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Nordic cooperatives export traditional, new dairy items

Editor’s note: Passport to Cheese is Cheese Market News’ feature series exploring the dairy industries of nations around the world. Each month this series takes an in-depth look at various nations/regions’ dairy industries with coverage of their milk and cheese production statistics and key issues affecting them. The nations’ interplay with the United States also will be explored. This month we are pleased to introduce our latest region — Nordic countries.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — Nordic influence is present in dairy cases across the United States, from Havartis and Danish Blues to Juustoleipa and Jarlsberg, to newer introductions like Skyr and Finnish butter.

Countries such as Denmark, Norway and Finland have long-established markets for their cheeses in the United States under brands including Arla, Jarlsberg and Finlandia. These imported cheeses are made from the milk of mostly family-owned farms that are part of national or multi-national cooperatives that help to market their milk at home or abroad.

• Norwegian flavors

Tine SA (pronounced “teeneh” — a traditional Norwegian wooden container for butter and cheese), Norway’s largest producer, distributor and exporter of dairy products, is owned by more than 13,000 Norwegian dairy farmers. Its U.S. subsidiary Norseland Inc. imports and markets Jarlsberg and other cheeses to the United States.

In 2015 Norseland imported 15.5 million pounds of cheese from Norway, says Debbie Seife, general manager of marketing, Norseland. Brands include Jarlsberg cheese, Snøfrisk and Ski-Queen. Jarlsberg, a Swiss/Emmenthaler-type cheese that was developed in 1956 at the University of Agriculture in Norway, was introduced to the U.S. market in 1965. According to Norseland, Jarlsberg is America’s No. 1 selling brand of specialty cheese.

“Jarlsberg cheese has a rich history, spanning both Norway and the United States, of offering incredible cheeses to consumers,” Seife says. “Jarlsberg cheese has grown year after year as multiple generations of consumers continue to love its mild, mellow and nutty flavor.”

As Jarlsberg cheese celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2016, Seife says Norseland plans to unveil some new product introductions in the first half of this year. The company also is introducing new flavors to its Snofrisk spreadable cheese line, including Red Onion & Thyme, Horseradish, Wild Ramson Garlic, and Dill.

“All flavors are Norwegian grown and indigenous to Norway,” Seife says.

• Denmark and Sweden

Global dairy giant Arla Foods formed in 2000 when the largest Danish dairy cooperative, MD Foods, merged with Sweden’s Arla ekonomisk Förening, marking the first large cross-national merger in the Nordic dairy industry. Since then, dairies in the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg also have joined Arla Foods.

The average size of a dairy farm in Sweden is 100 cows, and the average size in Denmark is 200 cows.

“Arla has approximately 7,000 farms in Scandinavia,” says Steffen Andersen, senior vice president, Arla. “They provide high milk quality, which results in a very clean taste, not too fatty, too sweet or sour.”

Andersen notes that as in other European countries, Denmark and Sweden have their own local cheese specialties.

“When it comes to everyday consumption, yellow cheese is the cheese of choice for most consumers,” he says.

“In Denmark, we prefer Danbo (a soft, smeared cheese), only consumed and sold in Denmark. In Sweden the big cheese is Hushål, more of a Havarti-type cheese, but in Sweden the traditional hard cheeses like Greve, Präst and others are also among the favorites.”

Arla exports 3,000-4,000 metric tons of cheese to the United States each year, Andersen says, and exports have been growing with some extra development in certain categories.

“In the U.S. we are famous for Danish Blue cheese and Havarti,” he says. “Arla cheese tradition goes back more than 100 years, and we are producing a lot of different cheeses, from real artisan specialties — developed with high-profile chefs — to large scale production of Mozzarella and Cheddar.”

• Finnish innovation

Traditional cheese from Finland includes fresh soft cheeses like quark and firm baked “bread cheese” or “Juustoleipa.” Finland also makes its own versions of Emmental, Gouda and Havarti.

“We eat a lot of cheese. At breakfast with bread, and also as a snack, sometimes with bread and sometimes without. We also use it a lot in cooking,” says Emma Aer, CEO of Finlandia Cheese. “We consume about 42 pounds per capita per year in Finland for cheese, a little more than in the USA.”

