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Cheese: Getting to the Next Billion

30 October 2012

US cheese exports are performing well, with the opportunity to improve, writes Tom Suber, President of the US Dairy Export Council.

U.S. cheese export value through July topped $680 million—well on its way to breaking the $1-billion mark, a more than seven fold increase over 2000. The United States is firmly planted as the No. 3 cheese supplier to the world and we are gaining share.

U.S. cheese success in overseas markets is the result of long-term efforts by and collaboration between industry, government and organizations like the checkoff-supported USDEC to grow markets and build the reputation of the United States as a reliable source for high-quality product. Those efforts are cumulative—building one upon another— and encompassing market access, marketing, market development (relationship building, delivering products that meet buyers’ needs, customer service) and trade policy.

The results have been so favorable that the route to $2 billion is largely (but not wholly) more of the same:

  • Continued relationship building and demonstration of market commitment. U.S. cheesemaker efforts to service overseas markets are typified by the growing ranks of U.S. suppliers opening foreign sales and marketing offices and sometimes even R&D centers to serve customers in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Such in-country, face-to-face interaction is critical to building the credibility of the United States as a cheese exporter, and moving forward, more of it is needed.
  • Continued participation of Cooperatives Working Together (CWT). Since 2003, CWT has assisted with the sale of nearly 135,000 metric tons of U.S. cheese overseas. It has been an important factor in helping eligible U.S. suppliers, when conditions warrant it, to gain a foothold in world markets, opening the door for market entry, trial and now acceptance of U.S. commodity cheese in industrial uses. As export opportunities continue to grow and with total export volumes exceeding 250,000 metric tons per year, CWT can continue to provide assistance for participating U.S. companies, in particular when international prices are drawn down by international competitors.
  • Continued customer service. A few years back, in a project spearheaded by USDEC, a handful of U.S. cheesemakers began working with Mexican buyers to develop gouda for our neighbor to the south. That project blossomed to the point where the United States now supplies about 20 percent of Mexico’s gouda imports (or around 9,000 metric tons of gouda last year and growing), a far cry from practically zero in 2008. Listening to customers and making the investment to deliver not just the products that are easiest to manufacture but products that meet the taste, texture and functional attributes customers desire is key across all dairy categories.
  • Continued reinforcement of our reputation for quality. The first year USDEC cosponsored the World Cheese Awards in 2003, cheesemakers from across the United States submitted 67 entries and won two gold medals (18 all together). Success clearly bred success: Last year, U.S. cheesemakers entered 383 cheeses and won 27 gold medals alone, 85 overall. Although day-in, day-out quality of product shipped overseas is and will continue to be the ultimate yardstick, such accolades have sharply elevated our global image as a high-quality supplier of a variety of cheeses for all end uses.
  • Continued foodservice expansion. Overseas foodservice expansion continues to boom from the giants like Yum! Brands to the smaller regional players like Shake Shack. No end is in sight for their growth—and for U.S. cheese suppliers willing to commit to serving the market.
  • Continued education efforts. New consumers entering the category worldwide means overseas food manufacturers, culinary professionals, shoppers and diners still require information on cheese taste, applications, functionality, handling and storage. More than 15 years of USDEC-sponsored cheese tastings, commercial bakery contests in Asia, and menu development assistance in Mexico, Japan, Korea and the Middle East have helped drive knowledge and make U.S. string cheese a hit in Korea, “American Originals” increasingly popular in Japan, the whiter and smoother U.S. cream cheese a U.S. cheese point of entry across Asia, and U.S.-cheese-laden burgers, pizzas, breads and cakes regular menu items in numerous countries.
  • Continued defense of market access. Non-tariff trade barriers are proliferating. Ensuring U.S. suppliers have unimpeded access to high-potential, emerging cheese markets is a battle USDEC wages daily, from gaining approval for natamycin use on cheese in Korea to fighting European Union efforts to impair the use of many commonly used cheese names. USDEC has ratcheted up proactive efforts to head off non-tariff trade barrier issues before they become acute, but for the entire industry, vigilance is the watchword moving forward.
  • Continued investment in free trade agreements. Every trade agreement signed by the United States from NAFTA forward has yielded cheese export benefits. We are now negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership FTA, which holds significant promise for open access to Canada (among other potential gains).

The tasks are tough but achievable—after all, we have been moving in the right direction for more than a decade. But they are not sufficient for long-term cheese export health and growth on their own.

With U.S. cheese prices exceeding international last month, the first time since 2009, it is important to remember that basing the U.S. position solely on a price competitive proposition is not a recipe for long-term success. Customer service, manufacturing to meet overseas needs, and in-country presence are all elements of providing greater value. But also needed are U.S. dairy policies and commercial practices that are better suited to meeting the needs of a globalized dairy market, as highlighted in the Globalization Report by the farmer checkoff through the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy (www.usdairy.com).

The sooner our system is better geared to globalization, the sooner we will reach $2 billion in U.S. cheese exports.

October 2012

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