Americans have soured on traditional milk, and the fallout is spilling into the dairy aisle.
As consumers increasingly turn to milk alternatives and thousands of dairy farms are collapsing, milk producers are now faltering, too, putting thousands of jobs at risk and threatening their brands.
The recent Chapter 11 bankruptcies of two major milk producers, Dean Foods and Borden Dairy, have shown how a sharp decline in milk sales poses an existential threat to leading dairy brands like Land O’ Lakes and TruMoo.
Consumption of dairy milk fell about 41% from 1975 to 2018, dropping from 247 pounds per person annually to 146 pounds, or about 17 gallons, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Changes in breakfast habits, a desire for healthier drinks and environmental concerns are key factors. Alternative beverages based on almonds, soy, coconuts, oats and other products are flourishing and undermining dairy milk.
“A lot of consumers look at milk and they see the high fat, the high cholesterol, they may have concerns about the way the milk was produced,” said IBISWorld analyst Devin Savaskan, who tracks the dairy industry. “You see a lot of people switching to a completely plant-based diet and that’s just going to continue to drive down the popularity of milk.”
Borden Dairy CEO Tony Sarsam defended dairy milk as healthy but said traditional milk companies haven’t changed enough to respond to how Americans are eating breakfast, in particular.
A new breakfast menu
“Breakfast was dominated by a bowl of cereal and a glass of orange juice 50 years ago. And that’s not the way folks are eating breakfast today.”
The trends have contributed to a financial crisis for dairy farms for years. More than 94,000 family dairy farms shut down from 1992 to 2018, according to the National Farmers Union.
Part of the problem is that even as dairy farms disappear, overall milk production has increased – in part due to improved techniques for cow milking – which has flooded the market with milk.
Now, after several years of price drops due to excess supply, farmers have boosted milk prices to try to make up for their own losses. In November, the most recent month in which data was available, the price of raw milk was $21 per 100 pounds, up 22% from November 2018.