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Let’s put milk dumping in perspective

Nothing could be more unfathomable than dumping food when store shelves are emptying, especially in the face of this pandemic that our modern world has never faced.

Yet that’s what’s happening before our eyes in Ontario, as dairy farmers find themselves unable to ship their milk to processors who have reached capacity, and have no choice but to dump it.

Fingers have been pointing every which way from a confused public – at farmers, at processors, at grocery stores, at the supply management system. But laying blame is pointless, because no one could have foreseen this.

Here’s the situation.

Farmers were producing milk in quantities that they always have. There was no reason for them not to. Milk is considered raw until it’s pasteurized, a processing technique in which milk is boiled to kill nasty illness-inducing microorganisms it might contain.

Processors normally turn much of the milk they receive into big industrial- or commercial-sized packages of cheese, butter or sour cream, for restaurants, schools and other major users.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic forced those destinations to shut down with lightning speed,  processors no longer had, or have, a market for that huge quantity of commercial dairy products.

Processors can eventually shift their lines and produce more consumer-sized quantities, but it takes some time.

Meanwhile dairy farmers’ cows keep producing milk. That’s what they do. Trucks pick up farmers’ milk every two days. There’s capacity to store it on-farm for that long, but that’s it.

And because Ontario doesn’t allow raw milk to be sold off the farm, there’s no option for farmers to try selling it themselves directly to consumers, or whoever. 

Now at the same time processors were trying to adapt to the sudden loss of commercial buyers, consumers were ratcheting up their dairy purchases. Pandemic-induced buying has switched to staple, fundamental ingredients like milk, for making food at home.

So even though demand was high and raw milk was plentiful, there was not enough processing capacity to serve the consumer market. Farmers ended up dumping milk even though store shelves were emptying.

Adjustments are being made to help satisfy the consumer market.

But let’s consider all this in perspective, as far as the dairy sector goes.

Dairy farmers are team players and get behind food donations in a big way. For example, food banks – almost all of which are being stretched to the limit, some with more than a 50 per cent increase in demand since the pandemic – have issued pleas to the food sector for cash, so they can buy what they need the most.

In response, the Dairy Farmers of Ontario came up with a cash donation of $100,000 (as did the Grain Farmers of Ontario) to Feed Ontario, an organization that supports dozens of food banks across the province.

This support is in addition to the 95,000 litres of processed milk that Ontario dairy farmers donate to food banks every month, and the $1 million the dairy industry here provides overall to food banks every year (many food banks don’t have refrigeration and need cash support instead of milk).

The Dairy Farmers of Canada organization says all provincial dairy organizations give to food banks on behalf of their farmers in one way or another –  through donations of litres of milk processed into fluid milk, cheese or other dairy products, through cash donations and through reimbursement programs linked to food banks buying dairy products at retail, and dairy groups reimbursing them.

So let’s support the dairy industry’s effort to adapt to the pandemic. It’s a solid, proven sector with a great track record. It will make adjustments as soon as it can.

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