Commentary: Let’s solve the fluid milk crisis

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ORLANDO, Fla. ― The first step in solving a problem is admitting there is a problem.

Indeed, after more than 40 years of declining fluid milk sales, dairy promotion officials are talking candidly about the problem and what needs to be done.

“As you are painfully aware, fluid milk is in crisis,” Barbara O’Brien, president of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, told those attending the joint annual meeting of the National Milk Producers Federation and Dairy Management Inc. this week in Orlando, Fla.

“Can fluid milk be saved?” she asked somewhat rhetorically. “We know the answer is ‘yes.’”

There is no “silver bullet.” Instead, there are various pathways to explore.

One pathway is to engage leaders from across the industry in constructive dialogue. Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), which manages the national dairy checkoff program, calls this the “trustee” approach. A trustee is someone who has an interest ― indeed an obligation ― to promote the best interests of the industry, which means listening to ideas and trying new things.

Another pathway is better packaging. Not that there’s anything wrong with the gallon jugs; they have been fixtures in American homes for years. But lifestyles have changed. Many Americans now consume a majority of their food and beverages away from home. Under those circumstances, single-serve milk containers make more sense.

Finding single-serve containers can be difficult at times. I know this week, as I was heading to the airport in Orlando, I stopped at a convenience store to buy some chocolate milk and there was only one kind ― the extra rich, whole milk variety that I ended up buying, but wanted a better choice.    

Something has to be done.

A couple of weeks ago, I learned of a research study ― the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ― which showed that 43 percent of teenagers (aged 13 through 17) do not drink milk. Not only are these kids being deprived of an important nutritional source, they are taking on consumption patterns that will follow them into adulthood. That does not bode well for the future of milk consumption unless something changes.

A good starting point would be to provide the kids with choices ― cold milk in accessible places in convenient packaging in a variety of flavors.

“We have to make sure milk is convenient to use whenever (people) want it,” Jim Wegner, president and CEO of Darigold Cooperative, said at this week’s meeting in Orlando.

 I couldn’t agree more.

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PA  |  November, 02, 2012 at 08:59 AM

The primary problem is most definitely NOT the availability of flavored milk in single serve containers. Seriously, what convenience stores have you been shipping in to think that is a problem? The problem is that the product we promote tastes horrible. My kids refuse to drink the "chocolate water" and "chalk water" served by their school. Fortunately, they can hold out and come home to get real milk but that's not the case in many homes because we have fallen into the "low-fat" trap. Just this week there was an article on this site about the health BENEFITS of milk fat. There are studies that compare kids who drink whole versus low fat milk. The whole milk drinkers are skinnier. Let's start promoting a healthy AND tasty product! Kids and milk fat study:

KS  |  November, 02, 2012 at 12:12 PM

How do I make this comment not cynical?Oh well. So 40 YEARS of declining milk sales and we act like "admitting there's a problem" is a huge step we've taken. 40 DAYS of declining sales and we shouldnt just be admitting theres a problem, we should be identifying it and solving it. Groups (Companies?)that manage Checkoff programs have performance bars set so low they rival members of Congress. Okay so pathway to success #1: Engage industry leaders in constructive dialogue......I cant even hardly type that with a straight face. The fact that this isnt already done is astounding. Trustees are people who have an interest , an obligation, to promote dairy? I dont understand who this isnt. Heres the deal, anything coming internally always looks/is biased. We need more outside groups/people promoting milk: pediatricians, heart organizations, physicians, world health organizations, etc.. "they already do" you say, yeah but NOT LOUD ENOUGH!! HSUS commercial? I better see a commercial next with 10 doctors promoting milk. Mercy for Animals video? I better see African children dying from malnutrition next. Gatorade on the sidelines? Why isnt milk the official sponsor of XYZ conference, or the Little League World Series, or that race you run in the mud with your buddies. #2-New packaging?Couldnt agree more. Who is designing our packages? 95 yr old pennypinching grandmas? They might as well put it next to the beans that come in plastic bags that you have to sort out the rocks yourself. Hire a professional organization to design packaging and placement in stores. Please God tell me dairymen or former dairymen aren't in charge of this. Outside promotions,commercials,packaging,design admitting theres a prob is lol late

