For years, a variation of this sentence has appeared in nearly every news story that touches on fluid milk consumption: “Milk sales are down, while plant-beverages are rising.”
The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) said it’s easy shorthand to use, because while it has been a factually accurate statement in its own limited scope, it can be used toward fantastical ends, such as overhyping the rise of plant-based drinks or crafting a false narrative about dairy trends when dairy, as a whole, is seeing its highest per capita consumption levels in decades. The assertion will never require a correction in a newspaper, so it persists, NMPF added.
Now, however, this statement is no longer true. According to NMPF, the COVID-19 crisis appears to be resetting consumer grocery habits, and early signs are that that some of these changes -- including increased milk purchases -- are continuing as the country reopens.
“If current trends hold, milk’s revival may finally force a revision of one of the few non-fake talking points the ‘death of dairy’ myth ever had,” NMPF stated, adding that year-to-date numbers tell the story.
“While milk outsells plant-based imitators by a margin more than 10 to 1, 2020 began as another year of slow decline for milk sales in stores, and indeed, as the shorthand would have it, plant-based volumes were increasing,” NMPF said.
Then, the pandemic hit, and behaviors started changing.
As consumers emptied store shelves, NMPF said dairy and plant-based beverages both saw gains – but the size of those gains was drastically different. While consumers bought an extra 7.9 million gal. of plant-based beverages during the two peak weeks in March than they did during the same period a year earlier, milk demand exploded by more than 45 million gal., erasing its year-to-date decline in less than two weeks.
This dramatic turnaround, NMPF noted, was important for dairy farmers.
“Literally, retail consumers helped keep dairies in business as foodservice orders disappeared and federal disaster assistance hadn’t yet arrived, but after the shock of lockdowns faded and everyone had already stocked up, something interesting happened: People still bought more milk,” NMPF explained.
In fact, data show that the five-to-one advantage established in March has stayed steady through May.
“When times got tough, consumers seemed to want to return to the comfort of natural, wholesome and nutritious foods like milk, eschewing the marketing hype of plant-based imitators whose taste and nutrition profile stack up poorly against the real thing,” the federation said.
Still, future retail trends are tough to predict, especially in this environment, NMPF noted.
“When life becomes more 'normal' and as restaurants reopen, do consumers bring home as many bottles of milk from the grocery store? When schools return, do parents buy less milk for their children? These are open questions,” NMPF said.
What is known is that milk is back in grocery carts “in a big way,” as gains are much greater than for its self-proclaimed competitors, the group said.
“Consumers are navigating new grocery realities – and they are creating them, as well,” NMPF said. “The return of milk may be one that’s built to last. That makes it time to pause the ‘milk is struggling’ stories, and it means even less support for the ‘death of dairy’ myth.”
Actually, NMPF said it might be smart to toss that one altogether.