That trend is concern about food safety, said Larry Ross, a marketing professor at Florida Southern College in Lakeland who tracks both millennials and the Florida citrus industry.
Recent research shows food safety as a rising concern among millennials, the generation born roughly between 1980 and 2000 that has become the biggest consumer group in the U.S., Ross said. The concern comes after stories about several safety problems last year at Chipotle Mexican Grill, a longtime millennial favorite, as well as salmonella in fresh spinach sold by Dole Fresh Vegetables, among others.
“It still doesn’t mean a love affair between millennials and orange juice,” he added. “They’re willing to pay a premium price, but it has to be relevant. Probably because it’s ‘just orange juice,’ it hasn’t found that relevant message.”
The love affair can’t start soon enough for Florida orange growers, who supply the U.S. market with most of its OJ.
Orange juice sales at major U.S. retail outlets declined 6.4 percent for the four-week period ending Aug. 6 despite a slight decrease in price, according to the latest sales report from the Florida Department of Citrus in Bartow. The average price for all 100 percent OJ products dropped to $6.56 per gallon, down 3 cents (0.4 percent) from a year earlier.
For the 2015-16 Florida citrus season that began in October, OJ sales have declined 5.2 percent on essentially no change in price.
The food safety trend among millennials remains in an early stage, Ross said. Still the concern appears to run deep enough possibly to change a core millennial belief in consuming locally sourced foods in favor of more established national brands with proven safety records.
“Small farmers cannot both ensure them and insure them about their food safety,” he said. “The naivete of locally sourced food sort of wears off. Millennials are showing a maturing standard. Your time horizon narrows when you’re approaching 40 years old as opposed to when you’re 20.”
The issue might have legs because it’s been widely reported on the internet, the millennials’ favorite media source, Ross said.
It’s having an impact already.
Ross cited a 2014 study on consumer reaction to food recalls reported in the professional journal Food Policy. It showed millennials are much more likely to react negatively to product recalls.
If it sticks, the trend would bode well for an established product such as orange juice, most of which in the U.S. comes from three established brands – Tropicana Products Inc., Minute Maid and Florida’s Natural Growers in Lake Wales – with enviable records in food safety, Ross said.
The first widely reported food safety incident involving OJ came in June 1995, when 63 visitors to Walt Disney World in Orlando were sickened by salmonella in fresh-squeezed, unpasteurized orange juice. Subsequent outbreaks, including a 1999 case involving OJ from an Arizona company that sickened 207 people and a 2005 case harming 15 people, also involved unpasteurized OJ contaminated with salmonella.
Virtually all the OJ sold in the U.S., including all products sold by the three top brands, are pasteurized.
Officials at the Citrus Department, a state agency charged with promoting Florida citrus products, acknowledge they struggle with the sugar content issue, particularly among millennials.
A millennial orange grower – Kyle Story, 34, an executive in his family’s Lake Wales citrus company – said he talks to his cohorts all the time about their concerns about sugar and OJ.
“I tell them a serving size (eight ounces) of orange juice dwarfs any fruit juice you can buy in terms of vitamin C, folic acid and potassium,” Story said. “As a grower, I’m telling my story and the benefits of orange juice, and however they want to take it, it’s a true story.”
Story agreed he and other millennials prefer locally sourced products and, if not available, at least U.S. products. That’s because millennials are more interested than past generations about where their food comes from and how it contributes to health.
“I think locally grown, knowing where a product comes from and doing the research, that’s a trend that will continue,” he said.
Story, who has a 4-month-old son, agreed with Ross that the food safety issue is becoming relevant with older millennials starting families and that OJ can take advantage of it.
“As a product, we go above and beyond any law today as far as food safety goes,” he said. “You cannot lose public trust in what you’re producing.”
The Citrus Department report also showed sales of grapefruit juice, also primarily a Florida product, performing better than OJ.
Sales for the four weeks ending Aug. 6, sales of 100 percent grapefruit juice declined just 1 percent on a 1.4 percent decline in price to an average $7.38 per gallon during that period. For the 2015-16 season, U.S. grapefruit juice sales have declined 3.4 percent on a flat price.
With less than two months remaining in the season, juice processors have sold 398 million gallons of orange juice at U.S. supermarkets and other retail outlets and 12.25 million gallons of grapefruit juice.
— Kevin Bouffard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 863-401-6980. Read more on Florida citrus on his Facebook page, Florida Citrus Witness, http://bit.ly/baxWuU.