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WCMA Notes: Dairy Has Truths to Tell Millennials

A Column Offered by WCMA Executive Director John Umhoefer

As an abundance of dairy product and milk production continues to hamper price recovery for dairy farmers, industry leaders and scientists are focused on emerging competition and misinformation that can undermine vital growth in dairy sales.

It’s all about winning the minds and hearts of millennials.

“Food choice is being represented as the number-one factor in environmental responsibility,” Frank Mitloehner, Professor in the Department of Animal Science at University of California, Davis, noted at the annual conference of the American Dairy Products Institute (ADPI) May 1. Anti-animal activists, he said, are targeting millennials with message wildly inflating the link between animal agriculture and climate change.

The truth is, Mitloehner explained, dairy is now documented to contribute 2 percent to the total carbon footprint in the U.S. – and all of animal agriculture just 2.6 percent – while U.S. energy production contributes 30 percent, transportation 26 percent and manufacturing 21 percent. “The burning of fossil fuels should be our number-one concern, yet these groups name livestock production as the biggest contributor to climate change,” he said.

Milk production in the U.S. has the lowest carbon footprint in the world, Mitloehner added, citing a 2010 study on global dairy production from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Chris Roberts, Executive VP for Dairy Foods at Land O’ Lakes, told dairy processors at the ADPI conference: “We need to be more comfortable leaning in” on the sustainability message from our dairy industry.  Land O’ Lakes can demonstrate the sustainability of their dairy products from farm to plate, he said, and its SUSTAIN business unit is helping both member farmers and processing units incorporate sustainable practices.

Professor Mitloehner told the ADPI audience that cow numbers in the U.S. have dropped from 25 million in 1950 to 9 million across the nation today, while milk production has grown 60 percent. The carbon footprint of a glass of milk is two-thirds smaller today than it was 70 years ago.

Improved breeds, energy-dense diets for cows, animal care and more efficient processing have lowered dairy’s carbon footprint since the “good old days,” Mitloehner said. “The 1950’s red barn is not the gold standard for sustainable dairy production.”

The rise of plant-based beverages and the emerging market for plant-based “cheese” have also captured a percent of the millennial market. Sales of almond, soy and other beverages borrowing the name “milk” reached $2.11 billion in 2017, according to Mintel Market Intelligence.  All dairy milk sales have fallen 15 percent in the past five years but remain a far larger share at $16.12 billion in 2017.

At the International Cheese Technology Expo in Milwaukee April 19, Dr. Matt Pikosky, VP Nutrition Science and Partnerships at National Dairy Council, compared the nutritional value of plant vs. dairy proteins. Whey and casein protein offer a higher percentage of essential amino acids – the building blocks of proteins – than common vegetable-sourced proteins such as soy, rice, pea or potato.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and Dietetics in Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine reported in 2016: “To date, dairy proteins seem to be superior to other tested proteins, largely due to [the amino acid] leucine content and the digestion and absorptive kinetics of branched-chain amino acids in fluid-based dairy foods.”

Rudy Dieperink, President and CEO with FrieslandCampina, believes dairy hasn’t translated this kind of information to the new generation of shoppers. “We need a different path to grab consumers,” he said at ADPI. “Dairy needs a cohesive message worldwide on the value of dairy products.”

And the industry must be ready to adapt to food niches, he noted. The Dutch cooperative giant performs research to target dairy products for all consumer life stages.  “Requests from millennials are a huge challenge for us,” Dieperink said, noting that their emphasis on minimal processing and ingredient transparency points to niche markets for dairy that are difficult for this high-volume processor.

Chris Roberts with Land O’ Lakes acknowledged this challenge but told the audience at ADPI that after years as a transformative force in the marketplace, millennials will settle into buying habits. “If we are good at understanding their needs, and adapt our products, this generation presents an opportunity.”