What would you say have been the most recent trends and developments in the cheese sector?
**Bega Cheese** is the most dominant manufacturer of retail Cheddar cheese and processed cheese products in the Trans Tasman region (Australia and New Zealand), making around 100,000 tonnes.
International business manager, Maurice Van Ryan, says that Cheddar cheese and processed cheese products are very much everyday staple products. “The changes in consumption habits of these mass market products are somewhat subtle, but they are there. The well-known trends are towards more convenience style products such as pre-sliced and grated cheese, and these products show greater than average annual sales growth, taking that growth away from the traditional Cheddar block.”
There has also been a proliferation of reduced and low-fat Cheddar and processed cheese products in response to market demand for healthy choices, adds Van Ryan. “In short, there’s been a proliferation of SKUs (stock keeping units) to cover every possible format of cheese age, fat level, product style and pack size. With these four variables, we’re now at a point of having hundreds of SKUs for the consumer to choose from. Several decades ago, there may have been only a handful of Cheddar blocks and processed slices.”
**Groupe Lactalis**, with headquarters in France, is one of the world’s leading dairy groups, with a presence in nearly 150 countries, making it Europe’s leading cheese group. Lactalis director of external affairs, Luc Morelon, identifies the most recent trends as the growth in demand for sliced cheeses and the increase in consumption of fresh cheeses for salads and Mediterranean cheeses, such as feta and mozzarella: “The traditional and long ripened products are losing market share,” he says.
Over in the US, **Sargento’s** Barbara Gannon says consumers are more adventurous and interested in trying varieties of cheese that are new to them: “The artisan movement is growing due to consumer interest in the stories of the people who produce their food as well as the desire for bold, new flavours and high quality. Rising popularity of panini and continued popularity of Italian and Latina cuisines contribute to cheese consumption.”
Consumers have a wide choice: hard cheese, soft cheese, spreadable cheese; block, sliced and grated; cheese with herbs and with fruit, or covered in chocolate; low-fat and low cholesterol cheese; cheese in snack packs with bread or biscuits and pickle. Is the consumer spoilt for choice or are they desperate for more options?
Van Ryan doesn’t think the consumer is desperate for more choices, “but they’re delighted that dairy companies all compete against each other, constantly trying to present unique selling points to swing the customer to their products”.
This means there will always be a constant stream of new product offerings. “Many will fail in the short- to medium-term, but it provides the consumer with some fun and variety in trialling the multitude of flavours and variations that hit the shelves.”
He also believes there’s been a resurgence in speciality or farmhouse cheeses that again provide a great variety of choice in small-end production products.
Luc Morelon says cheese consumption is shifting to freshness and diversity: “Mixing with other products is a trend, and consumers are more open to new mixes in a different stage, but they like to choose the assortment for themselves.”
Traditional consumption remains the basis of consumption, but new uses open a wide range of opportunities.
Barbara Gannon expects the range of options to continue as food manufacturers strive to meet consumer demands: “Consumers have an insatiable desire for different taste experiences, and cheesemakers and marketers have met the challenge to offer more choices.”
Many product categories of the dairy sector have seen strong demand and growth in probiotic products and healthy alternatives. How do you see this market developing in the cheese sector?
Maurice Van Ryan has long held the view that processed cheese in particular could be a carrier of nutritional benefits, “but to date, the industry hasn’t pursued this line other than for the basic enhancements such as increased levels of, say, calcium or iron or similar. Laterally thinking, there could be a whole range of nutraceutical benefits that could be carried through processed cheese.”
Yet, he remains cautious about consumer acceptance of such a strategy: “All three of our cheesemakers say cheese is perceived as a natural product that shouldn’t be tampered with. There may be greater benefit in promoting the natural benefits of dairy products rather than beefing them up with all sorts of additives.”
Luc Morelon agrees, that because cheese is considered a healthy product without the need for addition, the added value of probiotics isn’t obvious for the consumer, “but it may change in the future”, he says. He adds that light products have a continuous problem, because “dairy fat is delicious!”.
Gannon says marketers who have tried to sell cheeses with probiotics have met limited success. However, “the opportunity for natural cheeses that taste great and melt well but are lower in fat and sodium seem to have a brighter future than other entries in the better-for-you category”.
What would you say is the level of innovation in cheese manufacturing?
In terms of the manufacturing process, it’s bigger, better and faster plants, says Van Ryan – converting milk to the finished product more quickly. “But again, we have to remember that the finished product is a natural and living product, a bit like wine,” he says. “Therefore, there are some timeless elements to the cheesemaking process that cannot be compromised. There’s still an art behind the science that miraculously converts milk into the myriad of cheese products that we see, and this art form remains an integral part of the industry.”
“The cheese manufacture has slowed the pace of technological innovations,” says Luc Morelon, “but the new fields of innovation lie in cultures, speed of process and new products mixing dairy and non-dairy ingredients.”
Barbara Gannon says grocers don’t need or want to give precious shelf space to ‘me too’ products, but innovation needs to continue because it’s very important for cheese marketing. “In 1958, Sargento was the only company selling shredded cheese,” she says. “In the 1970s, we introduced shredded cheese blends. In 1986, we were the only cheese brand with resealable packaging. Today, these features are all considered standard. We need to keep raising the innovation bar!”
What sort of impact is the global recession having on the cheese market?
All three see that cheese is holding up well: “Certainly no retreat in sales; all indications are that cheese consumption is consequently on the increase,” says Van Ryan, while Gannon says: “Demand for cheese continues to be strong. What we’ve noticed is a shift away from restaurant consumption, particularly the mid-tier casual dining segment, to increased at-home consumption.”
Morelon says that, because cheese isn’t an expensive product (compared to meat, for instance), it resists the effects of recession better: “Fast food and pizza remain at high consumption levels and traditional consumption is less affected. Out of the EU, in some zones such as the Middle East and North Africa, consumption remains dynamic. In the US, growth has slowed but the trends were very positive before the recession.”
And the future?
“Much more product diversity on less ripened cheeses and increasing variety of flavourings to adapt to new uses of cheeses in different consumption moments,” says Luc Morelon.
While at Sargento: “We’re very bullish about the future.”
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