The total amount of cow’s milk consumed in America has been dropping over the past decade. In an era where people have more beverage options available to them, the thirst for milk appears to be dwindling. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported declining sales in milk for six straight years and anticipates the same will be true at the end of 2017.

On average, Americans drank 155 pounds (70 kilograms) of milk per year as of 2016, down by one-third from consumption rates recorded in 1980. In this same time period, dairy farmers began producing more milk each year. The push began in the mid-20th century when Americans were encouraged to drink two to three glasses of milk each day to maintain optimal health and prevent osteoporosis.

In the 1990s the “Got Milk” slogan hit the magazines as milk sales were already experiencing a decline. Combined with the debate over growth-hormone injected cows and a strong animal rights movement, the sale of milk continued in a downward spiral. This decline in sales also led to a drop in profits for farmers who were forced to pour 43 million gallons of excess milk down the drain.

Farmers are actually dumping milk into fields, manure lagoons or using it as animal feed. There was enough milk wasted in 2016 to fill 66-Olympic sized swimming pools, and was the most recorded waste of cow’s milk in 16 years. In an effort to help private farmers, the USDA offered to purchase $20 million in cheddar cheese to reduce a surplus that had reached record levels.

In addition, the USDA provided another $11 million through the Dairy Margin Protection Program to farmers the year before. Market prices for milk fell 36 percent from a high recorded in 2014 when the supply was low. In an effort to fill the gap when prices were high, farmers expanded their operations, which led to an excess of milk production.

Some of the excess cow’s milk is now being used in domestic cheese production, which reached a record 5.35 million metric tons in 2016. This represents an increase in production of 7.6 percent from two years previously. While consumption of milk fell by 33 percent between 1980 and the present, the consumption of cheese doubled. The average American eats approximately 35 pounds of cheese each year and the sale of butter was at an all-time high of 870,000 tons in 2016.

At the same time that milk prices were high, grain prices were low, lowering the cost for farmers to feed grain to their livestock, thereby encouraging a growth in the dairy industry. Simultaneously, the value of the dollar grew and the value of the euro sank. This resulted in fewer international buyers for American milk. More European producers were then sending cheap cheese, butter and other dairy products to the U.S. as demand in Europe fell.

One driving force behind the increase in U.S. cheese consumption are fast food restaurants working to make their menus the cheesiest. Taco Bell is one food chain using a 40-person team of people to develop menu items that tickle your taste buds. The team includes chefs, chemists, nutritionists, microbiologists and even an entomologist (the study of insects) who is responsible for food safety.

Tacos in a cheese stuffed fried shell, Doritos Locos Taco and a breakfast taco served in a waffle shell, are just some of the concoctions of processed, fried and mass-produced “food” that chains are serving to unsuspecting customers. The development of cheesy menus in the midst of a glut in the dairy market is not an accident.

Although real cheese, made from raw, unpasteurized milk, is full of healthy saturated fats, great flavor and wholesome nutrition, most of the cheeses sold in grocery stores and used in restaurants are not real, raw cheeses. Most of the cheese products sold in America today are not even made from organic milk, but rather from cows raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO). These large, industrial operations are designed to produce the most amount of milk in the least amount of space.

Unfortunately, not only do the animals suffer under these conditions, but so does the milk they produce. Disturbing videos depicting the horrific conditions under which these animals are born, live and die are available online and serve to inform the consumer of the actual cost of the products purchased from grocery shelves.

When cows are raised in an intensive production system, forced to live in close quarters, infections move quickly through a herd, so farmers often use antibiotics — both to prevent infections and boost the cow’s growth. Steroids are added to the animals’ feed to boost growth and production, and a list of vitamins and potentially toxic drugs is given to the animals for the same reason. Each of these chemicals is passed along to the consumer in the milk, or cheese.

The aim of the farmer is to get the cow to produce as much milk as possible, which a diet of natural grass will not achieve. Yet diets high in grain and cheap protein are hard to digest for an animal not designed for this type of food, causing health problems and metabolic disorders that affect their milk quality.

When the cheese you eat starts with milk produced under these circumstances, the saturated fats and nutrition you absorb are not a healthy option.

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