Guest Columns

Industry Issues

As summer recess ends, challenges (and opportunities) loom large

Connie Tipton

Connie Tipton is president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association. She contributes this column exclusively for Cheese Market News®.

As we reach the end of August and the onset of a new season, schools begin their new year, Congress returns soon to the nation’s capital and everyone is rededicated to work, having been restored by vacation memories.
Looking ahead to September, I see some big challenges and opportunities on the horizon.

Let’s start with nutrition policy. We all know that First Lady Michelle Obama has made reducing childhood obesity a national cause where she is using her considerable clout to make a difference. I think that’s a great goal, and it’s great to see kids learning more about healthy foods and where they come from. We would love to see the First Lady visit a dairy farm or a processing plant. After all, dairy products provide an incomparable suite of “great-for-you” nutrients, with protein and calcium ranking at the top in driving sales. We literally have something for everyone who is concerned about healthy nutrition.

But once the speeches are given and the photo-ops are over, the challenge is for the administration to implement — and the food industry to support — a nutrition policy that goes beyond what “not-to-eat.” We certainly don’t want to see the un-Jolly Green Giant of Washington, a.k.a., federal bureaucracy, taking away healthy options and consumer choice.

Let me give you a couple of examples of how this “not-to-eat” climate affects us. FDA wields a fairly mighty sword, and what concerns me is its pen and what the agency will decide to require on food package labels.

FDA currently is looking at front-of-pack labeling and changes to the Nutrition Facts panel; these are significant issues for dairy products and packaging. We’ve learned from a lot of nutrition research that good health is not about any single food that one selects but about a true balance of diet and regular exercise … in other words, moderation. The same could be said for labeling updates; they are most effective when balanced, educating consumers about a variety of nutrients, not just ones the government believes they should avoid.

Equally troubling are the rules that USDA issued for school breakfast and lunch this past year, which affected what can be served in the cafeteria, and additional changes are coming for what’s allowed in a la carte and school vending machines. Regulations have reached the point where pretty much all dairy products have some restrictions for fat, calories, sugar and sodium. Dairy is still part of the mix, but it’s a shrinking mix, especially for milk because now only fat-free or lowfat white milk and only fat-free flavored milk are allowed. As a result, milk consumption and milk sales in schools have started to plummet, with a decrease in sales volume of 5.1 percent or 23 million gallons during the last school year. So these regulations have real consequences, and unfortunately, one of those “unintended” consequences is that most teens are now deficient in their calcium intakes.

But what troubles me the most, what really keeps me up at night, are the consequences for consumers. And by consumers, I mean all of us who are now faced with government policy that is based only on things to avoid eating or drinking. Somewhere along the way, the idea of an informed consumer — a great idea — got dumbed down to a dangerous level where we’re starting to see more regulatory decisions that are not based on scientific, clinical-based evidence.

On another front, Congress returns to Washington and to work on a full plate of issues on Sept. 9, with precious few work days in the month to try to accomplish closure on government funding issues, a farm bill, immigration reform and a whole host of other pressing issues. There is little doubt that legislators will need to extend funding for the government beyond the fiscal year-end on Sept. 30, but how the politics and policy will be ironed out, if at all, is a pretty big mystery.

On the farm bill, we built a strong coalition that defeated dairy supply management by a 2-to-1 margin in the House of Representatives, and we’ll continue working to keep this coalition focused on passing a bill so long as supply management isn’t part of it. It would be much better for the dairy industry to get a safety net policy that can actually help dairy markets work than just to receive an extension of the status quo.

All of these government challenges require critical evaluation, research and analysis to bring the facts to the people who are writing policies that affect price, availability and demand for our products. IDFA’s job is to educate policy makers about real consequences and help guide future policy decisions in commonsense directions.

But it’s also important to engage our customers and consumers in a dialogue. For example, we need to better understand what moms want and think is important, and we need to make sure they have the facts, too. We have our homework cut out for us, but I know the industry is up for this fact-finding and educational opportunity.

IDFA will provide critical analysis and new insights on all of these topics and more at the International Dairy Show, Nov. 3-6 at McCormick Place in Chicago, as well as at Dairy Forum 2014, Jan. 26-29, at the J.W. Marriott Desert Springs Resort in California. Be sure to join us.


The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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