Longtime Hillsborough County dairyman Dale McClellan has embarked on the campaign trail this election season, stumping for cows over plants.
McClellan wants folks to vote for cow milk over its growing competitors, the almond and soy-based beverages that call themselves milk. He also debates the value of organic milk, saying the only difference is it's more expensive.
He said the message has been well-received so far by Rotary Club audiences in Temple Terrace and Plant City. He plans soon to address the club in Crystal River.
McClellan, 64, notes that dairy producers must follow the strict rules of a 426-page manual from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, a key one specifying that ingredients on a label must be listed in descending order from the most to the least.
Plant-based product manufacturers get around having to list filtered water as the first ingredient by calling it "almond milk,'' or "soy milk.
"It's not fair,'' said the president of M&B Products, sitting recently in the Temple Terrace headquarters with his top aides, daughter-in-law Andrea McClellan, 34, the general manager, and son Daniel McClellan, 36, operations manager.
Their company's assembly lines can package hundreds of cartons of milk and juice per minute, turning out some 2.3 million products a day during busy times.
M&B sells milk to school systems, prisons, hospitals and nursing homes throughout Florida, yogurt in eight states and juice in about 30 states.
Milk consumption has greatly declined in the United States as consumers have flocked to the plant-based alternatives. Taste preferences, flavor variety, lactose intolerance and a desire for a vegan diet have driven the rising popularity of plant-based milk. Nielsen research indicates almond milk outpaces the rest of the milk substitutes category, surging to $1.4 billion in 2017 from $900 million in 2012.
According to the site Best Food Facts, experts urge milk drinkers to read the labels and make the choice based on nutrition, price and preferences.
The dairy industry has long fought their competitors' labeling language and got encouraging news last month when FDA Comissioner Scott Gottlieb signaled that the agency would notify food makers in about a year that products calling themselves milk must be derived from the "milking of one or more healthy cows,'' according to the Associated Press.
No one suggested McClellan go out stumping for milk, he said. He decided to embark on the mission after hearing a speaker at an event slip in subtle messages promoting the vegan diet, which eschews dairy products. Dale and Andrea McClellan came up with a power-point presentation comparing milk to other products, including organic milk, another threat to traditional dairy farmers.
He called the Florida Dairy Council, he said, and told them he was going to deliver its message supplemented with his company's own and do it in a way that doesn't come off as combative.
"What we're saying is not false; it's real,'' he said. But if the presenter comes off as strident and angry, he added, "it gets perceived as something else.''
Among the points they make is that whole milk isn't as expensive as the other products. It costs 33 cents per serving as opposed to 41 cents for Silk soy and Silk almond milk; 56 cents for organic milk; and $1 for Elmhurst almond milk.
They note that whole milk has two ingredients — milk and Vitamin D3 — versus the multiple ingredients in Silk's soy and almond products. Some plant-based milk products are enhanced with added nutrients, others with added sugars.
"It's the most affordable. It's the most natural. It's the most nutritious, and it has the longest shelf life for the consumer,'' said Andrea McClellan.
But the Good Food Institute, which represents makers of almond, soy and other plant-based "milk'' products, is pushing back on the FDA's proposal to restrict labeling. The institute's representatives argue that consumers know that "almond milk'' and "soy milk'' do not actually contain milk, and therefore they are not being mislead by the labeling. Therefore, they reason, there is no need to change the rules.
McClellan started off in high school milking cows on the property that then belonged to his grandfather, Earl Lovelace Sr., who owned Sunny Brook Dairy until it went out of business in 1979.
Shortly before that, McClellan borrowed money from his grandfather to buy cows and start his own dairy.
An attorney picked his last initial and that of a man who worked with him, Roy Bean, to come up with M&B Products, and McClellan said he didn't think much about it at the time.
"By the time it mattered, everyone knew it as M&B. We tell people it stands for 'milk and butter,'' he said, with a wry grin.
The herd grew too big to graze on the Temple Terrace property, especially after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dug canals that split up the pasture. So McClellan eventually moved the actual milk makers to Citrus County, where nearly 700 cows are milked three times a day.
He's campaigning for them.
"We're out there trying to tell the truth. We think that the dairy industry in Florida has been decimated with fiction, and it can be anything from organic saying 'our milk's better' or it can be plant-based, saying their milk's better.''
Contact Philip Morgan at firstname.lastname@example.org.