THE national dairy checkoff has recently seen some significant marketplace successes, but these didn't happen overnight, according to Tom Gallagher, chief executive officer of Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), which manages the dairy checkoff program.
"The story is really a long-term story," Gallagher explained. "Over two-and-a-half decades, dairy farmers have invested in milk fat research led by Dr. Greg Miller, a researcher who believed that there was a difference (between) dairy fat and fat in general."
By funding that research over a long period of time, the science has evolved to the point now that the rest of the world understands the story, Gallagher said. "Without that long-term investment, that would not have happened," he added.
DMI said research conducted through the checkoff-funded National Dairy Council is starting new conversations and encouraging people to take a fresh look at butter and other dairy products. Additionally, DMI said consumers increasingly are craving "real" foods, and butter — made from real milk — fits the bill.
According to Gallagher, creating a network and developing relationships has been the key to the success of the dairy fat story.
The most recent success in the marketplace is McDonald's decision to replace liquid margarine with real butter at all of its 14,000 U.S. restaurants. This announcement is big news for dairy farmers because more than 20 national menu items will now be made with butter, including signature offerings such as the Egg McMuffin. This could mean an additional 500-600 million lb. of milk equivalent used annually, according to Scott Wallin, DMI director of consumer confidence.
Wallin said McDonald's was one of the checkoff's first partners, and the relationship has grown to the point where there are checkoff employees at McDonald's headquarters to help develop, test, position and market new dairy-friendly items.
"When McDonald's said it wanted to use real American butter instead of margarine and needed the checkoff's help to make the switch, it was the result of many factors, including the research, relationships, credibility of staff and their ability to help companies grow dairy sales," Wallin said.
In 2009, DMI forged its relationship with McDonald's whereby on-site individuals worked with the McDonald's chef. More than 600 million lb. of milk annually have been sold through the restaurant's McCafe menu, which was created by a DMI scientist, Gallagher said. McDonald's children's yogurt, its newly launch mozzarella sticks and anything else that's dairy on the menu are also the result of DMI's work, he added.
"It's a big story for dairy farmers and for the industry," Gallagher said.
Consumers are going to see more and more advertising for butter and basically get "permission" from ads and health professionals to eat real butter because of the science behind it, he said.
"It wasn't too long ago when the dietary guidelines said two servings of dairy (per day), and everybody thought we were going to end up losing the category in the dietary guidelines of dairy," Gallagher explained. "Instead, because of the science we did here and the health professional partners, every one of them, before the dietary guidelines in 2005 came out, stood behind us with the need for three servings of dairy."
Gallagher said there's even the potential that the dairy checkoff's work could change the dietary guidelines in 2020.
"We've seen whole milk (consumption) growing after declining for 20 years," he said.
Harold Shaulis, a Pennsylvania dairy farmer and DMI board member who has been active in dairy promotion for 20 years, said the recent successes are happening much faster than in the past due to the catalytic effect. DMI's work at McDonald's has expanded beyond it to other restaurants that compete with McDonald's.
"Everything now is going basically at light speed forward," Shaulis said. "It used to be that it would take years for any changes to develop. Now, it just seems like we can hardly keep up with all of the things going on. Just what we've done in the last five years working with partnerships has taken us light years beyond where we were just five years ago."
Shaulis said the checkoff is at least doubling or tripling the hard-earned dollars U.S. dairy farmers are putting into the program to make things happen.
"The bottom line is, we're selling more dairy product," he said, adding that DMI got out of advertising because it wasn't working; "it wasn't selling more production."
Much of the recent success has been because of the partnerships established, according to Shaulis. DMI has partnerships with companies like Taco Bell, Quaker, Pepsi, Pizza Hut and Domino's. Additionally, initiatives like Fuel Up to Play 60 — the nation's largest in-school wellness program, founded in part by the dairy checkoff — have been instrumental in expanding the dairy market.
"It's a herd mentality," he said. "When one sees it happening, one sees it going; that's all we need to accomplish. We get that group, that business, that person involved, and the rest come over, doubling, tripling or more the investment that we, as dairy farmers, put into the checkoff."
Fuel Up Spanish resources
Fuel Up to Play 60 is now providing resources to help Spanish-speaking communities live healthier lifestyles through physical activity and good nutrition that includes low-fat and fat-free dairy.
Culturally relevant resources in Spanish are available at FuelUptoPlay60.com to help extend the program's reach to students, teachers and families across the nation.
Increasing access to Fuel Up to Play 60 is critical as the Hispanic population in schools is projected to increase to 29% of total enrollment by 2024, and Spanish will be the most spoken non-English language in the U.S.
"The dairy checkoff is pleased to broaden our Fuel Up to Play 60 resources and make them available to a growing and vital segment of our country's student population," said DMI chairman Paul Rovey, an Arizona dairy farmer. "All kids deserve the opportunity to lead a healthy life. Fuel Up to Play 60 can help make this happen."
With more than 73,000 schools participating nationwide, Fuel Up to Play 60 has contributed to 13 million students eating better by adding nutritious foods such as low-fat and fat-free milk and milk products to their meals. Additionally, the organization said 16 million students are getting more physically active through the initiative.