by Lynn Petrak
The cheese category reflects a hunger for familiar
foods with a high-quality, fresh and lifestyle-fitting profile.
For a food that was once
memorably described as “milk’s leap to immortality,”
cheese continues to thrive and evolve as a category.
Since humans experienced the first “aha
moment” when whey and curd were separated, cheese has enjoyed a
certain cache, consumed on both an everyday and special occasion basis.
“I’ve seen surveys showing cheese is one of the most popular
foods — it’s right up there behind chocolate,” says Bob
Kenney, spokesman for the Modesto-Calif.-based California Milk Advisory
Marilyn Wilkinson, director, national product
communications for the Madison, Wis.-based Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board
(WMMB), agrees that cheese fits not only the collective palate of
consumers, but complements continually changing food trends as well.
“What’s happening with food right now, people are moving on
from having a ‘new’ cuisine every year,” she says.
“Cuisines like Italian and Thai are all still popular, but now people
are having an interest in the quality of food, the quality of things that
go into a menu and the integrity of ingredients. I think cheese is a big
beneficiary of that.”
Market research underscores cheese’s ongoing
status as a beloved foodstuff. According to the U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA), per capita cheese consumption is estimated at 31.4
pounds, reflecting a slight yet continued increase.
Sales of U.S. retail cheese reached about $16.4
billion in 2005, according to information published in What’s In Store: 2007, published
by the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (IDDBA), Madison, Wis.
According to a November 2006 update released by the Agricultural Marketing
Resource Center at Iowa State University, 39 percent of cheese is sold at
retail, while 43 percent of cheese is sold through foodservice channels and
18 percent is used for food processing.
As one might expect, cheese production is on the rise
as well. Per the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, total U.S. cheese
production hit 9.13 billion pounds in 2005, an increase from the previous
year. Wisconsin remains the leading cheesemaking state with 2.4 billion
pounds produced annually, closely followed by California, at 2.14 billion
Natural, Organic, Fresh
To be sure, the cheese category is like any other food
segment in which certain buzzwords catch hold. Right now, some of the
biggest words are “natural” and “fresh.” Just what
they mean, though, can be a matter of discussion and different approaches.
Natural, for instance, is a word that is often bandied
about these days when it comes to many food products, from deli meats to
breads to cheeses. “As more people become aware of how diet and
health are related, there is more of an emphasis on natural. People want to
make sure they are putting ‘natural’ things in their
bodies,” says Alan Hiebert, an analyst in the education department at
IDDBA. “While a consistent definition of natural remains elusive, it
often means a product made without additives or preservatives.”
However the term may be defined, it’s clear that
natural cheeses are translating at the consumption levels. According to
information from WMMB, natural exact-weight cheese sales in traditional
grocery stores enjoyed a 13 percent increase over the last five years,
while processed varieties declined 11 percent.
Many major brands are emphasizing their natural
products. Tillamook County Creamery Association, Tillamook, Ore., for
example, is in the midst of redesigning its packaging to emphasize the
“all-natural” attributes of its cheeses, according to Jay
Allison, vice president, sales and marketing. “I think consumers want
good, healthy dairy products. I don’t mean to badmouth the organic
trend, but when you dive into issues and ask what makes organic better, it
ends up that consumers say it’s because there are no antibiotics or
hormones,” he says. “We are doing all of the attributes
consumers want and you have the great quality, taste and consistency
you get with the same recipe we’ve had for 100 years.”
Tillamook’s new packaging will also contain
information on how its cheeses are now produced with milk from cows not
treated with artificial hormones, since the co-op’s board decided to
no longer accept milk from farms that use the artificial bovine growth
At Mozzarella Fresca, a Concord, Calif.-based major of
natural Italian cheeses like mozzarella, ricotta and mascarpone, chief
operating officer Jason Knight agrees that more discerning consumers are
zeroing in on natural products. “As we learn more about artificial
ingredients and preservatives and things like that, people are returning
back to natural and what it means and how it is good for you,” he
says. “That is something we’ve been committed to.”
That said, Knight (whose company was recently acquired
by the Lactalis American Group) is wary that the term itself may become
oversaturated. “Everyone is trying to take advantage of it and I am
concerned that some are stretching the definition of natural,” he
says, “and that is a risk in losing confidence of
There is also the common refrain of
“fresh” — another word is open to interpretation.
On a literal basis, there are plenty of cheeses that
are fresh from a production standpoint, such as Mexican cheeses like queso
fresca and queso blanco, and Italian cheeses like fresh mozzarella. On a
figurative basis, cheeses touted as fresh may be made from the freshest
milk or without the use of certain ingredients.
