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Milk melody lingers on.

It's an old tune for dairy buyers: Light causes milk to lose certain vitamins and flavor. The melody's being sung again, but this time in a big way.

To combat the steady erosion of paperboard carton's share of the milk market by plastic containers, the Washington-based Paperboard Packaging Council (PPC) is conducting a $10 million advertising and promotion campaign aimed at regaining sales. The blitz has so far hit 25 metropolitan markets, where television and print ads have been combined with allowances and rebates to dairies and grocers by individual PPC members.

At the heart of the assault is the contention that milk in plastic containers loses significant amounts of vitamins A and B2 (riboflavin) when exposed to fluorescent lights. Citing over 50 independent studies on the damage light does to milk, particularly the low-fat varieties, PPC ads urge parents to "make sure your children's milk is better protected: Buy it in paper cartons."

This use of nutrition information as sales war ammunition has drawn criticism from government regulators, plastic manufacturers, dairymen and supermarket operators, many of whom are angry that they are being forced to spend time and money on what they call a "non-problem."

John Farquhar, vice president of science and technology at the Food Marketing Institute, says, "A lot of quality assurance people think the PPC is blowing this way out of proportion. Milk is stored in darkened refrigerated warehouses and not left on loading docks, so exposure to light is minimal. We cannot understand why they are making the argument that people are getting a lesser quality product."

Dr. Denise Hatfield of the American Council on Science and Health, a group concerned with how scientific data is presented to the public, says, "The ads are economically motivated. The paperboard manufacturers are losing their share of the half-gallon market.

"We don't think this campaign is in the public interest. It's basically a scare tactic. They imply that if you give your child milk from a plastic container, you're putting him at risk. Some vitamin loss does occur; that's well documented. But the turnover figures we've seen indicate milk is not on the shelves long enough to worry about it."

That's not the way the PPC sees it. "Some people may not think it's a problem, but we do," says spokesman Spence Johnson. "People buy milk because it is a source of the leading nutrients--vitamin A and riboflavin. Milk provides 25% of the recommended daily allowance of riboflavin, for instance, and we view any loss of that as significant."

Johnson says that most of the PPC ads run in markets where the twin-pack paperboard gallon container either is being introduced or needs a boost. "In some cases, this is the first time the consumer has had an alternative to the plastic gallon," he says. "The nutrition information helps them make the decision to switch."

PPC figures show consumers do respond to the ads. Data from Boston is typical, Johnson says. Before the ads ran, 26% of the milk sold there was in paperboard. After four weeks, paperboard's market share rose to 47%.

In the one instance where PPC tested the staying power of its nutrition ads, Johnson says it found positive results. "We waited 15 months, then went back to Sioux Falls, S.D. We'd started there with 41% of milk in paperboard, which rose to 64% after the ads. Fifteen months later, the percentage had actually increased to 65%. We think that once people make the decision to switch to a different container, they stay with that choice."

Critics charge that the PPC campaign has actually hurt overall milk sales in some areas by casting doubts on the nutritional quality of the product. Johnson argues that overall milk sales tend to increase by about 10% in markets where ads have run. "We think the promotion has been positive as far as milk sales are concerned," he says. "You can talk back and forth all you want, but the real proof is in the marketplace. And we've found that this nutrition information changes consumers' buying habits."

John Malloy, spokesman for the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), says he has no data on sales losses as a result of the PPC publicity. Plastic milk container sales, he says, have not declined enough to justify a counter advertising effort by SPI. "We're concerned, but we're not about to match their spending," he comments.

This is not to say that the plastic industry is turning its competitive cheek. Individual SPI members, anxious to protect their market share, quickly responded to the PPC promotion with an in-store solution--gold-colored shields that slip over the fluorescent light tubes to filter out harmful rays. According to independent studies, the shields prevent vitamin loss for at least 96 hours--far longer than milk sits on store shelves.

"From a cost-effectiveness standpoint, the light shields offer the best protection against vitamin loss," says Katherine Erdman, spokeswoman for Hoover Universal Inc., which developed the product. Hoover, the largest U.S. manufacturer of plastic dairy containers, sells the shields to dairies and grocers at cost--$1 per 4-foot length.

"It costs about $15 to outfit a 60-foot dairy case," she says. "That's not a huge expense, but it is an expense many stores resent, nonetheless."

To date, Hoover has shipped 32,500 shields to dairies and supermarkets, mostly in the New York-New Jersey area and Michigan, where the PPC recently concentrated its advertising. "Dairies here were very interested in obtaining shields and offering them to their retail customers," Erdman notes. "We estimate that over half of the supermarket chains in the country are now using the shields."

Country Fresh Inc., an all-plastic dairy supplier in Grand Rapids, Mich., installed light shields in 400 independent grocery stores during a two-week period last December after a PPC campaign started.

"People have asked me why I'd spend thousands of dollars on light shields when tests show there really isn't a vitamin loss problem," says President Delton Parks. "Well, there is a perceived problem as a result of the PPC ads, and the shields give customers extra assurance."

The fact that the majority of supermarkets in the Northeast have installed shields also gave SPI the legal ammunition it needed to force the PPC to revise its ads to note that vitamin loss relates only to milk under unshielded lights. Recently, the dairy manager of a major Detroit supermarket chain asked the Michigan Department of Agriculture to investigate the ads shown there, saying they are false advertising.

Federal authorities have stayed away from the controversy, saying that while vitamin loss may be an issue, it is not a public health concern. Dr. John Vanderveen, director of the Food and Drug Administration's nutrition division, says, "We ask: Is the public going to be hurt nutritionally by this? Will there be a national vitamin deficiency as a result of vitamin loss in milk? We've had no data that indicates this is the case."

However, at presstime the FDA had received information on nutrient loss in milk that it does find disturbing. "Samplings at the state level indicate that milk in general is not meeting label claims," Vanderveen says. "This means labeling is inaccurate, which we consider a significant problem."

Interestingly, the data FDA has received does not implicate any type of packaging. "There may be many reasons for nutrient loss," says Vanderveen. "Light and temperature can be factors. It could be poor stock rotation (or) there may be a lack of quality control in adding vitamin A, etc."

Over the next few months, the FDA will conduct its own nationwide investigation of milk nutrient content and labeling. Initially, samples will be taken mainly from store shelves. "We'll see what we find at the retail level first. The problem might end there," Vanderveen says.
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Title Annotation:Paperboard Packaging Council's advertising
Author:Densford, Lynn E.
Publication:Progressive Grocer
Date:May 1, 1984
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