The wins in the beverage category have been few and far between. While whole milk began reversing a decades-long sales spiral, overall per capita consumption has slid to the depths not seen since World War II. Even total fluid milk sales, which had been climbing simply due to growth in the overall U.S. population, began to decline precipitously in 2013. Given this dire assessment of the product category that once carried U.S. milk checks, last year’s 10.4% growth in organic milk sales deserves careful analysis as consumers spent hard-earned money during the pandemic on a premium dairy buy.
Up until this year, organic milk sales had been sputtering along with the larger conventional fluid milk category. Then came the pandemic. Organic whole milk purchases jumped 11.5% and reduced fat milk (2%) climbed 14.9%. While every organic milk product posted growth in 2020 according to USDA, those two aforementioned stalwarts were largely responsible for the 10.4% growth in the organic’s fluid milk category. This dynamic growth took place despite strong headwinds in a contracting product category.
A number of theories abound. Folks with the Organic Trade Association would tout more parents are choosing organic milk for their children, and that the pandemic flip from classroom to at-home learning propelled sales. Keep in mind that organic milk is not an option for government-funded school milk purchasing programs.
There may be some other pandemic issues at play. Early on, retailers from coast to coast placed limits on the amount of conventional milk consumers could purchase. Meanwhile, we know of few limits placed on the organic dairy category, and that lack of limits also could have propelled sales.
Then there’s the matter that nearly all organic milk undergoes ultra pasteurization, which extends the shelf life far past the traditional sell by dates of conventional milk. In theory, this extra shelf life was an added bonus for shoppers not looking to make extra trips to the grocer during the health emergency.
Whatever the case, the sudden surge in organic fluid milk sales should be a learning moment for the entire dairy community. While ultra pasteurization and its associated taste had been thought to deter repeat buyers, that pattern may be changing and offering new avenues for extended shelf life dairy products. Organic may simply now be seen by more consumers as a healthier choice, and if that offers a counter narrative to plant-based beverages, we should embrace that concept, too.