If you click the link above it will take you to a fascinating article at the Farm Journal (re-printed from Bloomberg News) about what’s going on in school food service with the focus on milk. Unlike the usual two or three paragraph news blurb that tells you pretty much nothing, this article goes into the situation in some depth and is pretty well written, and debunks a lot of the hype being pushed by various marketing boards.
It still puzzles some of my readers here that someone with his roots in dairy farming like me can be so critical of the dairy industry, but that same dairy industry stopped giving a damn about the health and well being of you and your family a long, long time ago. What it has focused on exclusively for decades now is trying to sell you milk and milk products any way it can. It has manipulated data, used misleading statistics, cherry picked information, ignored significant health issues, pressured retailers and school systems, and generally used every marketing trick imaginable to try to convince you that milk is good for you when there is significant evidence that indicates it isn’t.
The article isn’t just about milk, of course. It goes into details about the Obama era school lunch rules, the attempts to undermine them, shows how the big processed food manufacturers try to influence school lunch programs, and how so-called “experts” are used to try to influence things. One “volunteer adjunct professor”, whatever the hell that is, claimed that if a 16 year old girl didn’t drink milk and “doesn’t get enough [calcium] by the time she’s 30 her bones start to turn to dust”.
If it sounds like the dairy industry is growing increasingly desperate to sell you milk, that’s because it is. Right now the US alone has about 1.4 billion pounds of excess cheese in storage. That is not a typo. 1.4 billion pounds. Every year milk production goes up while at the same time demand is trending down. The demand for liquid drinking milk has been declining for decades now, and even cheese consumption has been flat or even declining a bit. In a rational world what happens when you have too much of a product is that you stop making so much of it. But one thing I learned long ago is that rationality seems to be in short supply.
Go take a look at the article if you have some time. It makes for fascinating reading and will give you an idea of how the food industry in this country is being manipulated.
Welcome to a new irregular feature of grouchyfarmer.com, Why The Hell Do You People Eat This Stuff? (Hopefully a very irregular feature because researching all this stuff takes a lot of work and time and, well, I’m lazy, okay? Can’t help it. It’s — genetic… Yeah, that’s it, it’s genetic. Not my fault, blame my ancestors…)
Hmm? What? Oh, yeah, sorry, got off the track there. Back to the topic. Uh, what was I talking about, anyway? The bloody cats got me up at 4:30 in the morning again to feed ’em and I’m still a bit woozy — Oh, that’s right, It is back, isn’t it? The so-called “McRib”.
Yes, the abomination that is the “McRib” sandwich is once again available at the home of the leering clown. And along with this culinary horror also comes the usual hype and B.S. associated with it. The fast food chain has sent out the usual PR fluff items trying to gin up sales of the thing, launched TV and internet ads, it has an app you can use to find where it’s being sold, it’s even making a big deal out of starting a relationship with Uber to deliver the things. So let’s take a look at it.
First of all, just what the hell is it, anyway? If you deconstruct a McRib, take that patty off the bun, pick off the onions and pickles and wash off the corn syrup they laughingly claim is BBQ sauce, what you have is, well, it’s just nasty looking, but ignore that for the moment and just look at that piece of meat.
Now I’ve been a farmer, and I’ve worked on farms on and off for decades, and frankly, I don’t know what that thing is. That didn’t come off of any animal I ever saw. That’s because it is something called a “restructured meat product”. And before you ask “what the hell is a restructured meat product, I’ll let the inventor of the process, Roger Mandigo, a meat scientist from Nebraska and member of the “Meat Hall Of Fame” (yeah, seriously, there is a meat hall of fame), tell you in his own words in an interview in 1995:
“Restructured meat products are commonly manufactured by using lower-valued meat trimmings reduced in size by comminution (flaking, chunking, grinding, chopping or slicing). The comminuted meat mixture is mixed with salt and water to extract salt-soluble proteins. These extracted proteins are critical to produce a “glue” which binds muscle pieces together. These muscle pieces may then be reformed to produce a “meat log” of specific form or shape. The log is then cut into steaks or chops which, when cooked, are similar in appearance and texture to their intact muscle counterparts.”
