Editorial Comment Publisher/Editor



Coronavirus: A Once-In-A-Century Dairy Issue

Dick Groves
Cheese Reporter

March 20, 2020

In the ongoing situation surrounding coronavirus, the most appropriate operative word might be “ongoing.” This isn’t a situation that changes weekly or daily, but rather hourly, if not more rapidly than that. And nobody seems to know when the crisis will end, or even begin to show signs of slowing down.

For an industry that’s grown accustomed to uncertainty, well, the coronavirus pandemic offers uncertainty unlike any other. One comparison we keep reading and hearing about is with the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19, which wreaked havoc around the world and killed between 20 to 40 million people or more (depending on the source of information).

That’s certainly an eye-opening and frightening comparison, but it isn’t necessarily something that can help the dairy industry deal with the coronavirus pandemic, for several reasons. Among others: US milk production back then was under 100 billion pounds, compared to 218 billion pounds last year; cheese output was under 500 million pounds, compared to 13.1 billion pounds last year; there were over 20 million milk cows back then compared to about 9.3 million today; and there were thousands of cheese plants back then, compared to around 550 today.

One thing that hasn’t really changed very much over the last century is the basic way in which the dairy industry functions. That is, it all begins on the farm (although there are a few companies working to make it all begin in the lab), with milk then moving to dairy plants and then through various channels to the end user.

And it appears that the first part of that sequence isn’t changing much during the current pandemic. Cows are still being milked every day, plants are turning out everything from cheese and butter to yogurt and fluid milk on a daily basis, and these products are then making their way to consumers. Business is continuing. It has to.

Indeed, both Michael Dykes, president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association, and Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, issued statements on Monday stating that the dairy supply chain isn’t experiencing any disruptions at this time.

Well, at least not until products reach the store level, where at least some consumers are exhibiting what might be considered irrational behavior when it comes to food shopping. It’s hard to believe that, after years of declining fluid milk sales, some retailers are being forced to limit milk sales to avoid shortages.

Indeed, it is after dairy products leave the plants, and before they reach consumers, that there appears to be the most dairy industry disruption, at least at this time. Back in the early decades of the 20th century, dining out wasn’t all that prevalent. One piece of evidence to illustrate this point: the National Restaurant Association was founded in 1919.

Today, food eaten away from home accounts for more than half of all food expenditures in the US, according to the US Department of Agriculture. For dairy products, the away-from-home market is especially important for cheese, and less important for fluid milk, to mention just two products.

So it’s significant that state and local governments are forcing restaurants and bars to close completely, or at least limit how many people can be served at any one time, or limit these places to carryout and delivery only.

This will obviously reduce the volume of cheese and other dairy products moving through foodservice channels, while increasing dairy product volumes moving through retail channels.

Whether these shifts mean overall dairy consumption declines or not remains to be seen. But, at least in Wisconsin, it will mean a lot fewer bar and restaurant patrons ordering deep-fried cheese curds.

The good news is, people still have to eat, and that means there’s a market of about 329 million people in the US. While the world has more or less been turned upside down for the time being, the dairy industry just needs to focus on what it has always done well: producing safe, nutritious and delicious dairy products.

Related to that point, Feeding America, the largest US hunger-relief organization, has established a COVID-19 Response Fund to help food banks across the country as they support communities impacted by the pandemic (which, it appears at this point, will eventually be all communities). The $2.65 million fund will enable food banks to secure the resources they need to serve the most vulnerable members of the community.

But it’s impossible for the Feeding America network to address this pandemic without public and government support, and so Feeding America is launching national food- and fund-raising efforts to support people facing hunger and the food banks who help them. More information is available at feedingamerica.org.

Another part of the fallout that’s having a far-reaching industry impact is the postponing, rescheduling or cancellation of various industry events.
And while there is a “tier” of near-term events that have already had to reschedule or cancel, such as the 2020 CheeseExpo and the joint ADPI/ABI annual conference scheduled for April, other events are taking a “wait and see” strategy to see how the pandemic unfolds in the coming weeks and months.

Undoubtedly, the coronavirus pandemic is proving to be a mighty interesting learning experience for the food industry in general and the dairy industry specifically. Let’s hope it’s another 100-plus years before these learnings have to be put into practice again.


Dick Groves

Dick Groves has been publisher/editor of Cheese Reporter since 1989. He has over 35 years experience covering the dairy industry. His weekly editorial is read and referenced throughout the world.
For more information, call 608-316-3791 dgroves@cheesereporter.com

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