$1 billion cheese export mark a long-term effort

U.S. cheese exports grew nearly 16% in 2012, breaking the $1 billion mark for the first time. This was no fluke or temporary spike in sales. This was a milestone more than a decade in the making, according to the U.S. Dairy Export Council’s (USDEC) May 2013 Export Profile.

“Global demand growth driven by emerging market economic expansion, urbanization, population growth, and retail and foodservice chain modernization set the stage for cheese exports,” said Angélique Hollister, USDEC vice president, cheese and consumer products. USDEC, primarily funded by the dairy checkoff, leads overseas marketing development on behalf of the U.S. dairy industry. 

“Taking advantage of that opportunity required long-term investment and a shift in mindset by the entire U.S. industry,” she explained. “The results have been remarkable.” 

U.S. cheese export growth over the past 15 years can be roughly broken into two periods. 


1996-2005: Laying the groundwork 

USDEC’s early cheese efforts focused on determining what markets offered the best growth opportunities, studying those markets, building awareness of value-added U.S. cheese and helping U.S. suppliers gain distribution. From the mid-1990s, the organization began providing basic cheese educational materials to overseas buyers and conducting retail sampling programs, foodservice menu promotions, menu development assistance and technical seminars. 

Extensive market research, including USDEC’s Cheese Sourcebooks and the Cheese Exporters Guide “Keys to…” series, helped U.S. suppliers identify opportunities and understand the requirements of overseas markets, like flavor, texture and packaging preferences. 

Key in those early years and still today were efforts to build relationships between U.S. suppliers and foreign buyers and end users. USDEC fostered a presence at international trade exhibitions and sponsored trade missions that brought U.S. suppliers face-to-face with overseas buyers and planted the seeds for growth. 

During this early period, U.S. cheese exports grew, but did so haltingly, as USDEC and U.S. suppliers learned about the markets and the customers. Volume increased 78 percent from 32,497 tons in 1996 to 57,760 tons in 2005. 


2006-2012: Seeing sales take off 

Much of the core USDEC programs from 1996-2005 remained in place for the following period but drilled down into markets to extend gains made in the previous years. Joint USDEC/industry efforts helped grow export business for bulk-format gouda, string cheese, American Originals and other varieties. Progressively stronger showings at global cheese competitions cast a quality halo over all U.S. cheese products, significantly building the U.S. reputation as a top-level cheese supplier. 

The PACRIM pizza program, begun under the auspices of Dairy Management Inc. and transferred to USDEC in 2010, helped U.S. cheese suppliers grab a larger share of overseas pizza chain business. Years of trade servicing, menu development assistance, technical consultations, workshops and promotions, helped pave the way for U.S. suppliers to secure major contracts at top chain restaurants, many times displacing competitors’ products. 

“U.S. cheese suppliers stepped up, providing the products and demonstrating newfound commitment to global markets, and USDEC helped grease the wheels of progress,” said Hollister. 

At the same time, non-tariff barriers to trade proliferated. USDEC trade policy and market access and regulatory affairs staff dealt with far-ranging threats to U.S. success, from resolving a myriad of export certificate changes to USDEC’s staunch and ongoing defense of common cheese names. 

All activities took place in front of a backdrop of a series of free trade negotiations in which USDEC, representing the U.S. industry, sought to reduce access barriers. 

U.S. cheese exports blossomed from 2005-2012, jumping from 57,760 tons to 260,034 tons. 

“The efforts built one upon another, gathering momentum along the way,” said Hollister. “And as U.S. cheese suppliers continue their commitment to export markets, $2 billion is certainly on the road ahead.”