Big Dairy Is Looking to Sell More Milk—and a Perception of Better Health

February 7, 2019
Sarah Reinhardt
Senior Analyst, Food Systems and Health

The dairy industry has been busy lately. Or should I say, “Big Dairy,” a powerful collective of deep-pocketed lobby groups including the International Dairy Foods Associations and multinational corporations like Land O’Lakes and Dean Foods. In total, these and other big industry players spent $7.4 million on lobbying during 2018—and the payoff is showing up in various new government policies.

Just since December, for example:

  • The 2018 Farm Bill included a new section, “Healthy fluid milk incentives projects,” which authorizes projects that would boost milk sales among Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) users.
  • The Food and Drug Administration concluded a public comment period on whether it was acceptable to use terms like “milk,” “yogurt,” or “cheese” on the labels of plant-based dairy alternatives, such as soy milk or almond milk—whose markets are rapidly expanding.
  • And now, House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) has teamed up with Representative Glenn Thompson (R-PA) to introduce a bill that would roll back school nutrition regulations by allowing schools to serve full-fat flavored (read: sweetened) varieties. This builds on a rule published by the USDA late last year that allowed low-fat flavored milk, rather than just fat-free flavored milk, in schools.

Is whole milk bad for our health? Maybe not, suggests emerging research. But this legislation, much like the others, isn’t about health. It’s about scoring simultaneous wins for Big Dairy and the sugar industry, who see the 30 million students across the country as a receptive audience for more of their products, and full-fat chocolate milk as a good way to deliver them.

These policy changes are responses to a multi-year crisis facing dairy farms of all stripes, which has had real and lasting consequences for farmers across the country.

But is pushing more milk really what’s best for struggling small farms—and is it really what’s best for our health?

More milk could keep Big Dairy in a cycle of subsidies—and won’t do small farms any favors

There is no mistaking the severity of the US dairy crisis that has been building for more than a decade. A steady flow of federal farm subsidies have driven overproduction and resulted in tremendous price drops, creating an environment in which only industrial dairy farms are likely to survive. Between 1970 and 2017, the United States lost nearly 94 percent of its dairy farms, with surviving farms trending toward more cows and higher milk production. In 2017, the state of Wisconsin alone lost 500 dairy farms. To make matters worse, dairy farmers were caught in the middle of last year’s trade wars, as Mexico and Canada responded to US tariffs with tariffs on a number of dairy products. While the government offered farmers a bailout program to cushion the blow, for most, it was too little and too late. As many farmers continue to face the reality of losing their livelihoods, the outcomes are nothing short of tragic.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett talks with a local dairy farmer. In 2017, the state of Wisconsin lost 500 dairy farms. Photo: barrett4wi/CC BY SA 2.0 (Flickr)

But this isn’t the first time our agricultural system has been confronted by a crisis of overproduction, and it certainly isn’t the first time we’ve tried to remedy it by strengthening subsidies and expanding markets, rather than by limiting production. And history has shown us that this doubling-down strategy can leave farmers unwittingly trapped in a perpetual cycle of high production and low prices that really only works for Big Dairy. As retired Wisconsin dairyman Jim Goodman wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “Farmers don’t want subsidies. All we ever asked for were fair prices.”

But what has given this political strategy some degree of cover is the notion that increasing dairy sales is a win-win, with the underlying message that more dairy is good—even essential—for our health.

Is that really true?

Milk may not be essential to health

Given the ways that milk has been integrated into the fabric of our federal food programs, it would be natural to assume that the science is settled on its health benefits. Milk is a required component of every federally subsidized school breakfast and lunch, as well as after-school and summer meals; is included in food packages for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and even has a designated place on USDA’s MyPlate. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that each of us consume about 3 cups (or cup equivalents) of dairy per day.

But in reality, the science isn’t quite so straightforward.

In fact, existing evidence has led groups like the American Medical Association to adopt the position that both meat and dairy products should be optional components of the diet, while both Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate and Canada’s dietary guidelines recommend water—not milk—as their beverage of choice.

Milk does contain key vitamins and minerals such as calcium, potassium, and (when fortified) vitamin D—all nutrients we’re not getting enough of in a typical diet. And some studies have shown that dairy intake is associated with reduced risk of certain chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease. But dairy isn’t the only place we can find these beneficial nutrients. Certain types of fish, beans, leafy greens, and tofu offer calcium; a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables provide ample potassium; and fatty fish and other fortified foods are good sources of vitamin D. (Of course, there’s also the sun.) According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, most of these are foods that we generally under-consume, and eating a diet with more of them would come with its own health benefits.

We also know that many people have an impaired ability to digest milk, a condition known as lactose intolerance. It’s estimated that about 36 percent, or just over a third, of all people in the US have lactose intolerance, with higher rates among African Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans, and Hispanics and Latinos. If dairy is truly a necessary component of the diet, a lot of us are in trouble.

What does it all mean?

Enjoying a tub of ice cream, circa 1995.

Do you like dairy? Nice. Me too.

Do we need to stop eating it? No. (Although there are cases to be made for eating less.)

Does that mean that the dairy industry, rather than public health, should set our policy agenda? Absolutely not.

The bottom line is this: the science may yet be unsettled on dairy, but we can say with certainty that it’s not good for any of us when our public policies are shaped by industry—least of all by Big Dairy.

Let’s look for a different kind of win-win—one that will benefit real family farmers more than multinational corporations and provide the public with reliable information about our dietary choices. It’s about time.