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Ask the Monger: How Can There Be Milk Waste and Shortages at the Same Time?

How is it that there can be milk waste and retail milk shortages at the same time?

It’s sad to picture the millions of pounds of milk that have been dumped since the COVID-19 pandemic came to this continent. Just how much fresh milk has gone down the drain is hard to calculate, but an article in the May 1, 2020, issue of the Capital Press (the West Coast’s weekly agricultural newspaper) quotes the Idaho Dairymen’s Association at 700,000 to one-million pounds of milk going to waste every day. That’s close to 100,000 gallons, if you’re curious. Yet for a time at least, grocery stores were short of this staple food. The cause of this paradox boils down to the efficiency of the fluid milk supply chain in this country—an efficiency based on a supply and demand that is somewhat predictable. There are other circumstances that can lead to the dumping of milk, but let’s take a pared-down look at how our fluid milk supply was affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

When restaurants and schools closed all across the nation, they all but ceased buying milk, cheese, and butter. It is estimated that about half of the cheese produced in the United States is destined for food service, and because it takes a great deal of milk to make cheese (more than one gallon for each pound of cheese) the decline in foodservice demand meant a huge drop in cheese production. This almost-overnight loss instantly created a staggering surplus of milk. At the same time that restaurants and schools were shuttered, consumer purchases increase at the grocery store. Shoppers usually found plenty of cheese, but jugs and cartons of milk were scarce. Now, picture an efficient milk processing plant designed to run at peak with milk coming in and going out at a steady, sustainable pace. These fluid milk processors cannot rapidly re-tool to increase production, nor was much of the surplus milk actually available for them to bottle. Things such as milk contracts and regulations for milk quality mean that the destination of the milk cannot quickly change. In addition, many of these processors were impacted by the same health concerns experienced by other industries.

Global pandemic issues affected our dairy farmers as well. For example, one of the biggest importers of powdered milk is China. When the coronavirus hit that country, those sales disappeared, so farmers contracted to produce fluid milk for this specialized segment of the processing chain had nowhere to send their milk.

Seasonality also had its hand in the volume of milk that was dumped. With spring comes calves and with calves comes a huge increase in milk—dubbed the “spring flush” by dairy farmers. In other words, the timing of the surplus couldn’t have been worse for the farmers. A cow isn’t a machine for which you can turn a knob and adjust the production. In fact, it’s almost another paradox that such a highly perishable product made by a living creature is produced, processed, and distributed by such a complex supply chain.

Gianaclis Caldwell

Gianaclis Caldwell is the author of Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking, among other books. She manages the goat herd and cheesemaking operations at Pholia Farm Creamery in Oregon.

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