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Anne Lipscomb

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How Cow's Milk Went From a Basic Beverage to a Dismissed Drink

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The rise and fall of cow's milk.

For a stretch of time, my ultimate dinner party topic was one that had a decidedly lactose unfriendly bent. If a conversation began to lull—or if I was just feeling a little twitchy to mix things up—I’d ask a question that’s completely simple and hotly contested: Do any of you still drink milk?

A few furtive, anxious glances would scan the table for another pair of wide eyes (these are always the milk lovers), while most people would simply look perplexed. Eventually, after a pregnant pause and a few stutter-stepping sentences from my companions, I’d elaborate.

You know, like cow’s milk? What we would drink with pizza as a kid at the roller rink? Do you still drink it?

At this point, a floodgate was always unleashed. At least a couple of people in any group would suspect they have a dairy allergy. Someone would always admit to the type of excessive milk consumption that made a Holstein seem like a good investment. Most people would fall more in the middle, confessing they still enjoyed it with their morning bowl of Froot Loops, but weren’t really looking to drink it alongside a burrito.

If you see a person drinking cow’s milk in public today, it pretty much demands an immediate double take.

If you see a person drinking cow’s milk in public today, it pretty much demands an immediate double take. I actually can’t remember the last time I witnessed someone glugging down a carton of the white stuff in the wild.

Increasingly, we’re a culture that craves specifics: we want detailed information about where our foodstuffs originate, who made it and what makes them unique. As our appetite for washed cheeses with bloomy rinds and novelty, lavender-infused creams becomes more voracious than ever though, a nice glass of frothy cow’s milk has been deemed strangely old fashioned.

Over the past decade, the sale of cow’s milk has steadily declined in the U.S. as almond milk, soy milk, rice milk, coconut milk and hemp milk have carved out serious territory on supermarket shelves. While these nut and plant-based dairy alternatives were once shrouded in hippy-dippy scorn, a greater national embrace of health conscious, animal-product-free dining has ushered in the kind of meteoric rise in consumption that is enough to rock the dairy industry back on its heels. According to the research firm Euromonitor, non-dairy milks have boasted an average annual growth of 10.9 percent since 1999 and hover just around $1 billion in retail sales each year. Currently, almond milk is leading the alternative milk charge. However, this could soon change due to California’s current water crisis.

A 2013 USDA study concluded that the greatest cause of reduced "fluid milk" consumption is simply a generational shift decades in the making. "Underlying decreases in [milk] consumption are differences in the habit… [of drinking] milk between newer and older generations," the researchers found. "All else constant (e.g., race and income), succeeding generations of Americans born after the 1930s have consumed fluid milk less often than their preceding generation."

Overall, milk consumption has declined by almost a third over the past 40 years, from roughly 21.8 gallons per year in 1970 to 14.5 gallons in 2012.

The foundational cause of this slow slide is linked to more widespread shifts in American dining patterns, including the decline of the nightly family meal and the spread of more diverse foodways. It’s completely plausible to think about washing down a Salisbury steak with milk, but a little icky to contemplate the same with a big bowl of ramen.

Overall, milk consumption has declined by almost a third over the past 40 years, from roughly 21.8 gallons per year in 1970 to 14.5 gallons in 2012. Fueled by an increasingly negative public opinion (including recent research that indicates milk may contribute to early death), the precipitous fall appears to be nowhere near its end.

Curiously, milk’s tumble from grace isn’t just an American phenomenon, as nation-states from China to Ireland have noticed a sharp decline in consumption. The most recent country to join the milk-ambivalent ranks is Sweden, a nation which was once so milk-happy it sanctioned an official "milk propaganda" coalition in the 1920s.

"Our meal patterns have changed," Swedish ethnologist Haakan Joensson of Lund University noted in a recent article. "Food habits changed before beverages. After a while it wasn't as natural to drink milk with Thai curries and pasta."

Of course, circumstances weren’t always so dire the world over for milk. For the first half of the 20th century, milk was touted in the U.S. and numerous European countries (including Sweden) as the closest thing to a catch-all health beverage as could possibly exist. It was patriotic, nutrient-packed and wholesome—the complete package.

In the United States, this decades-old public relations campaign has been heavily influenced by the government’s behind-the-curtain involvement in the world of milk. Since the 1930s, an astonishing number of federal regulations surrounding milk production, consumption and subsidies have come to pass, with the feds serving as udder-tugging puppeteer for the industry. Milk is, perhaps, the most politically savvy beverage around.

