Added-value pays off for UK cheesemaker

Related tags Cheese Uk

A UK business rooted in sheep milk products and originally set up
to help people with allergies has won the Great British Food
Award presented by the UK's National Farmers Union (NFU). The
success of the company is linked to the crucial drive in the UK
cheese market, to add value, writes Lindsey Partos.

Winner Judy Bell set up Shepherd's Purse Cheeses in 1987 and launched its first cheese onto the market two years later targetting consumers with allergies to conventional dairy products.

She has since developed an award-winning range of sheep's cheeses and latterly her first cow's milk product - the Yorkshire Blue - as well as buffalo milk and organic products.

The success of the company's cheese range reflects a recent report commissioned by the UK's Milk Development Council to - against a background of falling milk prices - explore the scope for adding value to British milk.

The retail sales value of cheese has remained relatively stable over the past ten years at approximately £1.5 billion per year, with volume sales at 360,000 tonnes, but, the report's authors Dr Andrew Fearne and Dr Stephen Bates at the Department of Agricultural Sciences, Imperial College, Wye write, "at the margin, it may be argued that volume and value performance within the cheese category are both declining due to sustained price promotions".

Adding value by formulating innovative cheese products could be the answer to waning sales.

There are around 350 specialist cheesemakers in Britain making an estimated range of400 British cheeses (The Grocer​, 2000a). In the major UK retailers and independent shops, specialist cheeses (not counting handmade Farmhouse Cheddars) have a 28 per cent share of the market, recording a two per cent rise in value and six per cent risein volume (The Grocer​, 2000a).

The British favourite, cheddar, continues to dominate the market with 58 per cent of UK cheese production. The UK imports approximately 270,000 tonnes of cheese each year, of which 40 per cent is cheddar and 56 per cent is speciality cheese, for example Blue Vein, Gouda/Samsoe, Feta and Grana.

Adding value to drive sales forward is a challenge. According to the reports authors, consumers were 'decidedly negative' towards locally produced cheese.

"The long established presence of territorial cheeses with distinct characteristics alsomade it difficult for participants to perceive the benefits of, say Northumbrian or Nottingham cheese.

"However, the issue of merchandising was highlighted, which is of particular importance, given the intense competition for shelf space in the cheese category and the considerable choice with which the consumer is currently confronted,"​ they added.

The innovation demonstrated by the UK independent firm Shepherd's Purse Cheeses is an example of spotting an opportunity in the market and pursuing it "with determination and flair"​, said newly ensconced NFU president Tim Bennett.

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