Lactalis USA bought Rondelé, a 30-year-old Wisconsin-based cheese business, from the Facilitator Capital Fund and a group of private investors, and although the financial terms and conditions of the deal were not disclosed, analysts predict Rondelé will amass $20 million (€15 million) in sales in 2004.
Philippe Surget, president of Lactalis USA, commented that the acquisition would "strongly reinforce Lactalis USA's line-up of speciality cheeses," and added that the company is "looking forward to continue growing its speciality cheese business in the US."
Lactalis USA currently manufactures a number of speciality cheeses for which there is growing US demand, including the second biggest-selling US feta cheese brand, brie and camembert, all of which are sold under its Sorrento or flagship President brand names.
The company's import division also markets more than half of France's total cheese exports to the US - Emmental and Société Roquefort, for instance. The Lactalis group, the world's eighth biggest dairy company, generates $8 billion (€5.5 billion) in sales per year, 40 per cent of which are generated from outside of France.
According to California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB) statistics, Americans consumed over 3.99 million tonnes of cheese in 2003 - more than ever before - with speciality cheeses, such as Parmesan and Feta, contributing significantly to the increase.
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 - a sharp contrast to ten years ago, when speciality products accounted for only one in every 15 pounds of cheese sold.
But although dairy producers favour the speciality cheese category because of its value-added, high-quality, low-availability status, which helps bolster margins, they must still adhere to strict US legislation governing the production of speciality cheeses.
In order to secure speciality status, 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.
Consumption of speciality cheese is growing fives times faster than that of more mainstream, often commodity, products such as Monterey Jack, cheddar, and mozzarella, however these varieties still account for an estimated 43 per cent of US sales.