Milk’s integrity has been lost behind an increasingly opaque cloud that confuses recognition of the pure and genuine product.
The truth finally came out loud and clear last fall. Fluid milk sales have been declining for years and years. Forty years, to be exact.
It’s neither good news nor a surprise. It’s verification of a trend for which an effective response is about 39 years overdue!
Where have our so-called “industry leaders” been all this time?
The fact that fluid milk sales have been declining has been made obvious with every trip to the supermarket as we see phony “milk” drinks acquiring more and more shelf space at the expense of the real thing. And that’s just one place where the evidence is right in front of our eyes.
A second venue of this battleground for sales growth penetrates us everywhere we can turn. On the TV, radio, internet, etc. The anti-animal agriculture and anti-dairy lobbies have an aggressive agenda and eager spokespeople ... even if they don’t know what they’re talking about. Quite often it’s little more than generously-funded ignorance masquerading as authoritative advice. Sadly, they’re effective and we’re left wondering “how’s that even possible?” We must be more aggressive and creative in having our story told.
Some dairy marketing analysts may recommend that we re-invent milk somehow. Maybe. New paths and products should definitely be a part of any proposal. However, in the search for something new and fancy, let's not bury the basics. Let’s not forget that we’ve got Nature’s most nearly perfect food to begin with.
For further inspiration, let’s look to California for advertisng creativity, Arizona for marketing savvy and New York for progessive infrastructure.
To declare that we’ve allowed the 40-year old downward trend to go basically unchallenged and unanswered for nearly two generations would be an unfair accusation. However, I do believe that it is fair to state that the people behind fluid milk advertising and marketing have been somewhat drowsy about coming up with applaudable solutions. And it’s definitely not just a matter of cost.
For sure, it’s equally as much a matter of direction, quality, taste and integrity.
Having covered dairy promotion meetings for nearly as long as the downward-spiral that’s now finally being acknowledged in fluid milk sales, I can’t remember a single meeting where someone stood at the podium in the front of the room to acknowledge declining sales. Instead, time and time again, I heard affirmation that the dairy promotion program was working and that everyone, including dairy farm families, should be patting themselves on the back. Cheerleaders have been cheering more for themselves as opposed to worthy results.
We’ve been told repeatedly that milk sales have increased by (whatever) since 1984, when the check-off program was launched. I was then, and still am today, a supporter of this program. But I’ve also long suspected that there’s a veil of deception in place. The verification last fall by the leaders of the United Dairy Industry Association (UDIA), the National Dairy Board (NDB), and the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), fortifies that suspicion. Perhaps some folks have just been a bit too comfortable in their respective positions and not motivated enough to shake up the routine meetings with some serious questions.
Let’s take a closer look at the previously mentioned criteria: Direction, Quality, Taste and Integrity. They’re all inter-related, of course, but deserve notation one at a time.
First, let’s look at geographic direction. Many of you here in the East might have seen California milk commercials on television. You know, the milk from happy cows. But what’s that commercial doing here in the East? I can’t find California milk in local supermarkets and I’m not going shopping in Sacramento. How come we aren’t cleverly advertising our own region’s milk? Wouldn’t that make much more sense?
Now, for “innovative” product direction: Who came up with the idea of offering UHT (ultra-high pasteurized) milk to fast food restaurants and grocery stores? Wrong direction! Reason: Poor in quality, taste and integrity! Three strikes! Out!
These days, most all dairy farmers do a commendable job producing high quality milk. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the quality is retained all the way to the consumer’s table. Too often, the freshness and good taste of milk fades before it’s brought home because (seriously) the “quality” trend matches the “consumption” trend. Simply put, offer a good tasting product and you’ll win milk drinkers.
Milk that tastes bad -- especially UHT milk -- drives away customers, who may, in fact, not even realize that they purchased UHT milk to begin with. Naturally, then, they assume that’s what milk tastes like these days and they reduce or even refuse consumption.
Coincidentally, it was approximately 40 years ago when milk in glass bottles and waxed cardboard containers began to disappear from dairy cases throughout the country. Processors' costs and ease of handling at all points trumped quality, and for years thereafter consumers (including me) were subjected to bring home milk that was occasionally off flavor.
Dr. Sid Barnard, a former professor of food science at Penn State, provided convincing research for many years which proved milk quality suffered when it was "bottled" in plastic jugs. To the credit of all concerned, however, it must be said that the light-induced oxidation problem that caused the off flavors has largely been overcome. It's been a very long time since I brought home a gallon of milk that was only fit for the hog trough.
Still, it needs to be acknowledged and addressed that if the milk's flavor is compromised (for whatever reason) to the point of leaving a bad taste in the consumer's mouth, we're losing customers. Quality in terms of freshness and taste should never, ever, be compromised. Yet, we have surely done that by marketing UHT milk.
To be fair and honest, I need to admit that I've had UHT milk that actually went down pretty well. However, more often than not, I find it repulsive. Today, after numerous bad experiences, I won't touch the stuff. The fact is, a bad-tasting product is a sure and fast way to lose repeat customers. How many times, would you, for example, buy the same make of pick-up if the last one or two turned out to be lemons? It’s the same way with milk.
This brings me to the big success story that dairy promoters claim year after year and month after month, which is milk sales at fast food restaurants. Sales are reportedly way up even though the product inside the fancy little container makes no sense at all.
Frankly, you may see me at one of these fast food places, but it's doubtful you'll ever see me drinking milk at McDonald’s or Burger King, etc. I have three reasons:
1. Paying as much as $1.49 for a half pint of milk is beyond ridiculous. When given the opportunity, I'll walk across the street to the convenience store and purchase a quart (four times as much milk) for about the same price. Milk in fast food restaurants is a super-duper rip-off!
2. A half pint of milk is beyond ridiculous, considering the larger size options for other drinks for about the same money.
3. The milk at a growing number of fast food restaurants is UHT milk, aka "junk milk." (See above).
So, McDonalds and all the rest, that's three strikes. You're out!
On second thought, they're not out at all. Dairy farmers are. The taste, quality and integrity of their product has been so mismanaged, misguided and misrepresented that we're now seeing a "crisis", according to the powers that represent our industry.
I'm pleased they're finally recognizing and acknowledging the position we're in, which is in a hole.
The milk sales challenge would be well served if we address the above problems, which can really be summed up in a single word: Integrity. It's been lost behind an increasingly opaque cloud that confuses recognition of the pure and genuine product.
Not only have we, ourselves, failed to uphold the higher standards that are achievable for our own product, we have witnessed competing products such as "coconut milk," "soy milk," "almond milk," etc. gain shelf space while using the good name of cows’ milk.
That shelf-intruding stuff isn't milk, folks. It's more like juice and it should be labeled and marketed as such.
In summary, I think it's fair to state that we have shot ourselves in the foot a time or two; stuck our heads in the sand from time to time and been left pretty near speechless as competing products take up more and more shelf space at milk's expense. Your expense, really.
I sincerely hope that the trend will finally be reversed, now that the top brass at the responsible associations is owning up to four decades worth of questionable programming, performance and progress.