Shelf-safe milk packaging reconnects consumers with the little luxury in steep decline.
Milk intake is falling precipitously in the United States: More precisely, consumption is near a 30-year low, according to figures released in August by the Department of Agriculture. As rising middle classes in Indian and Chinese markets clamor to add the simple, nutritional luxury of milk to their diets, the U.S. is viewed as a “mature market” on the wane. But don’t tell two-year-old Ty Carruthers that.
Holding tightly to his vanilla shelf-safe milk box, the toddler slurps contentedly on its straw while his mom waits for her chai latte at a Chicagoland Starbucks. A growing number of dairies are placing bets that the sleek and modern single-serve cartons of milk like the one Ty holds are the key to recapturing the market share lost over time to juices, sports drinks, sodas and bottled waters that have better kept pace with today’s on-the-go lifestyle. Among those dairies are Organic Valley, Lala, Hershey’s and Horizon — the last of which sells its prisma shape-packaged milk to Starbucks in several flavors: chocolate, strawberry, vanilla and plain.
Ty is what you might call an early adopter of shelf-safe milk technology in the U.S., even though the “aseptic” processing behind it was invented in 1961 and has long been popular in Europe and Asia. Although he pulled his milk out of the coffee shop’s self-serve cooler, the packaging that encloses it would have kept it safe at room temperature in his mom’s purse, in the car or in their pantry for up to a year without the need for preservatives. Shelf-safe milk is almost always chilled before consumption, but toddlers, who don’t know milk is “supposed” to be cold, will happily drink it — especially flavored milks — at room temperature, just as they will cartons of juice, another historically cold beverage. 
This notion of portability without the need for refrigeration is still a novel attribute for milk in the U.S., but dairies are increasingly turning to shelf-safe milk in hopes of stopping its precipitous slide in consumption. Last year, U.S. beverage sales for milk were at their lowest point since 1984: 53 billion pounds or about 6 billion gallons. Fewer than 50 percent of adults now drink milk, and when it comes to whole milk, consumption is down by half in the past three decades. 
So why have so many people stopped drinking a beverage that is undeniably nutritionally dense and wholesome, especially in countries privileged to have it? And how can shelf-safe milk help producers reverse the trend and get people enjoying milk’s simple goodness again?
The decline of milk can be traced to its strong association with breakfast, since more than half of all milk is consumed at that occasion. Over the past several decades, “the most important meal of the day” has undergone significant lifestyle shifts, but milk just hasn’t kept up with the times. 
Nowadays breakfast, when not skipped altogether, is taken on the road, with harried commuters grabbing whatever is convenient at home: a container of yogurt, a piece of fruit or a breakfast bar. Alternatively, they may hit a drive-through or drop by a coffee shop. 
Meanwhile, milk has remained stuck in the 1950s: on the top shelf of the refrigerator in a gallon or half-gallon jug, waiting to be poured into glasses or over cereal at an ever-more-deserted breakfast table. Put as simply as possible, consumers are moving all the time now and any beverage that is not packaged to go with them is going to get left behind, along with any nutrients in it.
Once milk starts moving and adapting, there is no reason it can’t be an “anywhere, anytime” drink.
Organic Valley was one of the early adopters of shelf-safe packaging in the U.S., making a strong move into individually packaged milks in 2006 with impressive sales results. Single serves used to represent less than one percent of its beverage milk portfolio, and now they make up nearly six percent. When the company started selling shelf-safe singles, four-packs and 12-packs, it tapped into substantial pent-up demand — particularly from parents, according to Tripp Hughes, brand and product developer.
Organic, flavored and specialty milks are a potential avenue of growth and profit for all dairies, and shelf-safe packaging is a lynchpin, according to Barbara O’Brien, executive vice president of the dairy farmer-funded promotion program Dairy Management Inc.
“As processors continue to explore the growing value-added market, extended shelf life and aseptic products will need to become a reality,” O’Brien says. Regular white milk has a thinner profit margin, but risktakers could be won over by “distribution benefits to longer shelf-life, such as ambient temperature or less frequent delivery.”
Or consumers may simply begin to demand it, as they did with Organic Valley.
“People were writing us letter after letter telling us ‘I want to put this in my child’s lunch,’” Hughes says. Previously, Organic Valley offered a refrigerated individual milk bottle, but it was far less popular than the hand-friendly Tetra Prisma packages that come with straws — and the peace of mind that they won’t spoil or go sour in transit. As a brand, Organic Valley sales are growing “in the low teens” percentage-wise, Hughes says, with milk overall growing at a rate of 8 to 10 percent. By contrast, its sales of single-serve shelf-safe milk are growing between 30 and 40 percent.
Though it is hard to judge, Hughes says Organic Valley believes the growth in shelf-safe packaging is coming both from expanding its market share and from expanding the market of milk drinkers.
Because Tetra Paks are cartons, they have far more printable area than traditional milk packages, adding to the all-important product-differentiating “wow factor.” With its hand-friendly design, spotted-cow nutritional appeal and fun expanding straw, it’s little wonder they’ve become a hit alongside sodas in the grab-and-go checkout coolers.
Beyond its appeal to consumers, shelf-safe packaging vastly expands the playing field for milk when it comes to marketing a brand inside food stores of every ilk. All have one thing in common: more shelf space than cooler space. That means furious jockeying for position in the limited refrigerator cases. Being organic, Organic Valley’s refrigerated milk is further squeezed into “a niche within a niche,” Hughes says.
Freed from those confines, shelf-safe milk can literally go anywhere in the store, just like the soy and almond milks more traditionally found in shelf-safe packaging. Organic Valley has developed popular pallet-sized back-to-school displays for many stores that can be put in the beverage, snack or even checkout aisles, a marketing technique just not possible for refrigerated milks.
Exponentially expanding the 10 to 15 day shelf life of milk, shelf-safe packaging also frees dairies from the refrigeration chain in transit and storage, and from the necessity to process milk at dozens of smaller regional plants. And it offers tremendous energy savings, helps diminish pollution and all but eliminates costly post-processing spoilage and waste.
Outside the U.S., where shelf-safe packaging has been widely adopted, dairies are innovating hard to appeal to the under-15 set, who represent half of all demand for milk as a beverage. They are strategically segmented into three age groups: toddlers, grade school and middle/high school. 
Some of these new milk-based products are in the “nutriceutical” category, such as the specially formulated Baboo “toddler transition milk” from Canada’s Agropur. Gerber UK’s “Lazy Town Smoothies” blending milk and juice hold promise for displacing Gatorade and other sugar-based flavored drinks in the sideline coolers during soccer practice. Exciting innovations in taste include products like “Lecheritas” ice cream-flavored milk from Santa Clara in Mexico. Further expanding the reach of breakfast are Kellogg Mexico’s “cereal milks” that taste like what you’d get in a bowl with a spoon if you had the time, with all the same nutrition and fiber.
Every one of these products is on trend, and has been individually and aseptically packaged for convenience and portability. And they also have legs — they won’t be pigeonholed, elbowing for a tiny space in the cooler. Clever marketers and designers will have the freedom to take the interior of the supermarket, mass merchandiser and convenience store by storm.
As U.S. dairies strategize and plan going forward, the boldest among them will create entire new categories, meeting needs and desires consumers never knew they had. But at a bare minimum, they must bring the simple luxurious pleasure of milk back into people’s lives by making it as convenient to enjoy anyplace, anytime as an entire cooler wall of far less nutritious beverages has already done. The future of milk depends on it.