While athletes wrapped things up in Athens, cheesemakers competed in London for world recognition

European purveyors of cheese and wine recognize that the United States is a high-quality supplier of products in demand all over the European Union.
Shortly after Olympic athletes made the United States proud in Greece, cheesemakers did the same in London where 53 U.S. companies competed in 47 contests with a total of 226 cheese entries at the 17thWorld Cheese Awards on September 2. With more than 1,500 cheeses competing, the United States proudly took home a total of 44 medals (15 gold, 15 silver and 14 bronze). See box for list of winners.

"For all participants, the competition is a unique opportunity to achieve a bit of glory and represent their countries on an international stage," says Marc Beck, senior v.p., market development, U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC), a sponsor of the event.

This was USDEC's third year participating in the annual World Cheese Awards, which is one of two major international cheese contests. The other-the World Championship Cheese Contest-takes place biannually in Wisconsin. Both events have entries from around the world; however, the U.K. event is more European and the Wisconsin contest more North American.

"The U.K. event gives U.S. cheesemakers the opportunity to compete head-to-head with many of the world's oldest and most respected cheese companies," says Beck.

Thus, winning awards in London helps U.S. cheesemakers shed their image of being producers of only commodity or processed cheeses. With U.S. cheeses establishing a premium image, USDEC has an impressive story to tell when selling U.S. cheeses in the international marketplace.

"We use the fact that U.S. cheese performs well against some of the world's most venerable brands as a platform to support our message that the United States makes many of the world's best cheese products," adds Beck. "Having U.S. cheeses win prestigious awards goes a long way in convincing buyers in other countries."

When U.S. cheeses win accolades in global competitions, the products gain respect from cheese connoisseurs around the world, increasing the value of U.S. cheese. This supports USDEC’s mission to increase the value and volume of U.S. dairy products exported overseas.
According to USDA figures, the United States exported 52,112 metric tons of cheese in 2003. "So far this year, cheese exports are running 16% above 2003," says Todd Gerken, USDEC's dir. of marketing for the cheese and manufactured products group. "The four most important export markets for U.S. cheeses are Japan, Mexico, Canada and South Korea. Secondary markets of importance are other Asian markets, the Caribbean, parts of Latin America and the Middle East."

And though the United States exported a mere 2,707 metric tons of cheese into Europe this past year, European specialty cheese shop owners increasingly express interest in selling farmstead U.S. cheeses.

"I have been trying to import U.S. farmstead cheeses for the past two years," explains Patricia Michelson, owner of London-based La Fromagerie, a specialty cheese, food and wine shop. "Price is not an issue, as my customers are not price sensitive. They care about food and want quality . . . the best of the best.

"I encourage young people who want to become specialty cheesemakers to do so," Michelson adds. "Follow your instincts and work hard at it. There are customers who want to buy your cheese."

Jeremy Bowen, sales mgr., for London's cheesemonger Paxton & Whitfield, suppliers of cheese to the Royal Family, adds, "The United States has proven itself as both a producer of some of the best wines in the world, as well as of fine cheeses."

The four most important export markets for U.S. cheese are Mexico, Japan, Canada and South Korea.
Days after the contest, the House of Lords specifically requested from Paxton and Whitfield some U.S. artisan cheeses for a dinner for 35 special guests. Unfortunately, there are no supplies of U.S. artisan cheeses in the United Kingdom . . . yet.

It's exciting to know that Europeans no longer think that U.S. cheeses come individually wrapped, with a dozen slices to a pack. "Trend-setting chefs and consumers from inside and outside of Europe are starting to notice that U.S. cheese factories make some of the best delicacies in the world," says Gerken. "Our strong showing at the World Cheese Awards has helped elevate the image of all U.S. cheese in our target markets."

Indeed, the United States has been very successful selling products to countries with few access barriers. When it comes to the 25 countries that make up the European Union, demand exists for U.S. specialty cheeses, but access barriers make it a challenge to penetrate the market. This will hopefully no longer be an issue as World Trade Organization agreements change in the next few years, opening markets to more U.S. products.

"Our ability to sell U.S. cheese is dependent upon the competitive position of U.S. products in individual international markets," Gerken adds. "The United States does not want to compete with traditional European cheeses. We have some specialties that we call our own."

To encourage participation, USDEC provided U.S. cows milk cheesemakers with financial support to enter and ship cheeses to the contest. For more information on participating in next year's contest, call USDEC at 703/528-3049.

Sidebar: U.S. Cheesemakers Win 44 Medals

These 23 U.S. cheesemakers won the following awards:

Bingham Hill Cheese Co. (1s, 2b)
Fort Collins, Colo.

Bittersweet Plantation Dairy (1g)
Gonzales, La.

Cabot Creamery Cooperative (1g)
Montpelier, Vt.

F. Cappiello Dairy Products Inc. (1g)
Schenectady, N.Y.

Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese (1b)
Waterloo, Wis.

Cypress Grove Chevre Inc. (1g, 1s)
McKinleyville, Calif.

Fair Oaks Dairy Products LLC (1g)
Fair Oaks, Ind.

Fire Fly Farms (1s, 1b)
Bittinger, Md.

Fiscalini Cheese (1g, 1s, 1b)
Modesto, Calif.

Hillman Farm (1g)
Colrain, Ma.

Leelanau Cheese Co. (1s)
Suttons Bay, Mich.

Level Valley Creamery Inc. (2g, 1s)
West Bend, Wis.

Marin French Cheese Co. (2s, 1b)
Petaluma, Calif.

Rising Sun Farms Inc. (1s, 2b)
Phoenix, Ore.

The Rogue Creamery (2g, 1s)
Central Point, Ore.

Rondele Specialty Foods (1g, 2s)
Merrill, Wis.

Roth Kase USA Ltd. (2g)
Monroe, Wis.

Sweet Grass Dairy (2b)
Thomasville, Ga.

Swiss Valley Farms Co. (1b)
Mindoro, Wis.

Valley Gold LLC (1s)
Gustine, Calif.

Vermont Shepherd LLC (1b)
Putney, Vt.

Widmer Cheese Cellars (1b)
Theresa, Wis.

Willow Hill Farm LLC (1g, 2s, 1b)
Milton, Vt.

(g = gold; s = silver; b = bronze)

For details on the contest and the winners, visit: www.finefoodworld.co.uk/html/2004win.htm

Two of America's finest artisan cheeses received special recognition. Smoked Oregon Blue from The Rogue Creamery was awarded the USDEC Award for Best American Cheese, 2004. And, Harvest Cheese from Hillman Farm received Best American Cheese, World Cheese Awards, 2004.