So basically the McRib is, well, kind of sausage, really. (Trivia Tidbit: It was originally going to be a boneless pork chop)
Now what’s actually in that sausage is a matter of hot debate out on the internet. And the internet being what it is, some of the notions about what’s in it are, well, frankly too disgusting to go into in detail. But let me assure you that there is nothing nasty in that meat. Seriously. What it’s really made out of is ground up pork shoulder, and pork shoulder is a perfectly fine piece of meat.
But it isn’t, well, a rib, now is it? There is absolutely no actual rib meat in the thing. It’s more of a “McPorkShoulder” sandwich if they were honest about it.
So, how in the world do they get away with calling a hunk of pork sausage that has no rib meat of any kind, a “McRib”? Isn’t that blatantly mislabeling the product? I have no idea how they get away with it. If you want to know that, you need to go have a little chat with the FDA or FTC or USDA. Maybe it’s a menu naming thing. Calling it what it really is, a “McGroundPorkShoulder Sausage Extruded Into a Vaguely Rib Shaped Patty That Doesn’t Have Any Rib Meat In It At All” wouldn’t fit on the menu board.
Now, the sauce… Oh, dear lord, the sauce… Basically it’s corn syrup with a bit of tomato thrown in, some spices, a lot of vinegar and some smoke flavoring.
The whole thing from start to finish is a fraud misleading. It isn’t made from ribs. It isn’t even a cut of meat. It’s a sausage dipped in flavored corn syrup.
And if you think the sandwich is a bit iffy, take a look at all of the hype and hysteria you see in the media about the thing because that’s even more questionable than the sandwich is. If you believe the press releases McD and it’s advertising agencies put out, people are absolutely wild for this thing, will drive cross country to get one, and when it isn’t on the menu they pine away, wasting away into nothing like crazed drug addicts until it shows up again and…
And it’s all BS. All of it. If people were actually that wild about the thing, the chain would have it on the menu all the time because, well, money. The fact of the matter is that when it was first introduced in the 1980s, sales werehorrible. People just didn’t like the thing. It was pulled off the menu in 1985 because sales were terrible. Outside of a few regional areas, it just didn’t sell. (For some reason it sells well in Germany.)
They kept trying, though, for some reason. The chain tried promotional events for it, limited runs, various marketing schemes, etc. It tried to tie it to the Flintstones movie in 1994. Sales “did not meet expectations”, as they say. And finally in 2005 the chain seemed it was finally going to give up on the thing entirely and dump it once and for all and announced it was going away forever.
And then something rather odd happened. An on-line petition popped up to save the sandwich. It was all rather tongue-in-cheek and silly, almost satirical. Other websites started petitions to keep it. The chain announced a “farewell tour” of the product, and gradually the petitions and news stories about demand for the sandwich started appearing in the media. News media that really should have known better started finding people who were desperate, or claimed they were, to “save” their favorite sandwich, and the hype drove sales up. A second “farewell tour” was launched the following year with even more hype being generated and…
Well, it was all a marketing scam. The on-line petitions were, for the most part, outright frauds. The original website with the petition turned out to be owned by the company. Most of the media stories about demand for the sandwich were also misleading. A lot of the “news stories” were actually supplied by the advertising company running the campaign. There were no huge numbers of people clamoring for the sandwich to remain on the menu.
Now, every fall, the cycle repeats. The McRib is brought back with the accompanying hysteria, all of it generated by the company’s PR firms. You’ll see the same headlines, the same stories, appearing year after year because they just keep recycling the same press releases.
Look, there’s nothing actually horrible about the sandwich. Yes, it has way, way too much salt. The BBQ sauce is mostly corn syrup. The bun is your standard, generic, mass produced bread like substance. It is edible. Personally I think it tastes horrible. I bought one the other day to do research for this. I took one bite and, well, the rest went into the trash bin. But if you like it, fine. It’s no worse than anything else on their menu over there.
What really upsets me is the blatant manipulation of people by this whole marketing campaign of theirs. All of this hype, the phony demand for the sandwich, the people who are “addicted” to it, the long lines, the frantic searches to find it — it’s all a PR stunt, it’s all deliberate manipulation of people in order to sell a product no one needs and almost no one actually wants. And that, in my opinion, is the worst part of all of this.
