In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted food supply chains and affected where and how food was consumed.
Despite those challenges, dairy products maintained their strong position with U.S. consumers, based on annual per-capita consumption estimates from the USDA’s Economic Research Service. Within the dairy category, most of the year-to-year changes could be measured in ounces.
The USDA data shows 2020 U.S. per-capita consumption of dairy products (on a milk-equivalent, milkfat basis) increased 3 pounds from the 2019 revised estimate, to 655 pounds (Table 1).
Per-capita dairy product consumption has risen 27 pounds in the past five years, from 628 pounds in 2015, and was up 100 pounds since 1982.
Cheese consumption dips
U.S. consumers continue to eat more dairy than they drink (Table 1). However, in-restaurant dining restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic may have negatively affected the largest category, cheese, even though the USDA made large cheese purchases for food boxes during the year.
Consumption of American-type cheeses rose to about 15.55 pounds per capita in 2020, thanks to a small increase in cheddar cheese consumption. However, that was offset by the first year-to-year decline in consumption of Italian-type cheeses since 2017, to 15.64 pounds per person. Most of that decline can be attributed to mozzarella and could be linked to a sharp reduction in in-restaurant dining.
Consumption of Swiss, blue, brick and Muenster cheeses were down from 2019, while consumption of cream/Neufchatel, Hispanic and process cheeses were slightly higher.
The end result: At 38.35 pounds, total natural cheese consumption in 2020 was down about 4 ounces per person from the record-high 38.58 pounds consumed in 2019. Before 2020, per-capita consumption of cheese had increased in 30 of the last 31 years and had declined only twice since 1975, in 1988 and 2008.
Butter, yogurt consumption was up
Per-capita consumption of butter (6.3 pounds) rose 0.1 pound in 2020, a fourth consecutive annual increase. After posting declines for most of the last quarter of the 1900s, annual per-capita butter consumption has now increased 2 pounds since 2001.
Reversing a six-year trend in which consumption of yogurt (other than frozen) either held steady or declined, that category posted a small increase in 2020, to 13.8 pounds per capita. It remains about 1 pound less than the peak in 2013-14.
Per-capita consumption of other dairy products was mixed. Americans ate more regular, low-fat and nonfat ice cream for a second consecutive year, while consumption of dry products (milk and whey powders) were lower than in 2019.
Fluid milk holds
In another – albeit small – disruption in long-term trends, U.S. per-capita consumption of fluid milk was estimated at 141 pounds in 2020, unchanged from 2019 (Table 2).
It’s the first year annual per-capita consumption didn’t fall from the year before since 2008-09. Longer-term, however, per-capita fluid consumption was down 56 pounds (roughly 6.4 gallons) since 2000.
As a percentage of total U.S. dairy product consumption, fluid beverage milk slipped from nearly 46% in 1975 to under 21.5% in 2020.
Putting fat back in fluid milk
Continuing a more recent trend, U.S. consumers are increasingly returning to whole milk, with per-capita sales up for a seventh consecutive year (Figure 1).
Total U.S. sales of whole milk topped 16.6 billion pounds for the first time since 2005. Sales of reduced-fat (2%) milk also increased on a total volume basis in 2020, up 551 million pounds to 15.8 billion pounds. Those increases were offset by declines in sales of low-fat (1%), skim and flavored milks.
Organic milk represented about 6.2% of all fluid milk product sales in 2020, up from about 5.6% in 2019.
Serving the fluid market, the number of fluid processing plants in the U.S. increased in 2020 to 453, the highest total since 2015.
Increased concern over the COVID-19 Delta variant was again affecting where and how consumers purchased dairy products entering the second half of 2021.
After dairy product sales through retail channels surged during 2020 as more consumers stayed home, a return to pre-COVID behavior emerged in 2021, with more consumers dining in restaurants and students returning to school lunchrooms. For the first time since March, August 2021 brought an increase in both visits and purchases at grocery stores, according to the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA). Information Resources Inc. (IRI) consumer surveys showed another increase in home-prepared meals, steady restaurant takeouts and deliveries but less on-premises dining.