Speciality cheese breaks into US mainstream

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US cheese consumption is rising faster than ever before, helped by
a growing interest in speciality cheeses as varied as Parmesan and
Provolone, reports Tom Armitage.

A recent report by the California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB) shows that Americans consumed over 3.99 million tonnes of cheese in 2003 - more than ever before - with speciality cheeses, including many modelled on European varieties, contributing significantly to the growing levels.

The CMAB estimates that one in every 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of cheese sold in the US is now classified as a 'speciality' product such as blue cheese, artisanal cheese or aged cheese - a sharp contrast to ten years ago, when speciality products accounted for only one in every 15 pounds of cheese sold.

Indeed, consumption of speciality cheese is growing fives times faster than that of more mainstream, often commodity, products such as Monterey Jack, cheddar, and mozzarella - although these varieties still account for the lion's share of US sales (some 43 per cent).

The 'speciality' cheese category is well defined. US domestic production of the cheese must not exceed 18.1 million kg a year, and the cheese must have qualities such as an exotic origin, distinctive processing or packaging formulation, or an unusual use and channel of sale.

Speciality cheeses are favoured by dairy producers because of their value-added, high-quality, low-availability status, which help bolster margins at a time when commodity cheese prices are under pressure.

The attraction is clear: in 1995, California made just 70 varieties of cheese, but now the state creates over 250 different cheese types, with Parmesan, Hispanic and Provolone among the most popular non-mainstream categories.

Increasingly sophisticated American consumers are driving the change. "People are travelling more, experiencing some of the cheeses in Europe, then looking for those cheeses in the US,"​ said CMAB board spokeswoman, Nancy Fletcher.

The widespread acceptance of ethnic cooking, particularly Mexican and Italian, which typically have high cheese content, has also contributed to the increase in US cheese sales, according to a recent study of the market by Malinda Miller of Iowa State University.

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