Milk from dairy cows still ranks first in retail sales in the dairy aisle, but its market share is declining as substitutes such as almond, soy, coconut and rice milks gain favor with more consumers.
In the 1970s the average American drank 30 gallons of traditional milk a year, and now that’s down to about 18 gallons a year on a per capita basis, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.
Rival substitutes could get a boost from the backlash in the wake of recent, local abuse allegations. Recent surveillance videos released by an animal cruelty investigative group showing cows being abused at two Okeechobee County dairies have received nationwide attention.
Some say concerns about how animals are treated are helping to drive sales of plant-based milk alternatives. Richard “Kudo” Couto, founder and lead investigator for Miami Beach-based ARM, which filmed the alleged abuse, said consumers can “turn to a lot of alternative products.”
For the 52 weeks ending Oct. 28, retail sales of regular white milk (fat-free, 1 percent, 2 percent and whole) totaled $10.3 billion while sales of all the milk substitutes combined totaled $1.4 billion, according to Nielsen data.
Among the substitutes, almond milk ranked first with 73 percent of dollar volume followed by milks made from soy, coconut, others (cashew, flax, pea, hemp etc.) and rice. Nielsen’s experts say that dietary restrictions may be playing a role in almond milk’s rise, as it lacks the lactose of traditional milk and does not contain the plant-based estrogen found in soy.
Even the nation’s largest processor and distributor of fresh milk and other dairy products, Dean Foods Co., which owns the South Florida iconic brand McArthur, is branching out. It has a minority investment in Good Karma, a flaxseed-based milk alternative ideal for people with dairy, nut or soy allergies, Dean spokeswoman Reace Smith said.
Meanwhile, the dairy milk industry is fighting back with the “Dairy Pride Act,” proposed legislation that would ban alternatives from using the term “milk.” They assert that the plant-based beverage producers are confusing consumers by caling their products “milk.”
Soy milk, a mainstay for decades, gained popularity over the years among people who could not tolerate dairy milk and also with vegans who do not eat meat of any kind and also do not eat eggs, dairy products, or processed foods containing these or other animal-derived ingredients such as gelatin.
John Cox, executive director, Soy Foods Association of North America, said, it’s silly for the dairy industry to suggest that consumers are mistakenly selecting soy milk when they meant to select cow’s milk. However, if soy milk were required to be labeled “soy beverage,” that would be confusing, he said.
“A soy bean cannot be mistreated. It requires far less water, land and fertilizer than other comparable sources of protein,” Cox said, but the industry isn’t out to criticize the dairy industry because soy beans are an important source of cattle feed.
The way cows are treated in Florida dairies has been in the spotlight since last months’s release by surveillance videos shot at Larson Dairy and Burnham Dairy in Okeechobee County by Miami Beach-based A R M. The videos show workers kicking cows in the head, being beating them with metal rods and using other force the dairy industry says is unacceptable and not typical.
When the videos were released, Publix Super Markets immediately suspended shipments from Larson Dairy on Nov. 9 and from Burnham Dairy on Nov. 13. The ban is still in effect, Publix spokeswoman Nicole Krauss said Friday.
In response to the demand for milk from cows raised in the most natural environment possible, a number of dairies are now producing milk from grass-fed cows touted as free of GMOs. Among them are Maple Hill Creamery, Kinderhook, N.Y., which since 2009 has been crafting healthy organic dairy products from 100 percent grass-fed cows.
Innovative milk from cows such as Fairlife’s ultra-filtered milk, with more protein and calcium, less sugar and no lactose are also offer a “better-for-you” alternative.
Because, judging for the sales numbers, dairy milk is still the favorite of a majority of consumers.
Bob Messenger, publisher of food-and-beverage industry report “The Morning Cup,” said, “Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but the plant-based drinks are not milk, not in my opinion. Milk is milk, plant-based alternatives are beverages. I’ve tried them all (soy, almond, etc.) but nothing works on on my bowl of Special K like ‘real’ milk.
“That said, there is a movement out there, some of it driven by the animal activist elements, to demonize dairy, whether it has to do with environmental issues or concern for the animals. And it seems to be boosting sales of these plant-based beverages. Nothing wrong with that, so long as it doesn’t lead to an effort to ban dairy-based milk altogether. These days, nothing is impossible,” Messenger said.
It’s unclear what the impact of the dairies’ exposure might be. When the videos were released, Publix Super Markets immediately suspended shipments from Larson Dairy on Nov. 9 and from Burnham Dairy on Nov. 13 and is still not accepting milk from them, Publix spokeswoman Nicole Krauss confirmed Friday.
Chris Galen, spokesman, National Milk Producers Federation, said, “We don’t believe that on an ongoing, national basis, the rare appearance of an undercover video depicting animal abuse has an impact on milk sales. Because these incidents are — thankfully — isolated cases that are condemned by everyone in the industry, it’s very hard to tie trends in milk sales to such a localized situation.
“That said, we know that many consumers — certainly not all, but an increasing proportion — want to know where their food comes from,” Galen said. “That applies to all types of products in their diets, including dairy. The rise in social media’s influence, coupled with changes in food retailing, are leading to expectations of greater transparency about food production throughout the value chain.
In 2009, NMPF implemented the National Dairy FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) program to ensure that the industry has a rigorous, science-based system to monitor and improve dairy animal care.
“It’s not a marketing program, but a demonstration that farmers are “walking the walk” when it comes to adopting comprehensive standards for animal care across a dairy cow’s life,” Galen said.
With a dizzying array of milk and milk substitutes available, what should consumers do?
Consumers who might be confused about the choices should read the product’s labels, and especially check the amount of protein, Palm Beach Gardens-based registered licensed dietitian/nutritionist Christine Bandy advises. Most milks of all kinds including skim milk, are fortified with calcium and vitamins found in cow’s milk.
She points out the human are the only species’ that regularly drinks another species’ milk.
“There is no absolute requirement at all for cow’s milk if you are getting a balanced, varied diet,” Bandy said.