AMERICANS have always been big milk drinkers. But the nation's cows have been producing far more milk than consumers are drinking. Americans are drinking six gallons a year less milk per capita than two decades ago. The imbalance has led, on the supply side, to the government-sponsored Dairy Termination Program, by which hundreds of thousands of cows have been exported or sold for other uses since April - a sad commentary on the uneven affluence of our times.
The dairy industry is also looking at the demand side of the milk equation. Dairy researchers lately have been checking out the competition: American preference for the fizzy and flavored in the stronger-than-ever soft drink market. The average American drinks 20 more gallons a year of soft drinks than of milk.
Taking a direct cue, the dairy industry next year will begin to test market carbonated milk in flavors from peach to root beer. The taste is not unlike an ice cream soda minus the ice cream. Yes, researchers insist it will be every bit as nourishing as the skimmed milk in its base. But with the flavor goes a sweetener that raises the calories and is likely to stir up the same kind of controversy that now divides nutritionists on the issue of chocolate milk in the school lunch program.
Of course, dairy researchers will not see their carbonated venture as a success unless it significantly expands the ranks of milk drinkers. Dairy researchers also hope to expand the number of butter users with their new spreadable butter product. Margarine currently outsells butter by two to one.
Whatever may have happened to milk and butter, the American preference for cheese and ice cream, in increasingly rich varieties, continues strong. The US Department of Agriculture says that consumption of manufactured dairy products, accounting for about half of all milk sold in the US, has increased 10 percent in the last three years.
Carbonated, flavored milk may be of little use to parents who want their children to drink up with the usual white variety; the new product may or may not succeed. But it is a reminder that American ingenuity and the free enterprise spirit are still are work. So move over, Pepsi and Sprite; make way for a newcomer at the vending machine.