“I think the definition of fresh to a consumer
is something that is not overly processed or is minimally processed,”
Wilkinson says, adding that fresh cheeses are appealing not only for their
tie-in to natural but their taste and application. “Fresh mozzarella,
for instance, has a lot going for it. People perceive it to be a very fresh
cheese, but they also love the milky, creamy texture of it.”
Errico Auricchio, president and founder of BelGioioso
Cheese Inc. Denmark, Wis., reports that while sales of the company’s
aged Italian cheeses — like its signature Parmesan and American Grana
— remain dynamic, fresh mozzarella cheeses are experiencing strong
sales. “There is a lot of interest in fresh cheeses,” he says.
While BelGioioso has been busy developing a host of
new products in recent years, some of its latest items are focused on the
fresh cheese segment. In recent months, BelGioioso has launched burrata, a
cream-filled fresh mozzarella; along with perline, 2.5-gram mozzarella
balls packaged in water; and pre-sliced fresh mozzarella sold in a
Mozzarella Fresca is also expanding into different
varieties of fresh mozzarella. Recently, Knight says, the California
cheesemaker introduced 1-gram pieces called perlini, 4-gram balls called
pearl and medallions. Currently, the company is working on a version of
burrata, slated for introduction later this year.
While makers of “fresh and natural” cheese
continue to capitalize on consumer interest and perceptions, organic cheese
is garnering a following. Like other organic foods, certified organic
cheese is a fragment of the overall cheese marketplace but one that is
“With regard to organic foods, many consumers
believe them to be superior, though they still account for less than 5
percent of overall cheese sales,” Hiebert says, noting that according
to What’s In Store, organic cheese sales were valued at $126.7 million for 2005, yet
estimated growth between 2005 and 2010 is pegged at 96.2 percent.
Organic cheese in the United States is produced mainly
by specialty cheesemakers, such as Organic Valley Family of Farms, LaFarge,
Wis., and a few national brands, like Dean Foods’ Horizon Organic,
Boulder, Colo. Private label organic cheese, such as Safeway’s O
Organic and other house brands sold through supercenters like Wal-Mart, are
expanding the presence of such varieties into mainstream shopping venues.
“I think organic is about sustainability,
caring, minimally processed,” Wilkinson says. “All of that is
part of the quality package in the consumer’s head.”
As cheeses flagged as natural, fresh and organic have
become a trend worth noting in the cheese category, specialty cheeses
continue to impact the marketplace in a significant way. According to What’s in Store, specialty
cheeses represent a $905 million market at the retail level.
Within specialty cheese, bolder flavored varieties are
gaining a foothold. “More consumers are saying they are eating more
flavorful cheese than they used to,” Kenney says, pointing to recent
CMAB polling on the subject. “Two-thirds told us they’ll pay
more for cheese if it has more flavor and 64 percent said they like
stronger, pungent cheeses.”
Wilkinson says that Wisconsin has become known for its
specialty cheesmakers and that specialty cheeses are appealing because they
are different, but also high quality. “People’s palates like
stronger, bolder flavors, like washed-rind cheeses,” she says.
“Ten years ago, gruyere in the store was imported, and now we are
making those types of cheeses in Wisconsin.”
Cheesmakers are responding to demand for flavorful,
bold specialty cheeses by continuing to introduce new varieties. Roth
Käse USA, Monroe, Wis., which has built a growing business on
specialty cheese, recently bowed a line of blended Stilton cheeses.
“We are importing white Stilton from the U.K. and blending it right
here in Wisconsin. The benefit is that the product ends up being
fresher,” says marketing manager Kirsten Jaeckle, listing the new
Stilton varieties of rum raisin, apricot-brandy, lemon-orange and
Tillamook, long known for its aged cheddar products,
has heeded the clamor for flavor, too. “One thing that is brand new
for Tillamook is flavored cheese. We introduced smoked black pepper white
cheddar, garlic-chili pepper cheddar and garlic white cheddar in the fourth
quarter of 2006,” Allison says.
Artisan and farmstead cheeses also fall under the
specialty category, and may or may not be piquant or flavored. Those
cheeses, typically produced by smaller cheesemakers, represent a segment on
the move as well. “The whole artisan movement makes one aware of the
opportunity to get bigger and more flavors in cheeses,” Kenney says.
“Washed-rind cheeses are growing in popularity — it was only
three years ago that the American Cheese Society added a specialty category
for washed rinds. Now, there is a proliferation of washed rind cheeses in
ACS’ annual competition.” Wilkinson, too, highlights
washed-rind cheeses emerging varieties.
