The taste-buds of a small consumer focus group surprised cheese industry stakeholders - R&D, production and marketing players who had gathered for the event - by hardly recognising the difference between the variety of cheeses proffered.
The range tested included cheddar, gouda and popular French cheese comte. Only the strong Italian cheese grano padano achieved strong differentiation on the consumer palate.
"Industry, it seems, has a tendency to overstate the small incremental changes in product development that consumer's would not even spot," Jurriaan Tas, external communications manager at DSM explains to FoodNavigator.com.
Findings from the event organised in the UK last November demonstrate that clear opportunities could exist for cheese makers willing to take the risk in new product development, by introducing more 'adventurous' cheeses that create clear diversity for the consumer taste buds.
As well as boosting the stable, swaying on stagnant, cheese market.
Cheese represented about 31 per cent of a total 2001 £8.3 billion market that included milk & cream and yellow fats. But according to Mintel, cheese, along with flavoured milk and cream, was one of the only product areas to achieve real value growth from the late 1990s to 2001.
Despite this, overall consumption for these categories is falling. Liquid volumes dropped 7 per cent from 1997 figures, coming in at 5.6 million tonnes in 2001.
Discussing barriers to innovation in product development, the event revealed 'resources' as the number one concern among stakeholders.
The lack of resources - time, money, and employees - clearly came to the forefront as the number one obstacle to product innovation.
If UK cheese makers want to move forward, they need to dig deeper into their funds, particularly in light of ongoing philosophy that there are strong links between high R&D spending and sales growth.
Recent figures compiled by the UK's Department of Trade and Industry suggest the cheese industry is merely reflecting the larger picture. Spending by UK food firms on research and development (R&D) is falling behind that of their global competitors. Although the food industry is the fifth largest investor in R&D in the UK it does not compete on international food sector terms.
Food producers account for 5.5 per cent of the R&D in the UK's best 700 R&D-active companies and just 1 per cent of the R&D in the international 700.
According to the DTI, the small gap in R&D intensity (R&D as a percentage of sales) and profitability seen in 2003 between the UK and global food sectors has widened, leaving the UK with a R&D intensity of 1.4 per cent (1.5% in 2003) compared with 1.8 per cent internationally.
Tas further cites industrial constraints as a barrier to innovation, raised by stakeholders at the meeting: "Investments required in terms of industrial tools up the risk, putting immediate pressure on volume sales when launching a new product."
Reducing risk through out-sourcing was discussed by stakeholders as an option for production. Out-sourcing has hit a raft of different manufacturing industries, notably pharmaceutical businesses, but has yet to be widely embraced by the food industry.
There are too many industries starting to out-source for the food industry to stay immune, says Tas.
And while the health trend is currently grabbing the food industry by the neck, the event found that health was not a major issue for cheese makers.
"Cheese has a mixed image: intrinsically healthy because dairy, but with a degree of fat so unhealthy," Tas commented.
But the health trend is simply too large, and growing too fast, for the cheese industry to ignore. Tas suggests that thorough consumer research programmes - 'there are unmet needs waiting to be discovered' - could glean concrete results for new product development with a health slant.