Milk is falling out of fashion.
In 2010, 55 billion pounds of milk were sold in the United States. By 2018, that figure dropped to 47.7 billion, a decline of about 13%.
Last week, that shift finally overwhelmed Dean Foods, the country's biggest dairy processor. In a statement announcing the company's bankruptcy filing, CEO Eric Beringause pointed to "continuing declines in consumer milk consumption."
Meanwhile, a new, competing sector is on the rise: plant-based milks, where US sales have grown 14% in the past two years, according to a July report from the Plant Based Foods Association, a trade group, and the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that supports plant-based businesses.
From April 2018 to April of 2019, sales of oat milk jumped 222%, according to GFI. The beverage is certainly buzzy: High-end coffee shops now sell pricey almond-, oat- and coconut-milk lattes. In 2018, Gothamist ran a story titled "Don't Panic: Reports of 'Oat Milk Shortage' are greatly exaggerated" after a New Yorker piece raised the alarm.
But the plant-based sector is still small, and can't explain such a big drop in milk sales. Other factors are making an impact.
Health-conscious consumers, increasingly seeking low-calorie drinks with a nutritional boost or jolt of caffeine, may be swapping dairy milk out for sports drinks, tea, coffee or bottled water, a growing category. Stagnating breakfast cereal sales are also contributing to the problem.
But per-capita consumption of butter and cheese is growing, suggesting that the plant-based trend hasn't affected dairy overall. Evolving tastes are just part of the story.
There was "a perfect storm," said Sarah Lloyd, director of special projects for the Wisconsin Farmers Union and a family dairy farmer herself.
As milk sales fell, companies like Dean struggled to find retail customers. Dairy farmers got squeezed by changes in the international milk market and domestic oversupply.
Dean was victim to these changes — as well as its own miscalculations, such as its failure to innovate with new products. Although the bankruptcy filing was no surprise to those who saw the challenges facing milk, Dean's collapse could be a signal of even tougher times ahead for the industry.
"It's alarming," Lloyd said.
Marin Bozic, assistant professor in University of Minnesota's applied economics department, said that Dean's bankruptcy is more than just symbolic.
"This is a major inflection point for the dairy sector of the United States," he said.