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Milk makers, desperate to win back America, ask, 'Want a cookie?'

Laura Yin, Bloomberg News on

Published in Business News

SEATTLE -- If you give Americans a cookie, will they finally start buying milk again?

Dairy producers are betting on it. Facing an unprecedented and protracted slump in demand, the industry is coming up with all sorts of innovations. That includes new flavors like wild blueberry, dips like fiesta sour cream, new packaging and, sometime next year, cartons with cookies attached.

"People love cookies in milk," said Tony Sarsam, chief executive officer of Borden Dairy Co., which is planning the cookie-marketing strategy for 2021. "It will be a size that you can actually eat in the car. Put it in the cup holder -- and you can dip the cookie."

Sure, it might be a bit of a long shot -- trying to lure people with cookies when they're ditching milk to be healthier. But for an industry that pumps out about $35 billion of the stuff annually, the bid to win back demand is starting to get a bit desperate. Producers are pushing more flavored options, creating new dairy-based products, re-branding to boast about dairy's benefits, basically pulling out all the stops to try to rescue the troubled industry. Two of its giants filed for bankruptcy reorganization in recent months: Dean Foods Co. and Borden.

It's hard to say if that will be enough.

U.S. consumption of cow milk has fallen about 2% each year since the 1970s, government data show. The industry's been saddled with consumer concerns over health and environmental impact. Plus, in the last decade plant alternatives swooped in to capture the zeitgeist.

 

Some expect things will only get worse. A 2019 Statista report forecasts consumption in the U.S. will drop further to 155.3 pounds per person in 2028 from an estimated 161.7 pounds last year. The tally was 194.9 pounds in 2010.

Milk used to have superstar status in the U.S. Hark back to the "Leave It to Beaver" days, when a frothy glass was as ubiquitous on dinner tables as it was poured over cereal and served alongside dessert.

But even by the time the "Got Milk?" ads rolled out in the 1990s, with celebrities from Bill Clinton to Britney Spears and Dennis Rodman donning a white beverage mustache, consumption was flagging. There were warnings of the links between high dairy intake and heart disease, cancer and weight gain.

In the last decade, environmental concerns mounted -- cattle emit the greenhouse gas methane as part of their digestive process (think cow burps, farts and manure). Starbucks Corp. just announced a shift to emphasize non-dairy options to reduce its carbon footprint.

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