Anecdotally and factually speaking, dairy is alive and well

  • Marilyn Hershey
  • DMI Chair

I don’t know if you’re like me, but I can’t help but peek at other people’s shopping carts when I’m in the grocery store.

It’s not a nosey thing. I’m just curious to see if they have dairy on their shopping list. Seeing our raw milk turned into a finished product that appeals to our consumers is one of the most fulfilling aspects of farming.

By no means is this based in any sort of scientific proof, but from what I can see in my local store, dairy is far from dead.

Those of us who work in animal agriculture are a focus of activist organizations and companies that create non-dairy products. Somewhere along the way, a “dairy is dying” narrative began that probably was rooted in these groups.

My anecdotal shopping experiences aside, we have various proof points to refute their story and proclaim we are not only alive and well, but we are a true powerhouse category.

Here are a few that have caught my eye:

  • From 2002 to 2022, total U.S. dairy sales grew 38 percent and 64 billion milk equivalent pounds (total solids basis). This growth is split nearly evenly between domestic dairy sales (up 19 percent/30-billion-pound-plus increase) and exports (up 495 percent/33.6-billion-pound increase).
  • Despite the challenges of COVID-19 and the most recent challenge of inflation, dairy has continued to deliver sales growth of 2.6 billion pounds the last five years.
  • Sales of real dairy products at retail last year totaled $61.9 billion, up $6.1 billion from 2022. This growth is bigger than snacks, liquor, carbonated soft drinks, meat, candy, and sport and energy drinks. Real dairy is bigger than every food and beverage category except liquor.
  • The checkoff-founded U.S. Dairy Export Council helps open international markets for U.S. dairy. In 2022, we hit record export sales value of $9.6 billion, representing 25 percent growth and 18 percent of U.S. milk production. This translates to one of every seven milk tankers heading to an international market.

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So, what does this all mean for the dairy checkoff and our strategy? It means we need to keep pushing for more. Just because we’re in a place of category strength does not mean we should pause to rest.

And the checkoff certainly isn’t. While there are many examples of how the checkoff is delivering on its mission of driving sales and trust, I want to focus on some of our innovation and research efforts. This work is critical because today’s consumer has far different expectations of the foods they select than any previous generation before them.

Consumers, for example, are adopting a “food as medicine” approach and it may open a whole new door for dairy. The Dairy Management Inc. Product Research Team is putting milk under the microscope to learn that our product has much more to give beyond its 13 essential nutrients.

This team’s work focuses on dairy bioactive components and their unique functionality, specifically related to benefits such as immunity, calm, energy and digestive health that are important to younger consumers. We know, for example, some studies have shown lactoferrin, which is present in milk, has a connection to immune health. We also know another milk property – tryptophan – can support sleep benefits and research shows the membrane around milk fat helps cognition.

As we continue to advance this research, we are communicating and partnering with dairy processors and cooperatives so we can spark innovation and help bring new products to market.

I can’t wait for the day when I am in the store and I see a dairy product in someone’s cart that is delivering one of dairy’s new benefits.

I’ll be thankful for the work of my farmer peers who produced the milk and for the innovative spirit of the dairy checkoff to make that product a reality.