The recent announcement that Borden Dairy Co., one of the country's oldest and largest milk producers, had filed for bankruptcy should have come as no surprise.
Dean Foods, the biggest milk producer in the U.S., filed in November, and more than 2,700 dairy farms have shut down in just the past 18 months. The industry didn't go south overnight. Milk sales plunged 20% from 2011 to 2018 and were off by more than $1 billion in 2018 alone.
Americans are drinking about 40% less milk today than they did in 1975.
The downturn saddled Borden and Dean Foods with crippling debt, but their chief executives acknowledged that the balance sheet wasn't solely to blame for their companies' undoing. Consumers are leaving cow's milk on the shelf because they're concerned about their health, animal welfare and the environment.
It's not like the tea leaves weren't there to be read. As sales of dairy milk tumbled, almond, soy and other plant-based milks flew off the shelves. Sales have surged by more than 60% in the U.S. since 2012 and are expected to top $34 billion globally by 2024.
People are ditching cow's milk because it contributes to heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer's disease and increases the risk of breast, ovarian and prostate cancers. They're switching because cows are intelligent, socially complex animals with distinct personalities, not milk machines. And because they know that the waste and air pollutants generated by the dairy industry are harmful to the environment.
The takeaway is obvious: Change with the times or pay the price.
Massachusetts-based HP Hood LLC is one of the country's largest food and beverage operations. When Planet Oat, its first vegan oat milk line, reached stores 13 months ago, a VP said that Hood had tested the waters because "the consumer was evolving."
Hood isn't the only company with its finger to the wind. With sales of dairy-free ice cream set to reach $1 billion by 2024, Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's have expanded their vegan lines. Breyers has two nondairy desserts in U.S. freezer cases and introduced another in the U.K. last year.
The big picture is even more revealing. Sales of all vegan foods increased by 11.3% in the last year, compared to just 2% for all food sales, and jumped more than 31% from April 2017 through April 2019. Vegan meats are taking off, too: Sales reached nearly $950 million in the U.S. last October, a 10.2% jump from the previous year, and could reach $1 billion this year.
The drivers are the same. Consumers are seeking out alternatives to meat and seafood that are healthy, humane and eco-friendly - and they're finding them: Fishless Filets and Turk'y Cutlets from Gardein, Field Roast frankfurters and brats, eight kinds of Daiya pizza, Tofurky ham roasts, Morningstar burgers and wings, Sweet Earth Pad Thai and Cauliflower Mac, and breakfast, lunch and dinner options from Lightlife.
Fast-food companies are also getting on board.
KFC, which sold out of Beyond Fried Chicken nuggets during a one-day trial last summer in Atlanta, is giving them another run this month in Charlotte, N.C., and Nashville, Tenn. If they go over well again, the plan is to put them on the menu at some 4,000 KFCs across the country. KFC also added a vegan chicken burger to its U.K. menu.
Dunkin's animal-friendly sausage sandwich went nationwide in November. McDonald's just expanded and extended its trial run of the "P.L.T," a plant, lettuce and tomato sandwich made with Beyond Meat patties, in Canada. And Subway's vegan meatball sub is available across Canada after a U.S. run.
The writing on the wall couldn't be any clearer: Go vegan. The train is leaving the station.
Craig Shapiro is a staff writer for the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!