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Cheese of the Month - May 2016

Feta’s popularity, new uses growing within the industry

Editor’s note: “Cheese of the Month” is Cheese Market News’ exclusive profile series exploring various cheese types. Each month, CMN highlights a different cheese in this feature, giving our readers a comprehensive look at production, marketing, sales and in-depth aspects of each profiled cheese type. Please read on to learn about this month’s featured cheese: Feta.

By Chelsey Dequaine

MADISON, Wis. — With an increase on menus and in households in recent years, Feta has proved itself to be more than just a salad topping.

On U.S. restaurant menus, Feta is most frequently featured on pizzas, salads and sandwiches. Feta also can be found enhancing breakfast/egg dishes, burgers and pastas. Menu mentions of Feta are up 17 percent over the last five years per Technomic Inc., a research and consulting firm servicing the food and foodservice industry.

Feta was first made in Greece in the 17th century from sheep’s or goat’s milk, according to Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB).

Cheesemakers refer to Feta as “pickled” after formation because it is packed in brine, which produces a tart, salty flavor and gives the cheese a crumbly, moist texture. The brine preserves the cheese six months longer than most fresh cheeses.

Feta’s appearance is chalky and white. Plain and flavored Feta, such as tomato, basil, black pepper, garlic, herbs and dill, is available in a variety of formats, including chunks in tubs and pails, random-weight pieces and crumbles.

Wisconsin produces more Feta than any other state. According to USDA, the United States produced 112.5 million pounds of Feta in 2015 (a 6.5-percent increase from 2014), of which Wisconsin produced 86.8 million pounds.

Volume sales of fixed-weight Feta in retail and convenience outlets reached 27.4 million pounds, up 3.4 percent compared to the prior year (during the latest 52 weeks ending March 20), according to Information Resources Inc. (IRI) data courtesy of Dairy Management Inc. Ninety-one percent of sales on a pound basis are plain/unflavored Feta, showing a growth of 4.5 percent over the past year.

About 9 percent of Feta sales on a pound basis are flavored, such as sweet, savory and spicy. The flavored segment fell 5.8 percent over the past year. About 18 percent of all U.S. households purchase Feta, according to IRI.

Upper-income households are the predominant buyers of Feta, accounting for 61 percent of Feta sales on a pound basis, according to demographic data for fixed-weight Feta sales.

Retail volume sales of Feta have risen 3.4 percent over the last year (latest 52 weeks ending April 17 per IRI). Three-quarters of Feta sold at retail is in crumbled form, while one-quarter of retail Feta volume is sold in chunk form.

In 2002, the European Commission adopted a proposal for a council regulation on the registration of the Greek “Feta” cheese as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) produced with sheep’s milk and up to 30 percent goat’s milk. According to the adopted proposal, “Feta” cheese only can be produced in certain areas of Greece and respecting strict product specifications. Producers in other member states or not respecting these specifications will be given a maximum 5-year transitional period to change the name or to stop production.

“Overall, imported Feta sales declined in the U.S. when the PDO rule was implemented because other European Feta were not allowed anymore,” says Dominique Delugeau, president of Cheese Importers Association of America and vice president of sales and marketing at Saputo Specialty Cheese.

“But since then, sheep’s milk Feta being imported from Greece has been increasing regularly.”

Mark Johnson, assistant director, Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, says there is no standard of identification for Feta in the United States, only those set by a company for its own quality control. In the Code of Federal Regulations, Feta only is included in the information that pertains to all cheeses about allowed ingredients, i.e. what Feta can be made with.

Delugeau says Greek imported PDO Feta is a niche that will continue to grow but as a small percentage of the total Feta market in the United States due to its higher price and lower availability.

Imported Feta packaging trends include more size options, such as smaller retail units. Delugeau says most of the Feta being imported from Greece previously only was sold in large bulk sizes.

In flavored varieties, Delugeau says imported Feta in olive oil or with herbs has been popular, along with barrel-aged Feta, a Feta aged in wood barrels for 3-4 months that offers a more pronounced, oaky flavor.

“Barrel-aged Feta has always been around, but it’s something the domestic market in Greece would enjoy, and now we see this more in the United States,” he says. “Once you create a consumer demand and an awareness of the product, you slowly but surely raise the bar.”

Delugeau says the Cheese Importers Association of America continues to educate consumers on ways to use imported Feta. Saputo Specialty Cheese shares recipes of its imported line, Greek Isle Feta, on social media.

Klondike Cheese Co., Monroe, Wisconsin, produced 23 million pounds of cow’s milk Feta last year for its Odyssey brand Feta, showing consecutive growth every year since 1988 when the product was launched.

“Feta brings a lot of flavor in a small amount,” says Luke Buholzer, vice president of sales, Klondike Cheese. “You don’t need a lot. That’s good from a health standpoint and because it allows for the cheese to be inexpensive.”

Klondike Cheese is focusing on meeting consumers’ needs with Feta. Instead of only offering foodservice sizes of Feta packed in brine, the company now offers it in 8- and 16-ounce size offerings at retail.

“That seems to have more of a consumer acceptance,” Buholzer says.

Buholzer predicts the category will continue to grow and shed misconceptions such as being categorized amongst foods pregnant women shouldn’t eat.

“In the past, we saw people didn’t really know what Feta was,” he says. “It seemed to have an unclean mystique about it. It has shed most of that.”

Buholzer says introducing consumers to additional uses of Feta continues to be a challenge. Klondike Cheese shares recipes of Feta dishes on its website.

“While Feta is doing a decent job expanding outside of salads, we need to show consumers what else you can do with it,” he says.

Sierra Nevada Cheese Co., Willows, California, introduced its goat’s milk Bella Capra Feta in 2009.

Meghan Rodgers, sales and marketing, Sierra Nevada, says the company has seen significant growth in the cheese within the last year.

“There’s aren’t a lot of domestically made goat Fetas out there,” Rodgers says. “Using goat’s or sheep’s milk is the traditional way of making Feta. As people taste it, they appreciate it more.”

Sierra Nevada sources its goat’s milk from a dairy two miles away, and the milk is used the same day. The company also offers a sheep-goat Feta with 70 percent sheep’s milk and 30 percent goat’s milk.

“Also with goat’s milk, there is a lot more flavor that is not present in cow’s milk because it has the natural enzyme that breaks down the fat,” says Ben Gregersen, owner, Sierra Nevada.

The company is discussing the idea of offering flavored Feta varieties, but Gregersen says not everyone may be ready for that flavor within the brine.

The biggest trend Rodgers sees in the category is Feta crumbles.

“We have noticed a demand for our Feta in foodservice,” she says. “Chefs enjoy using it because of the crumble.”

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