On Tuesday, November 12, dairy giant Dean Foods, the largest milk producer in the United States, filed for bankruptcy protection, publicly ascribing its sales woes to the drop in demand for cow’s milk amid a clamor for vegan alternatives such as oat, soy and cashew milks. “Despite our best efforts to make our business more agile and cost-efficient, we continue to be impacted by a challenging operating environment marked by continuing declines in consumer [cow’s] milk consumption,” said Eric Beringause, Dean Foods’ CEO and president, in a statement.
Dean brands include Dairy Pure milk, TruMoo milk, Land-O-Lakes butter and the recently introduced Good Karma flax milk. The conglomerate acquired the Silk brand in 2002 but let it go in 2013, spinning parent White Wave off into a separate company (now owned by Danone). Instead Dean put its money and attention into acquiring Friendly Ice Cream in 2016.
Freya Dinshah, the president of the American Vegan Society, provided a big-picture view of this development. “As someone who was making soy milk, almond milk and sesame milk in my kitchen in 1969, I find it encouraging to see the mainstream marketplace moving in this direction,” she commented.
Dean’s bankruptcy move is likely to have repercussions across the cattle industry: As consumer habits are shifting more clearly than ever and big companies must make investment decisions in an increasingly competitive alt-milk marketplace, this cautionary tale looms large.