Major cheesemakers that have established their
business on flavors like American and cheddar are also dealing with the
specialty cheese influence. At Hilmar, Calif.-based Hilmar Cheese Co., vice
president of sales and marketing Phil Robnett says the burgeoning specialty
cheese market has impacted the general category.
As our customers scramble to respond to their
customers’ changing needs, we are asked to consider some of these
niche products. However, our size and daily throughput limit our ability to
do these because of the availability of milk,” he says. “Maybe
someday in the future.”
There are noteworthy examples of national cheese
brands that have boosted the specialty profile of their products.
Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods, for instance, has introduced different
varieties of its Athenos-brand feta cheeses, while Plymouth, Wis.-based
Sargento Foods continues to offer its Bistro Blends line of pre-seasoned
shreds, including mozzarella and asiago with roasted garlic, and cheddar
and Monterey Jack with tomatoes and jalapeño peppers.
Wilkinson underscores that trend. “If you look
at Italian blends, they used to be predictable,” she says.
“Now, you are finding blends with asiago and other flavors that are
more of a specialty nature.”
Taking it Easy
While convenience was the catalyst for many format and
packaging changes beginning a decade ago, the trend has hardly slowed.
“There’s always room for new convenient products that help
decrease time spent cooking,” Hiebert says, citing data showing sales
of sliced and shredded cheese at most retailers increased 3.4 percent over
the previous year.
Processors are, in fact, busy on the R&D front for
cheeses that fit consumers’ lifestyles and demands. As Auricchio
points out, BelGioioso’s new pre-sliced and perline fresh
mozzarella products help foodservice operators and home chefs alike cut
down on time and effort in the kitchen.
Allison, meantime, reports a positive reception for
Tillamook’s shingle-pack natural sliced cheeses that were introduced
in late 2005. “We are pleased with how the slices have showed —
it was all incremental sales for us,” he says.
At Hilmar, Robnett reports that interest in
convenience-driven products has not abated. “The numbers show that
demand for sliced natural cheese is driving most of the growth at retail
and in foodservice,” he says. “Our products perform well for
this application. We continue to have strong demand for all our
products in the 640-form for this use.”
Kraft also has tweaked products for the sake of
convenience. Witness the debut of Philadelphia-brand ready-to-eat cheesecake filling and Grate-It-Fresh, an
innovative new product that’s a block of parmesan with a built-in,
twistable grater (one of Dairy Field’s Editors’ Choice Award winners last November).
The evolution of convenience beyond the pre-sliced and
pre-shredded formats and recloseable packaging has lately manifested itself
in products packaged in innovative ways. Roth Kase, for instance, scored a
hit with its “mix-and-match” program, in which various
individually wrapped varieties could be purchased. “We came out with
those for the holidays and we hope to do more,” Jaeckle says.
“We also featured three or four different varieties on a wooden board
with a tiny spreader, and we were able overwrap that to do a pre-packaged
Wilkinson concurs that such unique, consumer-driven
packaging and formats mirror the march toward value-added. “More
cheese brands are offering ‘entertaining’ packages, such as
packages that contain slices of a variety of cheeses suitable to a tasting
or buffet,” she says. “And over the holidays, companies not
only offered traditional type cheddar cheese balls, but cheese balls of
various varieties and some on the sweet side with candied nuts and
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the
Rise of the cheesemongers
With so many different
cheesemakers offering a broad range of commodity and specialty cheeses
— some estimate that American cheese companies produce at least 300
different varieties — getting consumers to learn about and try such
products isn’t as straightforward as stacking up blocks, wedges,
wheels and bags in a refrigerated case.
Giant Eagle, the Pittsburgh-based grocery store chain,
combines show-stopping merchandising with informative communication with
its cheesemonger program, now in its second year. Through this program,
Giant Eagle employees undergo at least 16 hours of training to become
certified cheesemongers who are at the helm of the store’s specialty
“Their education is comprised of customer
service, product knowledge and serving suggestions. Once certified, they
get a black beret embroidered with the word ‘cheesemonger’ and
our Giant Eagle logo,” says Voni Woods, senior director of deli, who
explains that “monger” is another term for
The program was started, Woods says, because many of
the retailer’s shoppers indicated they were interested in new cheeses
but wanted to know more about them and how to use them for special
occasions or every day dishes, snacks and desserts. “Some of these
cheeses will not jump from the shelf into your cart,” she says,
adding that the cheesemongers and special point-of-sale tags educate
consumers about the flavor, origin and usage of cheese products.
Woods says the cheesemongers have been positively
received. “The fun thing is that you learn from customers as well.
I’ve been doing this [deli business] for 30 years and there are
cheeses every day hitting the market from American cheesemakers that are