Drinking milk

On page 20 of the Food Standards Agency’s latest Food and You survey is a stat to strike fear into the heart of anyone involved in the dairy industry.Twenty per cent of consumers now report they avoid or have an adverse reaction to certain foods - and dairy is top of the list of those deemed problematic. The real kicker, though, comes in the demographic analysis: 46% of 16 to 24-year-olds say they avoid cows milk products.

That’s 46% of young people who say they experience adverse reactions and not, as has been reported elsewhere, 46% of all 16 to 24-year-olds. But still. Anyone who cares about a public discourse around food that is halfway sane will be worried by this. After all, just 5% of UK consumers have a medically diagnosed lactose intolerance.

For dairy, these results come against a backdrop of mounting attacks on its products, its farming practices and its animal welfare standards in recent weeks. In schools, consumption is now seriously on the wane, with almost half of children in the UK not drinking milk at primary school.

That dairy faces a challenge when it comes to young people is nothing new. The latest stats from the FSA drive home that this is a challenge that isn’t going away.

In our analysis this week, leading dairy industry figures set out how they believe the sector needs to respond. What is clear is, in fighting back against anti-dairy rhetoric (whether from campaigners or ‘clean eating’ bloggers), the sector will need to figure out not just the right message to appeal to young consumers - but also the right strategy for making its message heard. Communications in the age of social media can seem like asymmetric warfare: ‘scary dairy’ soundbites are quick to spread; corrections and counter-narratives can go unheard.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to believe this is a war that can be won. Just look at the rehabilitation of butter. Previous campaigns around farmgate prices also prove this is an industry that can engage consumers and get its message heard.

Now’s the time to use those skills for some serious brand building to benefit not just producers but the entire industry.