CONCERN over the decreasing number of consumers who believe dairy forms an important part of a healthy diet were raised at a senate estimates hearing in Canberra this week.
It was during an appearance by Dairy Australia at the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee hearing, but Queensland Senator Susan McDonald said it was a trend that was of concern to beef and sheep meat producers as well.
She referred to data in the Dairy Sustainability Framework, an initiative started in 2012 to track profitability, wellbeing of people, animal welfare and environmental impact in the industry. Dairy had led the commodities in sustainability work, Senator McDonald said.
However, the work had shown emerging consumer insights which were very concerning, she said.
"What do we do as dairy, beef and sheep producers when our consumer is turning more to artificial foods - to almond juice?" she asked DA's top men.
DA 'absolutely' had marketing plans around the issue, managing director David Nation told the hearing.
The campaign Dairy Matters, launched in April, was about connecting with consumers on the health front, among other issues, and early tracking had shown it was resonating.
In fact, one of the strengths of the Australian dairy industry was the number of people who speak positively about it, from chefs to radio personalities and farmers themselves, Dr Nation said.
Senator McDonald said what was important about sustainability framework was it actually measured things like customer support.
"Unless we do the hard work in finding out what the reality is, we can't know what to address in our research and marketing," she said.
"We have the highest standards in the world and we should be demanding a premium."
The far larger dairy discussion in the hearings was around viable farmgate milk prices.
Queensland senator Pauline Hanson and Western Australian senator Glenn Sterle grilled Dr Nation, and DA chair Jeff Odgers, on why their organisation was not lobbying for a regulated floor milk price.
"We can talk up our product as much as we like but if our dairy industry is being decimated due to price squeezes when they've been deregulated, what's the point?" Senator Steele asked.
The response was advocacy is not part of DA's role - that's a job for peak farmer groups.
Senator Sterle said he accepted DA's remit was research and marketing but argued it was "a profitable organisation that collects monies from producers and has $30m in the kitty."
"Have you been lobbied by producers to step up to the plate and get a fair price for them, to fight for them on this?" he asked.
Dr Nation said producers recognised the differing roles of industry organsations.
Mr Odgers told the hearing DA was working hard to find innovations which would allow producers to maintain their profit margins in a world of fast-shifting dynamics.
"Australia has the most variable climate in the world. We're tackling that along with natural variation of seasons and the drought we are dealing with at the moment," he said.
"Operating in today's environment is a much different risk profile for all in the supply chain. So at DA, the work is around feedbase, business skills, the way we use water, the way we breed animals with greater heat tolerance that convert feed better.
"All this requires a continual evolution of skills on the farm and in the supply chain.
"At the same time we have to stay in touch with our consumers, our communities and the rest of the globe."
That linked the conversation back to the sustainability framework and Mr Odgers said on the positive side, consumption of dairy in Australia continued to grow in line with population growth.
The average Australian consumes 100 litres of milk and 13 kilograms of cheese a year, he said.
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