MADISON, WIS. -- At the Central Storage & Warehouse Co. here, 14 million pounds of government butter is stored six levels deep, frozen hard as stone at zero degrees Fahrenheit waiting for someone to take it away.
Every year the Agriculture Department buys up the nation's extra butter and tries to sell it -- to military bases or foreign countries. Or to discount it -- to school lunch programs or other food aid recipients. Or, as a last resort, to give it away -- to disaster victims or the impoverished children of the Third World.
In all, the government last year bought 348.3 million pounds of butter for $383 million. Central Storage, an enormous complex of hangar-like sheds on the outskirts of Madison, is one of butter's larger way stations.
Last month manager Jim Fabian had orders for 400,000 pounds and hopes to get rid of all but 2 million to 3 million pounds by year's end. "It's not as bad now," Fabian said. "It wasn't so long ago that we'd keep 5 to 7 million pounds of it for two or three years."
But it's bad enough. Changing national taste has made butter the accursed stepchild of the dairy industry. With consumers concerned about cholesterol and fat, butter has few friends. Selling it has become such an obsession for milk producers that their main advertising organization, the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board, has organized a special "butter task force" to reassess butter's image and devise creative ways to market it.
"Butter needs a whole new look, and we've opened a rethinking process," said task force chief George de Jager. "Of all the products we promote, butter is the only one that has declined over time."
Butter's troubles began in the 1940s when the federal government for the first time allowed margarine imports to offset a shortage of dairy products during World War II.
Once it got a toehold, however, margarine refused to leave, and during the 1950s and 1960s consumption of cheap, domestically produced margarine rocketed ahead, largely at the expense of butter, sneeringly dismissed by one company as "the 70-cent spread."
Dairy farmers never overcame the margarine hurdle, and in the mid-1980s butter suffered additional indignity because of customer concern about high cholesterol and the dangers of animal fat.
Butter has plenty of both -- in fact, a 1923 act of Congress defined butter as having 80 percent milkfat. Anything below that has to be called something else.
Even though margarine use has slackened slightly in recent years, butter has not gained ground. In 1988, the last year for which statistics are available, margarine consumption was 10.3 pounds per person per year, while butter limped along at 4.3 pounds per person.
"From a research perspective butter is our biggest priority, right at the top of the list," said Joe O'Donnell, science and technology director for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, regional cousin of the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board. "What can we do? It's not marketable, that's the problem."
The usual solution for a product that doesn't sell is to stop producing it. Unfortunately for dairy farmers, this option doesn't exist, for milkfat is part of milk, and cows don't know that consumers don't want it.
Whole milk contains 3.25 percent milkfat, with the percentage rising or falling slightly depending on the species of cow and what the cow eats. The fat is either included in whole milk or sold separately as cream (milkfat dissolved in water) or as butter (water dissolved in milkfat).
Reducing the percentage of milkfat in raw whole milk, say O'Donnell and others, has limited possibilities and would have to be bred into cows over generations.
So the industry is stuck with the surplus. And worse, there is no quick fix, for anything good that happens in the dairy industry has the side effect of aggravating the butter problem.
For instance, in 1987 sales of "lower fat milk" (low fat and skim milk) in the United States surpassed whole milk sales for the first time in history. Low fat consumption continues to grow, which is good for milk producers, but butter is what's left over.
In Madison, the Milk Marketing Board has had great success promoting Wisconsin cheeses, another boon for the dairy industry. O'Donnell acknowledges, however, that low-fat cheese consumption is growing faster than whole-milk cheese consumption. Butter is what's left over.
And at the end of last year, the government had no surplus stocks of powdered, non-fat milk and only a tiny bit of cheese. Butter -- 348.3 million pounds of it -- was what was left over.
De Jager and the butter task force early this year determined that their home consumption ad campaign wasn't working, so they dumped it and began looking at other possibilities. The advantages they had were the same as always: "It's a natural product, and nobody has ever been able to duplicate the taste," de Jager said.
In its initial research the task force noticed that food service (restaurants and cafeterias) accounted for 34 percent of all butter purchases, while 38 percent went to the food manufacturing industry. Supermarket sales to individual consumers accounted for the remaining 28 percent.
"We started looking in the back of the restaurant rather than the front," de Jager said. "We started a program of 'butters du jour,' with a dozen gourmet recipes that chefs could use to make more profitable entrees."
More ambitious is the task force's intention to aggressively promote butter use in food manufacturing, possibly by using technology to isolate and enhance those properties of butter that processors might find attractive: "Maybe we can make your cookie perform better," O'Donnell said.