Canadian shoppers are increasingly skipping the dairy aisle at the grocery store.
Sales of milk fell in June by more than 3 per cent from the same month a year earlier, Statistics Canada said on Wednesday, marking the eighth consecutive monthly decline of what was once a staple of the Canadian diet. According to the federal government, per-capita consumption of milk has fallen by 18 per cent to 74 litres a year between 1995 and 2014, amid changes to the palate and makeup of Canadian society.
"It's been going down for at least 25 or 30 years," said Sylvain Charlebois, a business professor at Ontario's University of Guelph.
The erosion of milk sales comes as the dairy industry is being pressured to make changes to the supply management system that is seen as a hurdle to Canada's entry into global trade agreements.
The drop in consumption is a problem that the country's dairy industry is failing to address, Prof. Charlebois says. The system, which limits imports and sets prices, is focused on supply, not demand, and the two are often imbalanced. Farmers have dumped surplus skim milk or sold excess production as cheap feed for animals.
The dairy industry is being forced to defend the supply management system as Canada tries to enter trade deals with countries on the Pacific Rim.
Entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership could mean a flood of cheaper, imported dairy products at a time when Canadian dairy exports are limited because the World Trade Organization says the industry is subsidized.
The Dairy Farmers of Canada did not immediately respond to an interview request.
Many factors are driving the drop in milk consumption: an aging population, the rise of veganism, concerns about animal welfare and preferences for other sources of protein, Prof. Charlebois said in an interview.
"Milk is a luxury product for many emerging markets, so when [people] come to Canada they just basically bring along their culinary traditions, and milk is most often not part of it," he said.
Canada's official food guide recommends adults drink 500 millilitres, or two cups, of milk each day in order to meet the need for vitamin D. An alternative, the guide says, is fortified soy milk.
"The nutritional virtues of milk, I would say, are undisputed. It's high in protein, it's a good source of nutrients," said Prof. Charlebois, who is in the middle of a year-long placement at Austria's University of Innsbruck.
But it's unusual for a government to expect grownups to drink milk, he said, noting Europeans see milk as a child's drink, or something to put in their coffee.
Breeding programs and technology have helped cows become more productive, at the same time as the number of dairy farms in Canada has fallen to fewer than 12,000 from 123,000 in 1970, according to the federal government.
But this rise in productivity is often seen unfavourably by consumers, who prefer the traditional image of a small farm with a few dozen cows grazing by a barn.
"We have these super cows producing a lot of milk, and a lot of consumers don't see anything natural in that. And that's why some Canadians just reject that," Prof. Charlebois said.
Yoni Freedhoff, a professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa and an obesity expert, said except for young children, the evidence supporting the health benefits of drinking milk is "not particularly robust."
"I definitely think the marketing machine that is milk has, over the last number of years, lost some ground to the fact that the evidence would say it is not a magical beverage. That's not to say it's a dangerous beverage," Dr. Freedhoff said.
Milk's claims of possessing bone-hardening calcium that can reduce osteoporosis have been discredited, and sugar-sweetened milk can contribute to the growing problem of childhood obesity, he said by phone.
"Perhaps we're seeing a natural decline as the marketing message gets eroded by a lack of evidence," said Dr. Freedhoff, founder of an Ottawa weight-management clinic.