John Colson: Hit and Run
December 11, 2009
Let’s talk about milk – and cheese, and butter and other things dairy.
Before taking this any further, in the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you that I’m a “cheddarhead,” which is shorthand for a guy raised in Wisconsin, where the regular and high-volume consumption of dairy products is one of the requirements of citizenship (OK, a little exaggeration there, but you get the point.)
Growing up in Madison, the capital city, I can remember my parents sneaking down to Chicago, Ill., every so often to load up on booze at their favorite liquor supermarket and thereby avoid Wisconsin’s high taxes.
At the same time, they would circumvent Wisconsin’s laws in another way, by purchasing yellow margarine by the caseload.
At the time, the state’s Legislature had enacted protective legislation prohibiting yellow margarine, to help the huge dairy lobby. Butter, you see, is yellowish by nature, while margarine is white unless it is colored with dye, and the Legislature figured no one would buy the white margarine and the state’s dairy industry would be strengthened.
My parents, natural scofflaws to their very core, chafed at these restrictions and preferred margarine for some reason. Maybe it was simply the fact that margarine stays soft in the refrigerator, while butter comes out hard as a rock and has to be thawed before it can be used.
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In any event, they risked unpleasant encounters with John Law simply by driving our station wagon back across the state line every time they went on these smuggling trips.
And I learned the lengths some people will go in order to get their dairy products, or un-dairy products, the way they want them. It’s a lesson all of us should take to heart.
These days, as with so much else, the dairy industry is deep in a trend toward consolidation as mega-corporations gobble up small dairy operations wholesale.
As with so many other aspects of the U.S. consumer markets, this consolidation has lead to a drive for profits above all else, centralized farming as opposed to the dispersed ways of yesteryear, and long-distance marketing to keep the money flowing like milk.
Plus, most commercially produced milk today is homogenized to give it a uniform consistency, so the cream no longer rises to the top and you don’t have to shake it before drinking.
Finally, there is the pasteurization process, which involves heating the milk to at least 175 degrees Fahrenheit in order to give it a longer shelf life, or to 280 degrees for the “ultra-pasteurized” milks that line the shelves of grocery-store coolers across the land.
All of this has left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I like creamy, un-homogenized dairy products, and I prefer them pasteurized at as low a temperature as possible to preserve the taste of the original stuff.
Years ago I started buying Brown Cow yogurt with the cream on top, thinking I was helping to support the smaller dairies and producers, and then switched to Horizon, which is more widely available. I was recently horrified to learn that Horizon, a brand that once was independent and wholesome, is now owned by Dean Foods, one of the biggest corporate producers in the land. Horizon’s products are homogenized and ultra-pasteurized, so I think I will find another brand.
That, you understand, is the only weapon we consumers have to pressure corporate America to surrender its profit-first philosophy and start making products that meet our desires. And just as the organic-foods boom started small, so must any effort to get the Dean Foods of the world to give us back our sweet-tasting, wholesome dairy products.
I heard a National Public Radio story last week about small dairies that are bucking the corporate trends, letting the cows eat grass in pastures instead of corn and soybeans in feed lots, foregoing homogenization and lowering the pasteurizing temperatures to keep things tastier but still safe to drink.
Those are the businesses that will get my support, and my money.
I hope you agree with me, and act on that agreement.