Dairy cows on farm

99% of households buy dairy products

Interest in dairy-free alternative products may have grown, but 99% of households in the UK still purchase real dairy products, says Dr Judith Bryans, CEO of Dairy UK.

The number of people consuming dairy products every day has fallen, says Dr Judith Bryans. This, alongside an increasing number of aspiring vegans, may seem like a threat to the dairy sector, but she doesn’t believe so.

As part of its work to understand the needs and interests of consumers, Dairy UK commissioned market research group Savanta to conduct an in-depth analysis of ‘Gen Z’ (young adults) in 2018 and again in 2022. This highlighted that everyday dairy consumption had fallen in this age group from 64% to 56% while the number of aspiring vegans had grown from 16% to 26%.

It also revealed an increase in the number of people wanting to reduce their dairy consumption and an increase in guilt associated with it. The percentage of respondents agreeing dairy was an essential part of their diet also fell (66% to 58%) and fewer agreed that the dairy industry was important to the economy (65% to 55%).

But only around 3% of the population follows a vegan lifestyle, she adds. “People might feel they should be vegan because they are made to feel guilty about consuming dairy either due to noise from a vocal minority or misunderstandings perpetuated by media around sustainability and health. But that doesn’t mean those feelings are going to translate into absolute numbers.

“What it does mean is we need some kind of intervention, to talk to people and give them the reassurance they need to continue consuming dairy and move sentiment in the other direction.”

“It’s not all doom and gloom though,” she stresses. “Figures from AHDB show 99% of households buy dairy products. How many industries would love to be in that position?

“Primarily, UK consumers buy for taste, whatever age group or demographic you look at, but of course we have a great nutritional story in our background too,” she continues. “There are an awful lot of people in the UK who wouldn’t meet their daily nutrition intakes without dairy, and this shouldn’t be forgotten.”

Climate change and the environment continue to be a concern for UK consumers alongside worries over inflation and cost of living. “It doesn’t mean they are paying more for sustainable foods; it means they have an expectation of sustainably produced foods.”

However, many consumers don’t have a good understanding of what sustainability means, she says. Quoting a recent YouGov survey of UK adults commissioned by Dairy UK, she says 90% of respondents had heard the term biodiversity and over 50% of people said they understood what it was, but 56% had not heard of regenerative agriculture. While this figure may be of concern given regenerative agriculture is so important, it could also be an opportunity to engage in a conversation with the people who buy dairy products she says.

“We must be mindful of how we do that though. We want to tell consumers absolutely everything we are doing. There is so much good stuff going on in the industry and we want to tell them about it all, but that is not how people consume information. Unless we deliver it in the way they want to receive it they are going to close their ears to it.”

The UK Dairy Roadmap outlines the industry’s commitment to sustainability which covers more than just carbon, she says. It covers all aspects of environmental sustainability and has had many successes in moving the industry forward over the years. It is a central initiative bringing the whole industry together in the environmental sustainability space, she explains.

Although there are many aspects to the roadmap, carbon and measuring carbon footprint is an incredibly important way to help quantify environmental impact, she says. “What’s more, it’s expected by government, our customers and consumers. Many processors are already working on this with their supplying farmers, but to have a defensible national average we need everyone to know their carbon footprint.

“The Dairy Roadmap is keen to explain to farmers why carbon footprinting is so important. It shows the benefits to farmers as well as helping remove some of the barriers and alleviate concerns so we can move forward together and show how the dairy sector is leading on sustainability.

“Consumers need food that is sustainable, that they can afford to buy and that provides high quality nutrition,” Dr Bryans concludes. “The opportunity for us is to position ourselves as leaders, so we can continue to help feed the world.”