clear lake, wi  |  November, 02, 2012 at 04:06 PM

We all know as producers we are making natures most perfect food......but it is also the best kept secret on the market today. WE DON'T ADVERTIZE!!!!! A billboard every 100 miles with a celebrity spouting a silly "mustache" can't possibly account for the money we all pay into advertizing. You want about big labels with the 97-98-99% fat free instead of the inverse. How about the fact that we FINALLY got round containers in the last couple of years. What an amazing breakthrough, especially when colas (our competition) have ONLY came in round containers. Our co-ops and therefore our industry that we are all so proud of is sleeping at the switch. After all, there is no incentive to get a higher price for our product marketing it they way co-ops do. They get their salary either way, complacent or not. If our industry leaders were in charge of Budweiser with our current strategy, they would have a lower and lower market presence and would invariably be sold out to a better competitor. We still accept what they tell us: do a better job with our cows, expand, go deeper into debt, assume more risk to increase our profitability. That is only 1/2 of the equation. We are doing our job which has masked our leaders ineptitude. I agree with Josh, instead of lying down and accepting the results of one study, or the wishes of 1 politicians wife to balance our kids rations based on 1/3 of the kids being obese while the other 2/3 are now being underfed is ridiculous. We are seeing the results of the milk marketing done over the past decades. If we truly want different results, shouldn't we do SOMETHING different. Oh wait we are....we are engaging in conversation to ascertain if a problem truly exists. Wow.

WI  |  November, 03, 2012 at 07:28 PM

Maybe after 40 years it is time to get rid of the old fossils at the helm of DMI and NMPF and hire some competent people who are held accountable for there performance. Any other company would have long ago fired this crew in charge of our promotion dollars. I would compare the staff now to the amateur refs at the beginning of the NFL season.The problem is they have to answer to no one. There big fat salary checks keep coming and nothing changes.

wi  |  November, 04, 2012 at 11:55 AM

Why aren't the people packaging and selling milk as intelligent and aggressive in their methods as the Cokes and Pepsi's of this world?

KS  |  November, 04, 2012 at 05:27 PM

I dont know why, but I kind of imagine it like this: Bud, Pepsi, Coke, Coors, Gatorade, etc all have professional, expert outfits in charge of their marketing and branding and packaging. They poll interest groups, do tons of market research, etc etc. So what can we do about that? Well, obviously we cant do anything about the competition (I use that term loosely as they are mopping the floor with us), but we can do something for ourselves. Decide to compete!! And once we make that decision, apply all resources available to building a team of experts and professional firms that will enable us to compete. Prune away all current programs and campaigns that are ineffective and redirect those resources to this new goal. The product is ripe and begging for a new market, but it will take some new thinking. FWIW, I think the things with McDonalds and Dominos and stuff are great, and I dont mean to make light of those efforts in any way. The issue I have is that it seems like we are highjumping over a 3ft bar. Its hard to tell if current "successes" are really small compared to what COULD be. Are we successful? well yeah but are we striving for more than that? Regarding the funding, Im not an expert at all, but I do know how much our farm pays in, every 2 weeks, and its a lot, and were just 1 farm, a big farm, but still.

Virginia  |  November, 05, 2012 at 09:02 AM

Cheryl is right on. how about 6, 12, or 24 packs of single serve milk containers and in different container sizes - 6, 8, 12, 16 ounce sizes. What about boxing milk like they box wine? Time to stop packaging milk and other dairy products for the processors' convenience and start thinking about who is (or was) consuming milk.

November, 05, 2012 at 10:19 AM

Maybe this all comes down to the fact that if our processors would advertise and push for fluid milk sales more than they do, it would raise the price of all milk that they buy. For example there are 300 million people in this country, and fluid milk consumption has declined by 10 gallons per capita thats 3 billion gallons that our processors dont have to compete with for products that they get a make allowance for. Thats 26 billion lbs of milk that that they do not get a make allowance on, if make allowance is $.17 per cwt that would be $44 million dollars that they would not receive. Further more that is all before class 1-4 percentages that change the pay out. Maybe this is an issue that all producers should raise to their milk processors.

The Guy From Guernsey    
the plains  |  November, 05, 2012 at 11:16 PM

... found in another headline in today's Dairy Herd Network e-newsletter: "Got Milk? Miranda Lambert does". The Milk Mustache campaign, while really cool and highly decorated as an ad campaign, simply has not generated favorable results for fluid milk sales. Currently, the ad campaign seems to be nothing more than an act of vanity by DMI executives on behalf of the industry - a vain attempt to connect them and the dairy producers which they represent with pop culture. But, unlike the latest designer dress or athletic shoe, apparently very few in the consuming public think highly enough about "who's sporting a Milk Mustache" to buy an extra serving of milk. It is time for board members to ask some difficult questions; establish some firm objectives for Thomas Gallagher (CEO of DMI), and others in the DMI executive ranks to achieve. Absent substantive, short term progress - "well, ya gotta let 'em go." (Clint Eastwood).

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