Specialty cheese expansion

by David Phillips
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Demand for specialty food and beverage products, whether it is beer, bread or cheese, is on the upswing. Consumer demand for artisan products has increased, and the subsequent market momentum has led to a number of companies developing niche products. For the cheese industry, the expansion of the specialty cheese segment has opened the door to new, unique products that fit nicely with consumer demand for more variety, ethnic cuisine and flavor.

A report published earlier this year by the market research firm Packaged Facts, New York, said the American palate for the more than 300 varieties of natural and specialty blended cheeses sold in the United States will drive the growth of the market. The market research firm estimated the U.S. market for specialty cheese is $14 billion in annual retail sales and predicted sales will climb to $17 billion by 2014.

“Only in the last quarter of the 20th century did most acculturated Americans even know of cheeses such as Asiago, feta, and Romano,” said Don Montouri, the publisher of Packaged Facts. “But the fact is that Americans are on board. They want to explore the world of cheese and this is the number one driver of growth in the retail sector. Unfortunately, this curiosity synchronized with the recession, so exploration won’t be as aggressive as it could be, but stay tuned.”

Defining the market

No definition exists for what products are included in the specialty cheese market, which creates a challenge in assessing the size and projected growth of the market. True commodity cheese is product that is sold directly to food manufacturers for use in cheese-flavored crackers, frozen pizzas and burritos. Then there is foodservice where pizza chains, in particular, drive the commodity market.

For the purpose of its report, Packaged Facts defined specialty blended cheeses as upscale items typically merchandised in the gourmet cheese case rather than with mainstream natural cheeses such as chunks and shreds of cheddar and mozzarella.

Both commodity and specialty cheese are an important part of the dairy industry, and both have been growing. Per-capita consumption of cheese in the United States has been on an upward curve for decades. The biggest part of the upswing has to do with the expanding pizza segment that now features many products that are smothered with cheese rather than laced with it.

“If we look back to 2005 we can see that specialty cheese is indeed driving the growth of the cheese category in both volume and dollars,” said Marilyn Wilkinson, director of national product communications for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, Madison, Wis. “There are major food trends toward bolder flavors. People are watching the cooking shows and the travel shows. People see specialty cheese as more natural than so-called commodity cheese. It’s minimally processed. For all these reasons, specialty cheese really appeals to them.”

The Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute, Delavan, Wis., was formed in 1994 to promote the specialty cheese industry in the nation’s most prolific cheese-making state. The W.S.C.I. defines specialty cheese in terms of high quality and limited quantity.

Specialty cheese is the main reason Wisconsin is still the nation’s leader in cheese-making, even though the large scale manufacture of commodity cheese has moved to western states like California, Idaho, and even Texas and New Mexico, where large cheese plants are fed by large dairy farm operations. Because Wisconsin has the infrastructure, support from state and local governments and academia, and smaller farms, specialty cheese has prospered there, Ms. Wilkinson said.

“This isn’t all just by accident,” she said. “The various dairy associations have been looking ahead for several years to determine what was going to be Wisconsin’s opportunities for the future.”

There are hundreds of artisan and specialty cheese makers in nearly every state in the United States. State-wide organizations and regional organizations are found in places with clusters of artisan and farmsteads such as Wisconsin, Vermont, New England, Oregon and California. Wisconsin has university-based training and research programs focused on speacialty cheese-making, as do Vermont and California.

Innovation and flavor

Lactalis, based in Laval, France, is one of the largest dairy companies in the world, and its President brand includes a variety of products ranging from Brie to a pre-packed 8-oz wedge of Comte. Lactalis sells Comte cheese, made with the raw milk from cows fed a specific diet, in supermarkets.

Recently, Lactalis, through the President brand, introduced a spreadable feta cheese that it markets as a sandwich ingredient. It comes on the heels of the introduction of a log-shaped Brie that may be sliced to fit on a cracker.

Feta and cheeses of Hispanic origin are contributing to the growth of specialty cheese in the United States. Hispanic cheese may receive a boost from a recent marketing effort by Castro Cheese, Houston, that promotes fresh Hispanic cheeses.

“Queso Fresco contains less calories, fat and cholesterol than other cheeses such as cheddar, mozzarella or processed cheese products like Velveeta while providing the recommended daily calcium intake,” said Elizabeth Castro, vice-president of sales and marketing for the company. “It’s an excellent option for those who want or need to reduce weight.”

The growth of the Hispanic population has led to the expansion of Hispanic-style cheeses on the market. The Queso Fresco and Queso Blanco are made without starter cultures and have little acid content. Panela, while used like Queso Fresco and Queso Blanco, traditionally is made in a cone-shaped basket and is the most popular cheese in Mexico.

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