Internet Coins a Cheese Mountain
Volume 140, No. 46, Friday, May 6, 2016
A Bloomberg article on cheese stocks – “The U.S. is sitting on a Mountain of Cheese” – lit up Internet media and bloggers this week, offering a window on how consumer opinion leaders view dairy.
Bloomberg built its article around an obscure fact: cold storage data for cheese, comparing March data year over year, finds stocks at an all-time high. And while cheese in storage is up, the missed story is booming worldwide milk production and cheese production.
It’s as if Bloomberg reported on a hurricane by counting the record number of puddles the next day.
Here’s four conclusions from media’s latest dip into dairy:
1. An Upbeat Response
Copy-cat articles and bloggers took an upbeat tone, such as this concluding paragraph from Smithsonian: “The U.S. may be built upon a veritable ocean of stockpiled cheese, but for residents, this is no queso emergency. It sounds too Gouda to be true—but it is.” The media was never as friendly about the government-held dairy stocks in the 1980s.
“For the rest of us, it just means we need to chow down on lots of cheese—for the good of the country,” Cosmopolitan joked. “As a huge fan of cheese, I am delighted to tell you that the U.S. currently has a cheese surplus,” wrote Liz Magee on Frisky.
2. A European Scapegoat
Bloomberg and followers placed blame for America’s growing cheese stocks on Europe, with barely a mention of rising U.S. milk and cheese production. By the second paragraph, Bloomberg condemns: “The reason is the U.S. is sitting on more butter and cheese than it knows what to do with, and the Europeans are to blame.”
Yes, EU milk production is up – 3.5 percent since quotas were lifted last spring – and cheese imports from the EU are soaring. The EU imported 17 percent more cheese into the U.S. in 2015 than 2014 – 47 million more pounds. But U.S. cheese production rose 326 million pounds in 2015 – a far larger contributor to cheese stocks than European imports.
Bloomberg lamented the fate of EU dairy farmers: “Even though sales increased, things are still pretty dire for European dairy farmers, who’ve warned for months that rock-bottom prices risk putting them out of business.”
3. What about our Farms?
Amazingly, the U.S. dairy farmer remained unmentioned in the Bloomberg article. Milk prices have headed south: The “All Milk” Price in Wisconsin held steady in the $17-$18 dollar per hundredweight range in 2015 but has dropped to $15.80/cwt. in March 2016. The last time the weekly average price for block Cheddar at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange matched last week’s $1.38 was March 2007.
In 2015, Wisconsin produced 4.3 percent more milk, New York rose 2.7 percent while the nation as a whole produced 1.2 percent more. In March 2016 US milk production rose 1.8 percent – and 5.3 percent in Wisconsin, 5.5 percent in New York and 7.7 percent in Michigan. Rising milk production will hit dairy farm income statements hard in 2016, but consumer media is more intrigued with the easy visual of a “cheese mountain.”
4. The Bigger Picture
The cold storage data that launched this week’s look at dairy is barely news. America has made more cheese every year for the last 20 years – is it surprising that warehouse stocks trend upwards? Undoubtedly warehouses are full of cheese, but the March 2016 holdings are only 3.5 percent higher than May 2013 stocks.
Here’s the point: Now more than ever before, news is manufactured for impact and echoes through hundreds of on-line outlets. For an industry, managing the message is harder than ever before. This week’s chat about a cheese mountain missed the bigger picture of economic repercussions from global growth in dairy. But the tone was a hit: the happy spin bloggers put on the idea of new cheese mountain affirms America’s positive view of US cheese today.
John Umhoefer has served as executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association since 1992. You can phone John at (608) 828-4550; Fax him at (608) 828-4551; or e-mail John Umhoefer at