How American Is That American Cheese?

jersey cow
Got American milk?
The more I learn about our food system, the crazier it seems. Case in point: The price U.S. dairy farmers get for their milk is largely set by dairy shares traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Only 1 percent of the U.S. dairy supply is actually traded on the CME -- the rest is cheese, processed cheese product, and milk protein concentrates, and most of that is imported. Meanwhile American dairy farmers are facing the worst crisis since the Great Depression.

In other words, the imported processed cheese product in "American" cheese slices and boxes of mac and cheese are putting American diary farmers out business. Confused yet? Keep reading.


Keep in mind, we're talking about the price dairy farmers get for their milk -- not the price you pay at the grocery store. Milk pricing is incredibly complicated, but the short story is that the processed cheese product and milk protein concentrates that go into making our cheese-ish foods are mostly cheap imports. It's impossible for American dairy farmers to compete and still get a fair price for their milk.

Even worse, big food companies are getting bigger. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack just stated that the top 10 food companies now control over 80 percent of food in the U.S., up from around 65 percent just a year ago. This consolidation of the industry makes it even harder for small family-run dairies to stay in business.

Dairy farmers all over the U.S. are asking the Department of Justice to break up monopolies in the dairy industry. Meanwhile, if you care, you can start checking the labels on those boxes of mac and cheese and see if they proudly say they're made from cheese from American cows, not from processed cheese product. You can also stop buying "American" cheese slices and start buying real American cheddar.

Image via Ulla Kjarval.

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