The coronavirus pandemic has reinforced the importance of dairy in Irish diets, according to the National Dairy Council (NDC). But how are Irish dairy products – and the farmers that produce them – viewed by consumers?

It was noted that consumers are also seeking action on climate change and sustainability from all sectors of society, including the dairy industry.

Speaking ahead of her address at the Munster Bovine Virtual Dairy Show this evening (Thursday, October 29), NDC CEO Zoe Kavanagh said:

“The NDC’s role is to engage with Irish consumers on all matters dairy. We are dairy advocates, educating and encouraging people to consume dairy as part of a healthy balanced diet.

Irish dairy is part of Ireland’s healthy eating solution, underpinned by the Department of Health’s recommendation to consume three portions of dairy per day.

“Irish dairy is produced off a grass-based system which boosts its ability to be part of a sustainable diet,” she added.

“The guiding principles of a Sustainable Diet, as defined by FAO [Food and Agriculture Organisation] and WHO [World Health Organization], are captured in four pillars; nutrition; culture; economics; and environment.

“Our Irish production system enables these components to exist in harmony and when managed carefully facilitate a sustainable future,” the CEO said.

Recent consumer research undertaken by NDC has shown both positive and concerning trends which the sector needs to understand, the council says.

How are Irish dairy products viewed by consumers?

Since the impact of Covid-19 hit Ireland, over 25% of the population has increased its dairy consumption and almost 40% of the under 35’s have indicated an increase in their dairy intake.

Kavanagh cited: “We have been tracking this data since 2017 and observe a steady increase in key attitudes; nutrition and health scores +10%, product trust +12%, essential product +15%.

Digging deeper there is an encouraging level of positivity among Gen Z (16-23 year-olds) when compared to millennials (24-39 year-olds); for example Gen Z scores the health properties of milk at 80% compared to 66% millennials.

“Living at home with what are traditionally more positive age-groups is likely to influence these younger consumers and the challenge for Irish dairy is to retain that support out of the home.

“General attitudes to all Irish dairy products have also shown a significant positive development since 2017.”

How is the Irish Diary production system viewed?

Whilst 81% of consumers believe that Ireland is good at producing dairy and that “Ireland’s grass-fed dairy is superior to other countries” is very encouraging, since 2017 most other production system metrics are in decline creating a gradual trust deficit between consumer and sector.

This decline is off a strong base, but the trend is clearly concerning, the council says.

“Trusting dairy farmers to behave appropriately” has declined from 76 to 70%. “Dairy farming is beneficial for the environment” from 71 to 59%. Digging deeper into the views by age group indicates a particular issue with the younger consumers where the under 35’s are significantly less trustful of how dairy is produced.

What is the view of Irish dairy farmers?

Farmers are ultimately hurt by the decline in support from the Irish population, the NDC says.

The farmers see the erosion in trust is driven by four challenges; climate change and the environment; animal welfare; fractured farm to table connection; and exclusionary diets.

The issues are interlinked and have a compounding effect which poses a threat to the very act of dairy farming.

Two quotes stand out from our farmer research work: “Even though we export so much, you want the home crowd behind you”; and: “Farmers are reared to protect the environment and want to hand it on in better condition; no one is more environmentally focused than us”.

Kavanagh added: “We’ve got to inspire a level of trust among consumers that Irish dairy almost has a social licence to continue to produce – not just for ourselves but for the countries we export to – and that from a nutrition perspective they have permission to consume.

“By that I mean there are health benefits associated with consuming the product,” she concluded.