All Consuming
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 Board (CMAB).
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 pounds.
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 hormone.
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 consumers.”
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 vacuum package.
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 growing.
“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.”
Specialty Soars
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 cranberry.
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 cheese board.”
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 such.”  
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.
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 cheese cases.
“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 “lover.”
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 new.”