Food by VICE

String Cheese Is Threatening This New York Town's Water Supply

When Kraft Heinz started making string cheese in Lowville, it added jobs—but started taking much of the town's water.

by Bettina Makalintal
Jun 7 2019, 12:00pm

Photo by bhofack2 via iStock/Getty Images Plus

About a year ago, upstate New York's appropriately named Watertown Daily Times classified the water shortage in the town of Lowville as having entered "crisis mode." A year before, the North Country Public Radio had pointed out its "water woes." Residents had been told not to wash their cars, and despite high summer temperatures, not to run sprinklers or fill pools either. The cause, locals said, was the town's Kraft Heinz factory, and one of its products in particular: string cheese, which it started making there in 2017.

The shortage has been well-documented by local news, but a deep dive from the Wall Street Journal earlier this week has put the situation on the national radar. Since Lowville is in one of the state's highest milk-producing regions, Kraft has made its cream cheese there since the 70s. Then, when Kraft merged with Heinz in 2015, it moved string cheese production to the same plant. That brought jobs, but it also began siphoning a lot of water.

That's the double bind Lowville is facing. As a former Kraft Heinz employee told the Daily Times, the plant uses a lot of water for cleaning, only worsened by the string cheese facility expansion. As the WSJ wrote, the processing and packaging processes for string cheese also needed more water. But, as the general manager of the local dairy co-operative explained in the Daily Times, cutting down water usage could mean losing the plant and create more trouble for local dairy farms. America’s dairy farms are already struggling to sell their milk, leading to the closure of around 1,600 farms in New York alone between 2006 and 2016.

To improve the situation, the WSJ reported, Kraft Heinz has funded a recycling system that should add up to 100,000 gallons of water per day, as well as changed its production schedules to better suit the needs of residents. But for locals, the economic effects extend past potential jobs: Residents who didn't comply with the conservation regulations have been fined, fines have been threatened on the town by the state, and in order to fund new water transfer systems, water users have seen a 15 percent rate increase.

While it might seem like an isolated incident, the story points out broader worries about food production and water scarcity. Overall, the WSJ report reiterates what environmental activists and vegans have been telling us for yearss: The production of animal products requires a whole lot of resources. Consider, for example, that a reported 668 gallons of water are needed per pound of cheese, a statistic attributed to Arjen Hoekstra, the Dutch scientist who coined the phrase "water footprint." Add that to the 30 gallons of water needed to produce a single glass of wine, and your weekend cheese board might feel a little unsettling.