The numbers speak volumes about consumer preferences – back in 1975, an American consumed 35 pounds on average and nowadays, they consume 15 pounds only. Milk has changed from an indispensable breakfast beverage in the household to a less preferable one. Demand for dairy milk is continuously dropping. However, demand for other dairy products, predominantly cheese, is still increasing – Americans eat 35 pounds of cheese per year, double the amount in 1975.
The rising cheese consumption is mainly pushed by Dairy Management Inc (DMI). DMI sets out to promote dairy to the masses to boost its sales. As cheese is the ‘superstar’ of dairy products, they aim to put more and more of it into the American diet. So where does DMI get the money to achieve this end?
DMI actually manages the dairy checkoff programme with the oversight of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Currently, there are about 2 dozen checkoff programmes covering commodities, such as beef, eggs, avocado and potatoes. They are in place to drive the sales of the industry, ideally benefitting their respective farmers who have to pay a mandatory tax to USDA. In the case of dairy, farmers pay us 15 cents on every 100 pounds of dairy they sell. The money collected is spent on conducting research and marketing initiatives trumpeting the benefits of dairy. The tax and strategy do work– it is estimated that for every dollar a diary producer pays, they will get US$2.14 for milk, US$4.26 for cheese and US$9.63 for butter.
One of the most iconic advertising campaigns by DMI so far is “Got Milk?” Launched in 1993 with US$23 million annual budget by the California Milk Processor Board (CMPB), the campaign started off with a TV commercial directed by Michael Bay and is believed to have driven up the sales of milk briefly (23.3 billion pounds from 1994 to 1995). Later, DMI stepped in and took the campaign nationwide with an US$80 million media buy. From 1995 to 2014, images featuring celebrities with a ‘milk moustache’ were widely advertised. The campaign had an extremely high penetration rate among Americans as 90% of adults knew about it.
However, campaign popularity is not equivalent to effectiveness. The “Got Milk?” campaign did not cause consumers to have a change of heart as milk consumption was still in the decline, partly due to the competition from other beverages, including sodas, juices and energy drinks. Inevitably, non-dairy milks pose a direct threat – some ads rolled out by the dairy industry under “Milk Life” have explicitly lashed out at almond milk. This can be seen as their rather desperate attempt to mitigate the decline.
DMI not only splurges on marketing campaigns, but is also one of the hidden hands behind the American obsession with dairy, particularly cheese. It maintains ongoing partnerships with fast food chains to put more and more cheese on the menu. The 3-cheese stuffed crust pizza is one of the ‘brainchildren’ of Pizza Hut and DMI in 2013. The Quesalupa, a taco served in a cheese-stuffed fried shell, sold out in its four-month limited period and that amounted to 75 million Quesalupas.
Between 2009 and 2011, DMI’s input helped bring McDonald’s an additional 1.7 billion pounds of dairy sales by introducing new desserts, yoghurt, specialty drinks and cheese. There were 6 dairy checkoff programme employees, including dairy scientists, working at the McDonald’s headquarters, ensuring dairy plays an integral part in their product development. All these collaborations have a ripple effect on the fast food industry – when one fast food chain launches a new cheesy item that makes waves with customers, the other chains are bound to follow. The end result is a menu full of cheesy items. The more cheese Americans consume, the more they are hooked, leaving them craving even more.
Another way checkoff programmes insidiously affect the American diet is through influencing the school menu. One example is ‘flavoured milk’ laden with added sugar. The National Fluid Milk Promotion Program (MilkPEP), a checkoff-funded organisation monitored by the USDA, has blasted campaigns targeting school children with taglines “Chocolate Milk Has Muscle” and “Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk”. The fluid milk industry cannot afford to lose ground at schools since its sales consist of 7-8% of the total US fluid milk sales while 70% of milk consumed at schools is flavoured milk. The dairy industry also wants to keep students attached to the product so that they are more likely to keep consuming milk when they grow up.
One major criticism about checkoff programmes is that they put new foodstuffs at a disadvantage. For instance, the American Egg Board President, Joanne Ivy, told their public relations consultants via email that Hampton Creek(food tech company specialising in egg-free products) would pose a threat to the egg product business. In other emails, the Board’s officials said they would file a complaint to the Food and Drug Administration as Hampton Creek’s hero product Just Mayo is misleading and legally a mayonnaise has to contain eggs. Their efforts were thawed, though the episode exposed the flaws of checkoff programmes.
Moreover, the role of the USDA has been questionable. In addition to collecting taxes from the industry, they provide several million dollars a year to the programmes, and approve the marketing campaigns and report to Congress regularly. And here comes the conflict – on one hand, the USDA and Health and Human Services (HHS) jointly release dietary guidelines for Americans, recommending the public cut down on saturated fats and sugar. On the other hand, the USDA supports checkoff programmes that encourage the consumption of cheese and flavoured milk. The conflict illustrates some of the perculiars of the food system and one has to exercise extra caution with their food choices.