Ontario’s great milk jug debate puts dairy industry in odd situation

I distinctly remember the first time I was introduced to milk in bags.


I was either 11 or 12. We were visiting family friends in Toronto. It was around suppertime and everyone was bringing the last few dishes to the table.


As we all gathered to take our seats, my brother asked “where’s the milk?” Someone pointed to the centre of the table and said simply, “here.” 


And so it was. 


That frothy, creamy white goodness (I may have a slight love affair with a cool, crisp glass of milk) was plunked inside a 1.3 litre plastic bag stuffed inside a somewhat smelly plastic pitcher. There was an opening cut on one end with a plastic knife blade tool that looked like it belonged in some bizarre science fiction film. 


For a girl from the Prairies it was just … weird. 


Now, several years later (and having lived in Ontario for nearly six years), I admit I am still not a connoisseur of the fine art of manhandling milk in bags. 


In fact, I confess when I first heard that Mac’s convenience stores sold the 3.89 litre plastic milk jugs along side the four litre milk bags (one plastic bag filled with three individual 1.3 litre plastic bags), I may or may not have done a fanatical happy dance in my kitchen. 


Clearly, the lingering effect of having one too many plastic milk bags holding containers come teetering off the top shelf of the fridge, only to douse me when I went to catch it had left a lasting memory — or smell.


Or maybe it was the fact those jugs are a simple, yet comforting reminder of home. 


In any event, my reaction when I read last Monday’s Toronto Star report informing me of Dairy Farmers of Ontario’s plans to fight the sale of three litre plastic jugs in Ontario ranged between disbelief and utter confusion. 


Turns out, under the Ontario Milk Act, vendors are not allowed to sell three litre plastic jugs. The presence of jugs on the shelves at Mac’s convenience stores is part of a pilot project between the convenience stores and the Ontario Dairy Council, which are also part of the ongoing legal battle. 


The idea is to give Ontario consumers more choice, a common theme that seems to appear regularly in agricultural conversation. 


Dairy Farmer of Ontario lawyers, however, argue that allowing the three litre plastic jugs into the market place will eat away at the current four litre milk market, with the end result, they say, being fewer options for consumers. 


At first glance, though, DFO’s argument seems convoluted. Now, the four litre milk bags are generally sold as loss leaders, with prices ranging around $3.99 a bag.


In comparison, the weekly plastic jug I buy from my local Mac’s store costs me $5.44, which I plop onto the counter no questions asked. The simple convenience, at least that’s what I tell myself, is worth paying the premium price.


My confusion, therefore, with DFO’s argument is this: if I, the consumer, am willing to pay more for a product, why is this an issue? 


Canada’s dairy industry has a tried and true history of meeting most, if not all, of Canadians’ dairy needs. Still, there comes a time when slight adjustments (we’re not talking about getting rid of supply management here) may well prove beneficial to customers’ needs and desires. 


Mind you, I fully admit not everyone agrees with my love for plastic milk jugs. 


Since the Toronto Star piece was first published, several of my Ontario friends have put forward passionate defenses of milk in bags. 


“They’re easier for children to lift,” said one friend. 


“They take up less vertical space in the fridge,” said another. 


“They use less plastic than those giant, heavy jugs you swear by,” said a third. 


All valid arguments, but given the choice, I’ll stick to my plastic milk jug.

Kelsey Johnson is a reporter with iPolitics, www.ipolitics.ca.

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