Cheese export markets set to end strong this year, rebounding from pandemic

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The US international cheese market is expected to close 2021 with good numbers compared to the same period last year as the industry continues to recover from the setbacks of the pandemic.

A panel of dairy industry professionals participated in a September 15 episode of Hoard’s Dairyman live webcasts. This includes Stephen Cain, US Dairy Export Council Economic Analyst, Angelique Hollister, USDEC Senior Vice President of Global Cheese Marketing, William Linskey, Executive Vice President of Tropical Foods LLC, and Mark Stephenson, Director of the Center for Dairy. Profitability. Hoard’s editor-in-chief Dairyman Corey Geiger moderated.

Cain said the global cheese trade is at an all time high with 2.6 billion pounds sold so far this year, up 10% from last year, putting us on the right track. for one of the best years ever for the cheese industry. International markets have been demanding more cheese recently due to some regions, such as Eurasia and South America, domestic production not meeting consumer needs, which has led the United States to export 516 million pounds of cheese so far this year. And it’s not just a few spots either, but a big increase across the board, Cain said.

“The United States is the largest supplier of cheese to the world, so with this growing demand, the United States is really well positioned to take advantage of this increased demand and really increase the volume of our exports by volume and capitalize. on increasing market share, “Cain said.

The main trading partners of the United States are concentrated in East Asia and Latin America, with the main trading partners being Japan, South Korea and Mexico. American cheese is becoming particularly popular in Latin America, Cain said, due to its affordable prices and relative proximity to other major cheese exporters. Additionally, Cain explained that advances in the COVID-19 vaccine are advancing in several Latin American countries, leading to a return of tourism and higher demand for cheese.

U.S. dairy processing plants have also mostly recovered from pandemic setbacks, as several large factories have been forced to go offline or severely limit their capacity due to health concerns related to COVID-19. With most factories back to normal and some expanding, US cheese producers can begin to take advantage of global markets as European milk production has stagnated at just 0.3% increase from to last year, while US milk production continues to increase.

“Despite these (concerns), I remain optimistic about our cheese exports for the remainder of the year,” Cain said. “I think we are in a good position globally with the availability of our products compared to other major competitors, and I think we will be competitive on price. We’re really going to end the year strong here. “

Hollister said the U.S. cheese industry has grown exponentially over the past two decades and is still on track to continue that growth, with U.S. cheese exports increasing sevenfold during that time. . However, she said that a major problem our industry still faces is the lack of recognition as the world’s largest supplier of cheese. She said most non-Americans still view American cheese as just a piece of plasticized orange processed cheese, which is only a fraction of the market.

“When we really dig into the market and you talk to end users, chefs and consumers, you don’t have a picture or a perception of our industry. I guess you have a picture but not a good one,” Hollister noted. “There is a lot more to the export market to really make sure our industry stays healthy and prosperous for the long term… to really help the market understand who we are.”

While U.S. exports are extremely strong in the restaurant and industrial sectors, Hollister said many consumers eat our cheese all the time but just don’t realize it due to a lack of brand and consumer awareness that does not exist for other cheese producers. She said in a recent poll that the United States ranked sixth – after countries like New Zealand, France and the Netherlands – in terms of the world’s top cheese producers.

Part of the solution to this problem is to create educational programs not only for consumers, but also for kitchen, supply chain and retail professionals, Hollister said. She also highlighted the need for a more physical and digital “customer contact time” with brands to create awareness and foster engagement with customers.

“We make really good cheese. You know, we won the World Cheese Award in 2019,” Hollister said. “We create all of the digital assets that really help us stay in front of people. In short, this is what we do to really try to take the next leg of the journey. We have been very successful on the commodities side. , but now is the time to reclaim our rightful place in the minds of people around the world. “

Linskey said dairy exports were already difficult to manage before the pandemic, and now with the presence of COVID-19, they are “extremely difficult.” A whole host of issues stemming from this pandemic including logistics crises, labor and equipment shortages, supply chain disruptions, port congestion, etc., have made it difficult not only access to the export market, but also to stay there. He said having a good product at a good price is no longer enough to stay in the game.

“When you look at the global arena as a whole, in order to be able to add quality and value, you now have to be able to meet very strict compliance requirements and you have to be able to meet very specific needs. of customers, ”Linskey says.“ It doesn’t matter if you have a quality product at fair value. (If) you can’t meet compliance needs, if you can’t meet customer needs, this cheddar has now become a very tasty paperweight. “

While innovations in cheese have been all the rage recently, Linskey explained that markets are currently too dispersed to accommodate a wide range of product choices, so it’s more important than ever to focus on the core of your cheese products. As the supply to grocery stores has shrunk due to supply chain disruptions and other miscellaneous issues, consumers are no longer looking for the next big thing, but simply a quality staple that can be purchased. used in anything, like cheddar, mozzarella, or parmesan.

In addition, transport takes much longer now, which can spoil the cheese before it even reaches the shelves. Dairy farmers should focus on extending the shelf life of their cheese if possible and understanding the basic needs of consumers in each region. Plus, long-term marketing and community outreach programs make businesses more successful at all levels by building brand awareness, Linskey said.

“To all of the dairy suppliers and manufacturers… try to have a different look at exports versus the country,” Linskey said. “What everyone is looking at is how we do it nationally, this is how we have been doing it for 100 years. If you just apply the same to exports, you really categorize yourself and really limit what you do. you can do. Where you can be flexible, try to be flexible. “

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