Real Dairy: It's a good news/bad news thing

The future of feeding America continues its trend away from farms and ranches to laboratories and factories.

Chuck Jolley

July 8, 2020

3 Min Read
Real Dairy: It's a good news/bad news thing

The good news: Elsie the Cow is now in a new and committed relationship with Capitol Peak Partners and KKR, the latter serving as a minority investor in a $340 million deal. Although the breakup was announced last year, the world's most famous bovine had been with Borden Dairy since 1936, but the union wasn't formalized until she was trademarked in 1951.

Tony Sarsam, the CEO of Borden Dairy during its terminal years, was responsible for her well-being. One of the first things he did was to re-establish the marketing department, which had died of neglect at some point during the previous CEO's tenure. He also gave Elsie a more hip 21st Century makeover when he approved a going nowhere new advertising tagline, "Glass Half-Full Since 1857."

The bad news: The glass turned out to be half-empty and leaking badly. A good guess: Sarsam had applied a band-aide to a sieve.

Even with new lipstick, Elsie was still a little shopworn, not nearly the iconic beauty she was in her mid-twentieth century youth. She is, after all, a ripe old 84 years old this year, and a fickle public is looking for a younger and more attractive dietary partner. Real milk consumption has been declining for more than a half-century. Share of shelf space in American refrigerators has dwindled to the occasional pint or so with the extra space stocked with bottled water, juice, soda, and soy-, oat- or almond-based milk substitutes.

(Writer's note I: Just because it's a white liquid doesn't make it 'milk.' Otherwise, Elmer's Glue qualifies as condensed milk.)

(Writer's note II: There is no truth to the rumor that Elsie and Elmer were once illicit stablemates. They were just good friends.)

A history lesson: Liquid milk consumption has fallen off a cliff, dropping more than 40% since 1975. It's a statistic that must weigh heavily with the old girl who entered the relationship with no prenup. Elsie's new significant other is Capitol Peak's founder Gregg Engles, former chairman-CEO of both Dean Foods and WhiteWave Foods, which makes Horizon organic milk and Silk plant-based milk. Real milk trying to live under the same roof as imitation milk makes for two strange bedfellows. One will inevitably emerge as the 'most-favored' partner and it won't be Elsie.

Let's pose an important question. With one of two dominant milk producers of the twentieth century now dead and gone and Borden on life support, can real milk and its children – real ice cream, real cheese, real yogurt – survive?

We're drinking less real milk and more artificial lab-produced imitations, an oddity during a time when buzzwords like 'real' and 'natural' are the drivers in food marketing. The Associated Press reports the amount that Americans drink annually has fallen 40% in less than half a century. What's worse, the drop in consumption is accelerating. In 1996, for instance, we drank about 24 gal. per person. In 2018, we were politely sipping just 17 gal. – less than 6 oz. per day. An interesting comparison: Fortune magazine reported that we gulped downed 7.9 billion gallons of booze in 2018.

Meanwhile, sales of oat milk increased by a whopping 636% between 2018 and 2019, while cow's milk sales fell by 2.4% during those same 12 months.

Is real dairy becoming like the Sony Walkman, the once extremely popular but badly out-of-date product now seen as a pleasant anachronism of a past era? Remember big hair? Long sideburns? Coke Zero? Game Boys?  Will the future version of that perfect mom once known as June Cleaver smile indulgently as she pours glasses of oat milk for her impish little children, remembering the good old days when people drank the mammary extrusions of bovine-like mammals?

Bottom line: The future of feeding America continues its trend away from farms and ranches to laboratories and factories.

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