The situation for dairy farmers in 2017 was not good. A lot of diary operations are running right on the edge, trying to stay profitable at a time when there is ever shrinking demand for liquid milk for drinking, and a glut of other dairy products like cheese, butter and powdered milk. This story above from NPR illustrates just how bad the situation is getting. Go read the article if you have the time. It isn’t very long.
If you don’t have the time, here’s a brief summary: A dairy co-op in the north east US, Agri-Mark, has seen three of it’s farmer members commit suicide in the last few years. Agri-Mark makes Cabot cheese among other products, and has about 1,000 members. In February when it sent out the milk checks, it included a chart showing just how bad the dairy market was looking for the upcoming year, and a list of suicide prevention hotlines. The reporter talked with Will Rogers, who milks 75 cows in Massachusetts, who is having a difficult time keeping above water. Even more upsetting is the fact that his own father who used to own the farm, killed himself because of financial problems.
While the letter from Agri-Mark was probably well intentioned, it certainly added to the stress a lot of it’s farmers are already facing and Rogers says in the article, it might push some farmers so far that they think “there’s no point in going on.” Agri-Mark certainly could have done a better job of trying to communicate with it’s farmer members.
And as if dairy farmers don’t have enough problems, they are increasingly worried about being able to sell their milk at all. Dean Foods just told at least two dozen farmers in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and four other states that Dean will no longer take their milk as of May 31, leaving them scrambling to find a milk processor they can sell their milk to.
The same thing happened here in Wisconsin last year about this time when Grassland rather abruptly dumped a group of farmers, leaving them to desperately try to find a market for their milk.
The article at Dairy Management about Dean seems to be trying to blame Walmart for Dean’s decision. Walmart used to buy it’s in-house brand milk from Dean, but Walmart is building it’s own milk processing facility in Indiana which will come on-line in May, so Dean is going to be losing a significant amount of sales as Walmart switches to product coming from it’s own production facility.
Certainly there is enough blame to go around, but everyone is ignoring the fact that the real reason behind almost all of the money difficulties dairy farmers are having is over production. They are producing more product than the market really wants, which is pushing prices down lower and lower.
Seventy-five percent. Think about that for a moment. We are facing a national health crisis due to people eating too much of what is bad for them, with government agencies and others trying to figure out how to help people get their weight under control, and at the same time other government agencies and marketing specialists are trying to get food manufacturers to drastically increase the amount of cheese they use in their products.
I mentioned previously that a short time ago Grassland Dairy Products here in Wisconsin, which makes mostly butter, sent out letters to 75 dairy farmers telling them that as of May 1 Grassland would no longer be buying their milk. This left those farmers in a terrible situation. They now have no place to sell their milk. And the way the market is right now, finding a new processor to sell to is almost impossible.
In it’s press releases and comments to the media Grassland blames Canada. Canada, according to Grassland, changed their dairy import policies almost literally overnight, making it impossible for Grassland to continue to sell almost a million pounds a day of ultra-filtered milk, used in cheese making, to Canada. According to some of the information that came from the company, they received only two days notice before the change was implemented. The company had no choice but to cut back on the amount of milk it purchases. Grassland claims that it cut off those farmers that the company felt would have the best chance of finding a new market for their milk elsewhere.
But some people started to do some digging, and as is often the case, what’s been coming out in the press releases and statements from the company seems to have some problems. I ran into an op-ed piece over at Wisconsin Agriculturist that points out numerous problems with the whole story as it’s being presented by Grassland, and if true, there is a lot more going on here. You can read it here.
First of all, allegedly Grassland was not blind sided by this as they seem to be claiming. This didn’t happen overnight as the press releases seem to claim. This has been in the works by Canada for a long time. Grassland allegedly knew about this back in November already, and may have known as much as two years ago according to the editorial piece. Governor Walker actually wrote a column about it back in November.
Then there is the issue of which farms they cut off. The company claims it picked farms that it believed would best be able to find markets for their milk. But almost all of the farms being cut off are the ones that are the farthest away from the company’s processing facility in Clark County. Cutting off the farms that are the farthest away from their processing center would save the company a small fortune on shipping costs.
There there is this little tidbit: At the same time the company is cutting off 75 dairy farms, it is trying to get the permits to build it’s own 5,000 cow company owned mega-farm.
There’s no doubt that the company lost significant sales of product to Canada, but there seems to be a lot more going on here than just a trade squabble with Canada.