Market Watch Diary: The Good and Not So Good

November 28, 2012 10:42 AM

JerryDryer blue**Extended comments highlighted in blue.

Each and every year, USDA totals up how much of everything Americans eat. It then divides this number by the population and gives us the annual per capita consumption: how much, on average, every man, woman and child in the U.S. consumed.

The recently released 2011 data gives us an opportunity to "look under the hood" of the dairy business and see if we’re firing on all cylinders. First a look at total usage; then a look at several products.

Per capita consumption of all milk and dairy products has been flat over the past several years: between 589 lb. and 614 lb. on a milk equivalent, milk fat basis. In other words, if all of the cheese and yogurt and milk and butter you ate were turned back into milk it would be equal to X lbs. of milk.

Per capita consumption totaled 604 lb. in both 2010 and 2011 and averaged 604 lb. over the past 10 years. A look at the individual product categories tells us some interesting things about American consumers and the dairy business.

Cheese consumption pushed higher during 2011, totaling 33.5 lb., just a tad below the record 33.64 lb. established in 2007. Natural cheese consumption established a record high last year, 28 lb.

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However, less natural cheese is being used to make various processed cheese products. The natural cheese content of cheese products slipped to about 5.5 lb. last year after reaching nearly 7 lb. just a few years ago. Fortunately, restaurateurs and consumers are switching from cheese "foods" to slices of natural cheese on sandwiches. Some call it the "better burger" movement.

Yea! for butter. Consumption of butter was off to the races at 5.4 lb. per capita last year, well above the 10-year average of 4.8 lb. Consumers are turning to butter because of its "clean" label, which usually reads simply "cream, salt." Butter is natural—no multisyllabic words on the label.

Cottage cheese isn’t doing so well. Per capita consumption last year, 2.3 lb., was a new low.

Thirty years ago, cottage cheese was considered a health food. Unfortunately, some geniuses decided it should be even healthier. They created "low-fat" cottage cheese.

My gosh, the original was only 4% fat! I think they should have simply declared good old-fashioned cottage cheese a low-fat product. It was already being used as an entrée and as a substitute for potatoes and gravy and with fruit or veggies as a salad. Consumers knew a low-fat alternative when they saw it.

Instead, the dairy business lowered the fat content and destroyed the integrity of the curd—and the esteem in which the product was held. Goodbye, cottage cheese sales.

Yogurt was on the same slippery slope until authentic Greek yogurt came along. By authentic, I mean the high-protein stuff and not the junk laced with corn starch and other
fillers to make it "thick and creamy."

My take: The dairy business isn’t firing on all cylinders, but it is firing on enough of them to stay in the race for now. Meanwhile, let’s find ourselves some good mechanics.

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