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MAKING PERCEPTION REALITY
Sometimes when you're sitting in a movie theater, it's hard to determine the difference between perception and reality. Writers, producers, cinematographers and others all have ways to help make perception reality. When these folks are successful, movies are enjoyable.

There are many factors influencing the perception of consumers in the dairy marketplace. Outside influences can create perceptions that aren't necessarily real, yet leave the consumer wondering what to believe. Buying decisions are made and changed over such perceptions.

Each segment of the dairy industry is strongly influenced by consumer demand. Consumer purchases directly impact supply, which ultimately sets a milk price, impacting all levels of the dairy food production chain. And how consumers perceive a specific product in terms of quality and safety directly impacts the purchases they make.

Unfortunately, as we have seen in various agricultural industries, perception is not always in line with reality. Thankfully, dairy products are still widely regarded as wholesome and healthy. Each day the dairy industry provides products to millions of consumers who are confident that the milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream they purchase is healthy and of the highest quality.

But is this positive perception something that all segments of the dairy supply chain can rely on?

Consumers no longer want to assume that their products were made under certain circumstances. They want assurances. That's how consumers have influenced several fast food chains to require strict animal handling practices from meat suppliers. McDonald's will soon require all meat to come from animals that have not been treated with antibiotics. No one can predict what supply changes will come from consumer demands.

STRIDE - Systems Targeting Resource Integration for Dairy Excellence - is designed to help the dairy industry avoid this path by proactively developing and implementing management systems that assure every business is consistently exceeding quality standards in the areas of animal health, animal welfare, food safety and the environment, which are all hot buttons targeting consumer confidence. Although developing this system won't happen overnight, when it is complete, everyone involved in dairy - producers, processors and retailers - will benefit from a stronger industry.

It's the goal of STRIDE to align perception with reality to maintain and enhance consumer confidence for the dairy products they buy. By taking action now through proactive measures, STRIDE will develop a system everyone in the dairy industry can live with.

CHAIN COOPERATION

Dewayne Dill, Dairy Strategies senior consultant
Three companies came together as partners in the development of STRIDE early last year - Charleston|Orwig Inc., Dairy Strategies LLC, a Madison, Wis.-based dairy consulting firm, and NSF International, a standards and certification organization. "We saw the need for something like STRIDE when we saw how other industries benefited from a broad approach to meet consumer demands," says Dewayne Dill, Dairy Strategies senior consultant.

The charter sponsors began by coordinating and hosting a summit of industry representatives from all levels of the dairy food production chain, from producers through consumers. This group held open discussions about the state of the industry and how to use existing and future tools to align industry stakeholders towards maintaining consumer confidence.

What resulted was a vision for a STRIDE initiative to establish a dairy food system in harmony with its consumers and society. Participants identified four key dairy industry issues - animal health, animal welfare, food safety and the environment - that have the greatest impact on consumer confidence. By understanding how these issues impact consumer confidence and identifying quality management systems that provide consumers with assurances that standards were adhered to when products were developed, the industry can create positive change for a stronger future.

Dr. Bernard Rollin, distinguished professor at Colorado State University, told participants that if they want the freedom to preserve their way of life within the dairy industry, it's time to take a proactive approach to creating change in the industry.

"In the '50s and '60s, all of the animal husbandry departments at universities changed their names to animal science," Rollin commented. "We need to build husbandry back into our systems and champion our fate, not drift from it."

MAKING CHANGE HAPPEN

Lynn Balinas, executive vice president of Charleston|Orwig Inc.
"We participated in the STRIDE Summit and subsequent initiatives because we understand how change is affecting the dairy businesses we work with," says Lynn Balinas, executive vice president of Charleston|Orwig Inc., Hartland, Wis. "We also know that companies must be proactive to effect change, rather than wait until it's mandated or legislated."

But representatives from throughout the industry are realizing the important goal established by STRIDE to enhance consumer confidence in dairy products.

"As consumers of dairy products ourselves, we always expect quality," says Shelly Mayer, executive director of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin and a Wisconsin dairy producer. "But it's important that we provide consumers assurances, through a validated process, that we place great importance on making high quality dairy products to suit their needs."

It is that validated process that STRIDE will work to put in place, consisting of a system of benchmarks and measures to establish and validate quality management systems throughout the dairy food production chain. Fortunately, many such systems are currently in place through automated management systems, standard operating procedures and other formal documentation. Through an industry-wide initiative to validate these, the documentation will lead to a process to assure consumers their dairy food was produced in a safe, high-quality manner, while still maintaining efficiency throughout the production system.

"Quality is defined at the checkout counter, and consumers set the rules," says Steve Baker, former CoBank senior market analyst and STRIDE Summit 2003 presenter. "Consumers have a heightened awareness of the level of quality they expect in the goods they purchase."

Ed Peck, STRIDE executive director and senior consultant at Agri-Strategies
Building a partnership throughout the industry is key to STRIDE's success. That's where the STRIDE Partners program comes in. "Change can only happen with cooperation throughout the industry," says Ed Peck, STRIDE executive director and senior consultant at Agri-Strategies. "The Partners program is an opportunity for every business in the dairy industry, from producers to retailers, to become a partner in a grassroots effort to effect change and grow the dairy industry."

Funds from the STRIDE Partners program go toward building awareness for the STRIDE message, as well as help position participating partners as leaders in creating a stronger dairy industry for all stakeholders.

Dairy producers and allied industry partners were the first-phase target of the STRIDE initiative. The next step will be the 2004 STRIDE Summit, targeting the dairy foods processing industry and research partners. In the meantime, STRIDE will continue to grow as new partners come on board to effect change in the dairy industry.

As Dr. Rollin commented during his speech at the first STRIDE Summit, "The price of freedom is clearly responsibility." As part of the dairy industry, we are all responsible for developing a system to strengthen our industry now, and well into the future.

For more information on STRIDE and the STRIDE Partners program, visit www.dairystride.com, e-mail info@dairystride.com or call 877/602-5253. AM


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