Sales of fluid milk have been tumbling for years and are now at levels not seen since the early 1980s, a worrisome trend for the dairy industry, which is growing concerned that generations are getting used to not drinking one of its signature products. Even sales for flavored milk -- a bright spot -- have struggled as questions have arisen in Connecticut and other states about its nutritional benefits.
The nation's schools are a critical market for the industry, representing about 7 percent of total milk sales, most of which are flavored. But that market has come under attack by some activists who question whether the added sugar in chocolate milk is worth the nutritional benefits milk provides.
Lawmakers in Connecticut recently passed a law that effectively bans the sale of chocolate milk in schools. Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) has vowed to veto the bill, though he hasn't done so yet. Officials from Malloy's office didn't respond to a request for comment.
Even so, the industry is concerned that the debate in Connecticut will further discourage people from drinking all types of milk.
Their fears have some justification: A study published by Cornell University found that when schools in Oregon eliminated chocolate milk from their menus, many of the children who bought plain milk threw it away, resulting in a 29 percent increase in waste. Though these students consumed fewer calories and sugar, they also got less calcium and protein.
"The only thing that I will add to the decline in milk consumption in schools, specifically, is the decline in participation at school lunch has made an impact," writes Gregory Miller, executive vice president of the National Dairy Council, a trade group allied with farmers, in an email. "Although there are increases in participation at breakfast, it's not enough to make up the decline at lunch."
The industry has responded to concerns about chocolate milk's nutritional benefits by reformulating it to make it healthier. According to the International Dairy Foods Association, a trade group representing sellers of milk and other dairy products, the average 8-ounce flavored milk serving has 121.8 calories, 10 fewer than last year. Over the past 6 years, 44 calories have been removed from flavored milk.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 4.3 billion pounds of packaged milk products were sold in the U.S. in March, the latest data available. That was 2 percent lower than the previous year. About 343 million pounds of fat-free flavored milk, the only variety allowed in schools, was sold during that same time, an increase of 2.5 percent from March 2013. Sales of flavored whole milk posted a 5.9 percent gain, while organic flavored milk posted a 21.9 percent decline.
Non-milk alternative sales aren't large enough to make a difference for the overall milk market, but some of them are struggling, too. In fact, sales of soy milk beverages dropped fell 8.5 percent to $638 million in 2013, according to the Soyfoods Association of North America.
The main reason for the drop-off in milk's popularity is that consumers are drinking other beverages such as juices and even bottled water. Of course, the dairy industry is trying to reverse this trend. Earlier this year, the Milk Processor Education Program announced that it was replacing its famous "Got Milk" ad campaign with message called "Milk Life" that touts the beverage's nutritional qualities. "Got Milk" will continue to be used by the California Milk Processor Board, which licensed the slogan to the other group in 1995, according to USA Today.
Getting people who haven't had a glass of milk in years to do so is a formidable challenge.
"Weak fluid milk sales translate to Americans progressively consuming less milk each year," Miller says. "Many Americans fall below the Dietary Guidelines recommended servings for dairy foods and are falling short on nutrients of concern (i.e., calcium, potassium and vitamin D). Milk, which includes white or flavored, plays a vital role in helping Americans, especially children, meet the recommended intakes of critical nutrients."