Beloved chocolate milk is disappearing because of the supply chain
People have been eager to stock up on the drink – a local favorite in the town of around 6,000 – since supply chain issues knocked it off shelves. While Houlton Farms cows produce milk, a special chocolate blend used by the company has been difficult to obtain.
“Some of you have noticed the lack of chocolate milk on the shelves,” Houlton Farms Dairy said in a Facebook post. “Unfortunately, we are going through what much of the world is going through, supply chain issues. The company that makes our special cocoa blend that we use for our product is struggling with raw materials, resulting in a shortage. We don’t know how long this shortage will last, but we expect to be well in March. We apologize for the inconvenience and are doing what we can to expedite the process.”
Houlton Farms began buying a pallet of 40 bags of chocolate milk mix every three months in the early 1980s, according to the Washington Post. Around this time, a representative from a company called Bowey Krimko proposed that his company create a unique blend to “produce just the right shade of brown and the right amount of creaminess”.
Bowery Krimko was absorbed into Tate & Lyle, a global food and beverage conglomerate headquartered in London, through acquisitions. An Illinois-based branch of Tate & Lyle supplies the special chocolate mix to the dairy.
If you count the comments from the Houlton Farms Dairy Facebook page as proof, the custom blend was a success.
“The best chocolate milk in the world. That’s not an opinion it’s a fact!!!” one user said on the post about the recent product shortage.
His comment was one of 100.
“I have traveled everywhere, tasting milk and dairy products everywhere, and your products are superior in every way. Please don’t skimp on quality when times are tough,” said another commenter.
Darrin Peterson, an Illinois-based Tate & Lyle executive, oversees the company’s global stabilizer and assistive systems businesses. He confirmed that the Houlton Farms mix is a unique combination of cocoa, a stabilizer called carrageenan and several other ingredients.
Demand for mixes such as the Houlton Farms mix has increased as schools have resumed classes following pandemic-related closures, Peterson said.
Typically, Tate & Lyle imported cocoa powder from West Africa, Brazil and other places. Since the pandemic, the company has sought to source cocoa from distributors in the United States, among other efforts to expedite delivery.
According to Peterson, a tangle of factors caused a delay in supplying the chocolate mix. He said raw materials imported from Tate & Lyle were being affected by ongoing port safeguards. For example, when the Suez Canal was blocked last year, two Tate & Lyle containers were trapped on the blocked ship.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, labor shortages and other issues have caused persistent supply chain issues. Labor issues at a Tate & Lyle factory in Sycamore, Illinois also contributed to the delay in chocolate mixing.
So when Houlton Farms co-owner Eric Lincoln spoke to the chocolate mix supplier in December, he was told it might take 12 weeks to get the powder.
That’s triple the normal wait time.
“You hear everybody has problems,” said Lincoln, who started working at the dairy 84 in high school and bought it with family members in 1981. “It’s just our turn to have our turn.”
“Anyone in the food industry today, whether you’re a small processor like Houlton or a big one like Kraft Foods, everyone feels the same kind of pinches in their supply chains,” Peterson said. “It’s inevitable.”
Earlier in the pandemic, Lincoln tried a new eggnog supplier in California after the typical Houlton Farms supplier in Maine announced over the summer that it could no longer manufacture its product, also due supply chain issues. Customers were not happy.
“I almost wish I had never bought it,” Lincoln said. “It was a good lesson not to play with chocolate milk.”
He decided to use most of the remaining mixture for chocolate milk sent to schools. That’s why customers were stocking up on half-gallons and why County Yankee Grocer had to institute a limit of one chocolate milk per customer, according to store manager Joshua Brisley.
Tracey Albert, 38, was one of the customers who was able to find some of her favorite chocolate milks at the store last month. She has been drinking it regularly since primary school even though she is lactose intolerant.
“Nothing beats the candle,” Albert said.
“We are honored that the appreciation for our products has garnered so much attention,” said a Facebook post from the dairy after the Washington Post reported on its chocolate milk shortage.
The outlet said an email from Tate & Lyle indicated the mix could actually arrive as early as this week. However, Lincoln said there are still other supply chain issues the company needs to worry about.
“It’s just a lot of things you never thought about, now you have to think about it,” he said.