Graph of the day: Americans are drinking less and less milk

December 29, 2012

Suzy Khimm has already written about the much-feared "milk cliff." If Congress fails to renew the farm bill by Jan. 1, the country's farm policy will revert back to laws dating from 1949. Government price supports for milk would rise significantly — and the cost of milk could rise by as much as $3 per gallon. Dairy doom!

While we're on the topic, though, it's worth noting that milk has been growing steadily less popular in the United States for three decades now. Rob Wile dredges up this striking chart from the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

Flavored milk sales have risen slightly over time, but Americans are turning away from old-fashioned whole milk and lower-fat milk. Rick Barrett of the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel explained the trend back in September:

While Americans consume about the same number of gallons of beverages as they did in the past, they're drinking a lot less milk.

"Milk has lost out to other beverages, primarily bottled water," [Vivian] Godfrey [CEO of the Milk Processor Educator Program] said. 

Not giving up, the dairy industry has chosen "breakfast-at-home" as one of its battlegrounds for increasing milk sales. Americans still drink more milk at the breakfast table than during any other time.

Get 'em while they're young! (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

In response, the dairy industry is struggling to win hearts and minds in elementary schools and high schools across the country:

Schools are another battleground for the dairy industry because it doesn't want to lose more market share to other beverages, including soda, bottled water and energy drinks.

"If we have 55 million kids going to school each and every day, and we don't present them with a product they like and comes in a handy container, then we have lost them for a lifetime," said Tom Gallagher, CEO of Dairy Management Inc., a national organization that promotes dairy products and is funded by dairy farmers."

The story makes the milk plunge out to be a real crisis for the U.S. dairy industry, though yogurt sales have surged in recent years and have helped offset the losses. And who knows? If Congress does go mooing right over the "milk cliff," more and more Americans might learn to love readily available substitutes — soy milk, anyone? — and the industry could face an even sharper decline.

Related: Americans have also been eating far less meat since 2007 — and beef has been slowly going out of style since the 1970s.

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