West Coast dairies join forces to recover missing milk cases

The ''Case of the Missing Milk Case'' is heading toward the best-seller list. And if a new West Coast dairy-investigative group has anything to say about it, the publicity will help it hit the top.

Those open-mesh plastic crates in which 24 cartons of milk (or juices) are delivered to retail outlets have been disappearing at a national cost to milk processors of $100 million a year, according to dairy industry spokesmen. This, notwithstanding the fact that in most states, the cases are embossed with dollar-fine information explaining penalties if used by other than the registered owner.

Now, 12 dairies have formed the California Coalition for Milk Case Recovery in an effort to cut down statewide loss of about $10 million in missing crates.

Dairy investigators say the problem seems to be the attractiveness of milk cases for personal, family, and institutional use.

A Monitor small-capsule survey showed some West Coast families have been using the handy colored crates for things like sorting plants and flowers, storing flatware, taking along weekend supplies and segregating garage tools and some basement odds-and-ends.

California Coalition investigators say they intend to prosecute flagrant violators of the state agricultural code on misuse of cases. But their immediate effort will be to seek the return of crates, no questions asked.

In California, it has added about 4 cents to the selling price of a gallon of milk.

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