We’ve taken another trip around the sun and here we are back at June, designated as National Dairy Month. What a trip it has been. In the last year, dairy processors have been busy with innovations in milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream. They are also facing challenges from governments and other food categories, as well as some self-inflicted wounds. I’ll get to those in a bit, but let’s start with a celebration of what’s right with dairy.

Processors are investing in new technologies for their plants and they are developing new products for their customers, including retailers, food manufacturers and foodservice operations.

Milk is fun and functional

Fluid milk processors continue to find ways to add value to milk. One way is to make it more “functional” by adding omega-3s, increasing the protein or removing lactose. These products address consumers’ health concerns and position milk as a “problem solver” or a health solution.

Milk processors also make milk “fun” with limited-time-only flavors like chocolate mint or pumpkin spice. It used to be that the only limited-time milk product was egg nog. No more. Dairies are creating flavors for holidays and seasons to create a sense of urgency among shoppers in the dairy case.

More careful handling of milk, from receiving through to bottling, and technologies like bacterial clarifiers keep milk cleaner longer, resulting in a higher-quality product for retailers and consumers.

Yogurt makers are riding a tsunami of interest from consumers who like the wide variety of flavors, and from customers like food manufacturers who incorporate Greek yogurt into their snacks, candies and salad dressings. Yogurt processors are working both ends of the sweetness continuum. On the one hand, they are creating super-sweet products based on other desserts, like ice cream and pie. On the other, yogurt companies are removing sugar from some products in order to have a line that is more appealing to label-reading moms who are making healthy choices for their children.

Snacking cheese

Cheesemakers are following their yogurt-marketing brethren by developing products in formats suitable for snacking occasions. These products combine bite-sized pieces of cheese with nuts and dried fruit. With yogurt being eaten throughout the day (as a food for breakfast, lunch, a snack or dessert), cheesemakers are rolling out snack-size portions that can be eaten as easily at a work desk as in the back seat of a minivan.

Ice cream makers pretty much pioneered seasonal offerings. Ice cream with fresh fruits like peaches comes around only in the summer and peppermint flavors are sold for a limited time in the winter. This is the strategy milk processors have adopted, as noted above. Lately, ice cream companies have branched out into other frozen dairy categories. You’ll now find them selling gelato and frozen custard, as well as developing new flavors of fruit pops and sorbets. Small processors are selling their “artisanal” ice creams from food trucks.

Those are just some of the innovations on retail shelves. Dairies also work with foodservice operations to put their products on menus and with food processors buying milk, cream, butter, yogurt, cheese and dairy powders to add nutrition, flavor and mouthfeel to their foods.

But all is not well

While we join the industry in celebrating National Dairy Month, we also must point out a few of the many challenges facing the industry. Individual companies and their trade associations have to be vigilant for misinformation about dairy’s contributions to a healthy diet and be aggressive with counter messages.

Marketers of plant-based beverages and their proponents are taking direct aim at dairy milk. Almond milk is sold in refrigerated cases in gable-top cartons just like milk.  Soy-based yogurts and frozen desserts sit side-by-side their dairy equivalents elsewhere in the grocery store. These so-called “dairy analogs” do not offer the same nutritional benefits as dairy foods. The dairy industry has to continue to promote its advantages.

Across the Atlantic, our European cousins are conspiring to limit our use of food names. At issue are geographical indications, a form of intellectual property. To oversimplify, the Europeans say they own the term Parmesan. The U.S. dairy industry says Parmesan is a generic description that can be used by anyone anywhere. This has implications not only with trade pacts with Europe, but also with our trade deals with other countries.

Food safety is a third great threat to the dairy industry as well as to all food manufacturers. High-profile cases of ice cream contaminated by listeria made headlines this spring. The Food & Drug Administration’s database also shows recalls due to salmonella, undeclared allergens and the presence of foreign materials in candies, snacks, nuts and other foods, dairy and nondairy alike.

 It is hard work to develop, make and sell good food. But the dairy industry – you, the reader of this magazine – does it every day. This is your month to celebrate your success. Happy Dairy Month.