PHOENIX – The incoming president of the National Milk
Producers Federation urged dairy farmers to become more engaged in the
organization and the policymaking process.
“We need your financial commitment, yes,” Chief Operating
Officer Jim Mulhern told nearly 1,000 attendees at the organization’s annual
meeting. “But even more importantly, we need your time and effort and
engagement. The more engagement our members have — the more our organization can
achieve for our members. It’s a virtuous circle.”
Mulhern will take over as NMPF president and CEO Jan. 1,
when longtime leader Jerry Kozak retires. The organization is the voice of more
than 32,000 dairy producers in Washington.
“Thirty years ago,” Mulhern said, “NMPF, like many
organizations, could be a neatly defined hierarchy, and be successful — but not
Today, he said, both NMPF and the entire dairy industry must
be more engaged in the free and rapid flow of information.
“If there’s a message I can leave with you today, it’s that
the future of NMPF is not a function of what I want — or any one leader,” he
said. “Rather, the successful future of NMPF will be a function of the active
engagement that our board, our delegates and, yes, our grassroots members have
in the organization and the industry.”
Mulhern also stressed the need for increased transparency in
the dairy industry.
“Look at how food marketers have increased the flow of
information about their products,” he said. “Twenty years ago, it was calorie
and nutrition information on the back panel. Ten years ago, it was absence
claims about artificial sweeteners and growth hormones.
“And now it’s whether a product is locally and sustainably
produced, whether it can be traced back from the store to a field or barn.”
Mulhern called that “transparency in action,” but added it
also can be misused.
“The strategy of some food companies is to try to increase
sales by scaring consumers into paying more for their particular product because
of how it was produced,” he said. “That’s not transparency. It’s fear-based
marketing — left unchecked, it not only affects the marketplace. It also affects
the policy environment.
“We must tell our story because if we don’t — others who
don’t have our interest at heart — are telling a very different and harmful
Mulhern said transparency requires telling stories about
brands and product categories and entire industries.
“The clean lines that used to exist between farmer and
processor and distributor and retailer have blurred,” he said. “Transparency has
created a value chain where everyone is accountable for what they do and why
they do it.”
On other subjects, Mulhern said once the 2013 farm bill is
enacted NMPF should tackle reform of the federal milk marketing order system and
consider addressing some changes to federal identity standards for dairy foods,
but only if they benefit farmers.
Milk marketing orders set minimum prices for different
categories of milk in regions across the country. For example, processors are
required to pay a higher price for milk destined for fluid use compared with
milk used to make yogurt, ice cream and cheese.
Mulhern said NMPF considered asking Congress to address
marketing order reform as part of the 2013 farm bill, but decided against that
“But reforms delayed cannot be reforms denied,” he said. “It
won’t be easy, but it will be a priority going forward.”
At the same time, Mulhern said any changes to the federal
order system must benefit farmers.
“Some of the dairy processors talk about reforming federal
milk orders when what they really seem to mean is increasing their control of
the market and their share of the dairy dollar,” he said.
“That’s a nonstarter for us. Our focus will be on reforms
needed to ensure the orderly marketing of milk and to protect the financial
interests of the nation’s dairy farmers.”
Mulhern noted that some in the processing community also are
calling for changes to the federal standards that protect the content and
quality of dairy foods.
But, he said, “sometimes this talk is being delivered by
those who either don’t fully understand the concept of standards of
“Other times, it’s from those who actually do understand,
but are looking for a way to benefit financially through deviations marketed as
‘innovations,’” he added.
“Are there some provisions of standards that could be
improved? Absolutely, especially if they relate to improvements and efficiencies
in plant-level processing technologies,” Mulhern said. “However, NMPF will not
agree to revisions to standards designed to water down their quality or deceive
consumers, and we will continue to work diligently to preserve all aspects of
standards that preserve the integrity of traditional dairy products, their names
and their composition.”