Finlandia, which markets both imported and U.S.-made cheeses in the United States, is a division of Finland’s Valio Ltd. dairy cooperative. Valio is owned by about 7,000 farmers and represents about 85 percent of Finland’s milk supply.

“All of our profits go to these farmers,” Aer says. “They are small family farms, with an average size of 28 cows. They are very small compared to the U.S. Every cow has a name.”

Finlandia started its business in the late 1950s, selling cheese to New York-area delis and growing over the years to serve a variety of foodservice customers. Aer says the company is best known for its Swiss varieties as well as Havarti and Gouda. The company recently introduced imported Finnish butter to the U.S. market and also is looking to expand to more consumer-friendly packaging and table cheeses this year.

The cooperative has been producing butter since 1905, and Finlandia first introduced it to the U.S. market last November. Now that nationwide distribution has been established, Finlandia recently launched a campaign to promote the product during the holidays.

“For butter, we are also known for quality and taste. The milk is produced on small family farms. In addition, there are no additives or hormones in milk production,” Aer says. “We have been making butter for over 100 years. There is a lot of craftsmanship and skill to make exceptionally high-quality butter. The way we make it, it is richer and creamier than other butters.”

In other global markets, Valio is known for its innovations in milk products. It was the first company to introduce totally lactose-free dairy products in 2001, and Valio is the market leader in Europe for these products. Last month, the company launched Valio Kiehu, a milk drink that can be boiled without burning due to the removal of whey proteins.

“In the competitive international markets we have to offer something that the other companies don’t have. We believe our unique innovation has true export potential. We’re currently mapping interest in Asia and Central Europe for our value-added milks,” says Tuomas Salusjärvi, executive vice president, Valio.

Valio says the Northern environment, clean air and water, along with its traceable and transparent supply chain, give the company a competitive edge in international markets.

“The key ingredient of all our products is fresh Finnish milk, shown by statistics to be amongst the cleanest in the EU,” says Merja Koski-Korhonen, export director, Valio. “Backed by our unique expertise drawing from Nobel Prize-winning R&D, we produce the purest quality for even the most demanding clients.”

• Icelandic Skyr

The smallest of the Nordic countries, Iceland, is home to 300,000 people, 26,000 dairy cows and 650 dairy farms, according to the International Dairy Federation’s (IDF) World Dairy Situation 2015 report. But while its population and milk production are small compared to its neighbors, Icelanders consume a large amount of dairy products. The IDF report notes that Iceland’s annual consumption per capita is 93.4 kilograms (205.9 pounds) of milk, 5.7 kilograms (12.6 pounds) of butter and 25.8 kilograms (56.9 pounds) of cheese.

“Icelandic consumers have a greater selection of wholesome dairy products than one generally finds in some of our neighboring countries,” says Einar Sigurosson, president of MS Iceland Dairies (Mjólkursamsalan), a cooperative organization and dairy processor owned by most of Iceland’s dairy farms.

“It is no coincidence that Icelanders’ average milk consumption is 60 percent more than the European average,” Sigurosson says in a 2014 company report. “This is the result of decades of product development going hand-in-hand with committed manufacturing and targeted sales and marketing efforts.”

While only a very small percentage of Iceland’s dairy production is exported, MS Iceland has worked in recent years to increase exports of its Skyr, a traditional high-protein cultured dairy product often compared to Greek yogurt but classified as a cheese.

E&B’s Natural Way, Frederick, Maryland, distributes MS Iceland’s Skyr as well as other Icelandic products to Whole Foods Markets in select Northeast and Atlantic markets. The Skyr line currently is undergoing a rebranding and expansion.

MS Skyr has been reintroduced in U.S. stores under the name “Icelandic Provisions,” and varieties now incorporate traditional Scandinavian fruits like Strawberry/Lingonberry and Blueberry/Bilberry. A new Peach variety also has been added to the line-up.

“It’s still produced in Iceland, using the original Skyr culture that has been used for 1,000 years,” says E&B’s sales rep Lauren Gordon, who notes that other “Icelandic yogurt” products on the shelves are made in the United States.

MS Skyr from Iceland has been available for at least 10 years in the United States, but Gordon says it has become more popular particularly as tourism to Iceland has boomed in the last five years. She adds that the goal is for the product to eventually be available nationwide.

“People go there and try it, and they want it when they come back. It has caught on for sure,” she says.

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