The government’s first intervention into milk production—rightfully—concerned its safety. The early 1900s witnessed major steps towards ensuring milk was both safer to consume and easier to distribute with the arrival of milk tanker trucks in 1914 and mandatory pasteurization laws in 1917.

Then, there’s cost-balancing milk. Since 1937, milk has been priced through a government-regulated system known as Milk Market Orders (MMO). The MMO program initially aimed to ensure dairy farmers received a fair shake, requiring collective pooling of local farmer resources and that "manufacturers … pay minimum monthly prices for milk purchases." Today, determining milk’s base price using the MMO scheme takes into account the current season, transportation cost, butter fat content, the dairy farm’s location and dozens of other seemingly mundane factors. It’s incredibly convoluted.

Similar to an aging starlet who has kept the same stale fashion too long after its expiration date, milk currently suffers from being decidedly unhip.

After MMO rules went into full effect, milk immediately began to see more rapid commercialization and championing from the federal government. During, World War II, WPA-era artists were paid to illustrate pro-milk propaganda posters, touting it as everything from "good for teeth" to "great for warmth." In 1946, the National School Lunch Act was passed with the intention of providing a free or low-cost lunch to every public school child in America. Unsurprisingly, a pint of whole milk was a required part of each federally mandated lunch scheme.

President Johnson took milk’s role in the School Lunch Act one step further twenty years later with the creation of the national Special Milk Program. The forward-thinking program provided, "milk free of charge or at a low cost to children in schools and child care institutions that do not participate in other federal child nutrition meal service programs." Today, there’s almost no one under a certain age who can imagine their lunchtime tray without a slightly soggy, triangle-mouthed carton of milk plopped next to the day’s fish sticks.

For a while, milk also had a firm grip on pop culture and tabloid lore. Mexican silent film star Dolores del Río was rumored to have bathed in milk to keep her skin supple. Bela Lugosi had a curious recurring role as a milk drinker for charity while costumed in his Dracula attire. Even as late as the 1970s, milk wormed its way onto the silver screen, whether as a sexy post-shagging refreshment for Burt Reynolds in the 1975 thriller Hustle or Kubrick’s Korova Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange.

This fusion of milk promotion and celebrity reached its apex in the mid-1990s with the launch of the "Got Milk?" marketing campaign, a cultural zeitgeist so overwhelming it became a snowclone and lasted 20 years without much polishing up. Everyone certainly has a favorite famous face that appeared with the signature, creamy lip swipe of milk, be it Cindy Crawford or Michael Jordan.

Similar to an aging starlet who has kept the same stale fashion too long after its expiration date, milk currently suffers from being decidedly unhip. In order to help jumpstart its rebirth, the "Got Milk?" campaign was officially killed off in 2014, and replaced by an active, peppy "Milk Life" slogan. In these new ads, milk is splashed around willy-nilly as rock bands practice and break dancers flip like the swipe of a Jackson Pollock paintbrush. It’s active and engaged—but still feels decidedly similar composition-wise to the previous approach.

In 2014, organic milk sales increased 9.5 percenteven while non-organic milk saw sales fall 3.8 percent.

The milk lobby has also taken a more viral, direct angle towards attacking "mistruths" presented by the non-dairy milk industry with the recently launched Twitter campaign, #milktruth. While many of the high points of cow’s milk (nutritional value, low in fat) will probably fall on deaf ears with younger generations and seem like a rehashing of previous material to older ones, one angle might just be the way milk finds its way back into the public’s good graces.

The #milktruth website writes that "97 percent of dairy farms are still family-owned and operated—passed down from generation to generation," playing into the current national demand for know-your-source local products. Milk should rely less on painting a sweeping picture of the beverage and instead focus on the personal stories of small farmers and organic farms producing cow’s milk for their local communities.

Even as milk consumption has dwindled, the growth of organic milk demand has been extraordinary. In 2014, organic milk sales increased 9.5 percent—even while non-organic milk saw sales fall 3.8 percent. Supporting organic producers and promoting these small, often family-run businesses is a way to help bridge the gap between the new and the old worlds of milk drinkers and—perhaps—bring the drink back to the dinner table, after all.

Milk splash credit: Shutterstock/Picsfive