Be prepared: Disaster drill helps dairy get ready for a crisis

Lee Mielke is the voice of DairyLine Radio. For more information, contact him via phone: 360-354-5596, ext. 101; e-mail:; or visit

By Lee Mielke

Two words remain in my thinking process from my short stint in the Boy Scouts: “Be prepared.” That bit of wisdom has served me well over the years.

I thought of that and was reminded of the old-fashion “fire drills” we used to have in grade school as I participated in a “dairy crisis drill” in Seattle, Wash., in late March. Hosted by Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) and International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), I saw farmer and processor checkoff dollars at work.

There were about 90 participants from several states, made up of dairy processors, state and regional checkoff staff, state ag department representatives, a Food and Drug Administration official and three Federal Bureau of Investigation agents (one of which even handed me a Haggen daz bar, a topic for another day).

Participants were divided into small groups and assigned to fictitious dairy companies where various titles, job descriptions and roles were given. I was an “imbedded reporter.”

So far, so good, until a news bulletin reports a large outbreak of Staphylococcus Enterotoxin B (or SEB if you’re a TV or radio announcer). Dairy company board members are summoned to discuss the news accounts, which soon start pointing to dairy as a possible suspect. Those familiar with the story of Job know that bad news often comes in waves, and such was the case in our “drill.”

Board members must decide how their company will respond to calls from consumers and media regarding their company brand – and any implication it may have in this ongoing, escalating crisis. Blackberries and e-mails come fast and furious, and the public wants to know if it’s safe to eat dairy products. There’s no passing the buck in a crisis situation.

Several of these “officials” had to face media colleague Kate Sander, of Cheese Market News, and me in mock news conferences. We role-played as aggressive reporters trying to get the story for our readers and listeners.

I’ll restrain from further details to avoid giving too much information away for upcoming future drills, but I’m confident the training drove home the point that, while this was just an exercise, it was realistic and could really happen one day.

What would your dairy cooperative do in such a case? Does its leaders have a plan in place, ready to go?

These CEOs and board members will be the ones to defend your cooperative and its dairy farmer members in such a situation, and I couldn’t help but think that I’d sure want a competent, qualified, trained person to answer the tough questions – instead of the janitor or a milk truck driver.

The training was tough, intensive, and probably cost a few bucks to put on. But, in the spirit of “Boy Scout preparedness,” the investment is vital in the world we live in today.

Thankfully, the dairy industry has been proactive for some time in this area. A dairy communication management team – made up of DMI, IDFA, U.S. Dairy Export Council, National Milk Producers Federation and MilkPEP members – is in place to speak with one voice, respond only when dairy is called into question, and follow the government’s lead in such events.

The Tylenol Company laid the right response ground work in the nightmare it went through years ago, a nightmare the CEO and board members of Toyota have surely learned of late. Airlines have done these drills for years. Is your cooperative prepared?

DairyLine Radio’s Lee Mielke looks on during a briefing by Shannon Koski, account manager with U.S. Dairy Export Council.