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Consumer Reports

Milk is fresh: Beverage gets flashy makeover to attract young drinkers | (KRT) Tired of being outshined by soda, old-fashioned milk is morphing into a more dazzling drink, flying across the counters at fast-food restaurants after edging its way into school vending machines.

Milk marketers have ditched the dull and clumsy cardboard cartons and simple flavors for flashy, colorful plastic bottles and strawberry, banana, root beer and other kid-friendly flavors.

"We've made milk relevant to how kids live today," said Chris Moore, spokesman for Dairy Management Inc., a national organization that promotes dairy products.

The shift is such a hit parents and kids are swapping their McDonald's Happy Meal soft drinks for splashy-looking mini-milks with Ronald McDonald surfing across a wave of milk.

Both McDonald's and Wendy's introduced the newly designed white and chocolate milks last summer, and have since reported record sales of milk.

Wendy's went from selling 65,000 units of milk each week nationwide to more than 1 million, said Wendy's spokesman Bob Bertini.

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"Anyway you look at it, milk options have been a hit," Bertini said. "People today are looking for fresh, tasty, nutritious options. Milk fills that bill."

Milk sales at McDonald's jumped from 650,000 units a week to 4.25 million, according to dairy industry experts. McDonald's would not confirm the numbers.

Other fast-food chains are testing the newly packaged products.

"It's a great idea," said Rhett Krueger as his 3-½-year-old son slurped a chocolate milk at McDonald's on Highway 18 in Waukesha County, Wis.

Krueger said in the past he would order an orange soda with his son's Happy Meal, drink it himself and give his son milk at home.

Milk is also making significant market gains in schools, where children are increasingly grabbing 16-ounce "Grip it, Sip it" milks from vending machines, said James Robson, spokesman for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

Wisconsin leads the nation in number of schools with milk vending machines, Robson said. About 365 schools now offer milk from machines. That's up 50 percent from two years ago. And the number is expected to grow.

Don Kreuser, principal of Oak Creek West Middle School, had a milk vending machine installed in his school last year.

"I was alarmed at the amount of soft drinks kids were drinking," he said. "They were bringing it in the morning and drinking it at lunch."

Many kids now opt for milk, he said. "It's a popular choice."

State Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, takes some credit for getting milk vending machines in the schools. He co-sponsored legislation in 2002 that prohibits soft-drink companies with exclusive school contracts from disallowing milk machines, as some had done in the past.

The reauthorization of the federal Child Nutrition Act, signed into law in June, includes a similar provision.

Hansen said he plans to study Wisconsin's law to see how it's working and whether it needs improving.

Hansen's original bill required schools with soft-drink contracts to offer milk "whenever and wherever the soft drinks are available to pupils." The language was watered down before it passed to say that schools should try "to the maximum extent possible" to make milk available to students. Hansen called the current version a compromise.

"I think it's important," he said. "It's time to follow up and re-evaluate it."

The U.S. Surgeon General's office recommends school age children consume 800 to 1,300 milligrams of calcium every day, depending on age, and 200 international units of vitamin D a day. One cup of milk has about 300 milligrams of calcium and 50 international units of vitamin D.

Thirteen-year-old Kyle Wagner said he likes having the option of drinking milk during the school day.

"I buy it about once a week," said Wagner, an eighth-grader at Eisenhower Middle School in New Berlin, Wis. "I like the taste."

Soft-drink companies themselves are launching milk-based products for consumption in schools. Late last year Coca Cola, for example, introduced Swerve, which has just enough milk - 51 percent - to be labeled with the "Real" dairy seal. Pepsi is testing Milk Chillers in a variety of flavors.

Dairy farmers aren't sure yet what to make of such milk drinks. It's too soon to say whether they'll boost milk production or compete with sales, they say.

For now, dairy farmers are celebrating the break into the fast-food chains and school vending machines, said Rosalie Geiger, whose family has owned Ran-Rose Farms near Reedsville in Manitowoc County, Wis., since 1867.

Geiger said industry advocates have been pushing for better packaging for nearly seven years.

"Packaging is so important, especially to kids. A resealable, plastic container is the best way to serve out product," he said.

Already, the increase in milk sales in the two fast-food chains alone represents 150 million pounds of fluid milk annually, the equivalent of 150 times Geiger's annual sales.

Geiger says milk marketers' next target is the school lunch line, where cartons are still king.

According to Dairy Management Inc., $142 million is spent each year to market milk in the Unites States, but that pales in comparison to what is spent marketing soft drinks. Industry estimates suggest about $375 million was spent so far this year just to market Coke, according to Dairy Management.

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© 2004, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services