets. Can consumers purchase on-the-go packages of mixed cheeses or cheese sticks with or without crackers at sporting events? Or, in vending machines?

And, consider “Quick Start” breakfasts. Most European hotels serve quick breakfasts of cheeses, sausages and breads. This is something U.S. hotels could easily emulate.

2. Make it more convenient.

In addition to the availability of products, consumers also want simplicity and convenience in their foods. We need to offer crackers with cheese spreads and convenience-packaged, bite-size cheeses in more places than just traditional retail outlets. Take the product to consumers. Movie theaters are an excellent example of where on-the-go dairy products could be introduced.

Speaking of movie theaters, how about all-you-want butter dispensers for popcorn? Let customers decide how much butter they want on their popcorn — just like they do with salt.  

3. Keep it cold.

I have visited school cafeterias, fast-food outlets, hospitals, and hotels where fluid milk products have not been refrigerated properly. Nothing turns a consumer off faster than drinking warm milk — especially when that consumer was expecting a glass of  “crispy cold” milk.

Freshness also is critical. Freshness translates into shelf life, which translates into milk quality.

4. Cultivate ethnic markets.

In order to grow dairy demand, we need to focus more on dairy products that fit the cultural differences in the U.S. The most obvious ethnic market involves Hispanics.

When will we have authentic Mexican “white” cheeses readily available? In Mexico, Wal-Mart has Mexican “white” cheeses stacked 3 to 5 feet high at a special cheese counter where customers can have their cheese custom-cut and individually wrapped. By offering that type of service here, we can meet the needs of Hispanic customers. And, many non-Hispanics will buy the cheeses, too.

A change in yogurt to meet Hispanic tastes could increase consumption here. Mexico has one of the highest per capita yogurt consumption rates in the world. However, their yogurt is sweet. In order to meet the needs of Hispanic consumers living in the U.S., we must develop yogurt products that mirror the products served in Mexico, Latin America and Puerto Rico.

5. Cater to the over-50 crowd.

This is the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. And, they have spending power to buy the products they want. Foods that stress calcium content, reduced fat and lower lactose strike a responsive chord, as well as items that are easy to serve and come in smaller portions.

Don’t sit on the sidelines and wait for someone else to take action. Share your ideas with your co-op. Ask your co-op personnel to take these ideas to their processors and retailers. Only when we start communicating up and down the food chain can we achieve our goals and increase demand.

Monte Hemenover is a dairy industry consultant and president of Avenues For Change, St. Louis, Mo.