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Dairy Marketing

Dairy research centers fueling renaissance of U.S. cheese

Bill Graves

Bill Graves is senior vice president, product research and food safety at Dairy Management Inc. He contributes this column for Cheese Market News®.

About 1.6 billion pounds of specialty cheese is produced annually in the United States.

Just about every pound of it has been impacted in some way by the National Dairy Foods Research Center network.

The program, which receives funding from U.S. dairy farmers through their checkoff, processors and manufacturers, has been in place for 32 years. It encompasses six regionally based centers that each have affiliations with a network of universities across the United States. The centers collaborate with farmer-founded organizations National Dairy Council, Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and U.S. Dairy Export Council.

I have had the honor of working with this network for the last 10 years, and I have seen the impact the network has made on dairy companies, including those that produce specialty cheese. It’s no coincidence that many of them are making a mark on the global stage. Look no further than the annual World Cheese Awards that were held earlier this month. American cheesemakers earned 131 medals, including 17 gold, 40 silver and 67 bronze. And, for the first time ever, a U.S. cheese — Rogue Creamery’s Rogue River Blue — took home the title of World Champion, beating more than 3,800 entries from 42 countries.

This is another breakthrough moment for U.S. cheesemakers. I liken this movement to a turning point that U.S. winemakers experienced in 1976 when a California winery participated in a blind taste test alongside French wines. If this was football, we’d say underdog California pulled off the unthinkable upset in an event known as the “Judgment of Paris.”

The world’s perception of U.S.-produced wine changed, and we are seeing the same for our country’s specialty cheeses.

• Nationwide network

This recent success has given me an opportunity to pause and celebrate those who work behind the scenes in the dairy research centers who lend their daily expertise and resources to U.S. cheesemakers.

There are six centers:

• Midwest: South Dakota State University, University of Minnesota, Iowa State University, Kansas State University, University of Missouri and University of Nebraska.

• California: Cal Poly State University

• Northeast: Cornell University

• Southeast: North Carolina State University

• Western: Utah State University, Brigham Young University, Oregon State University, Texas A&M, University of Idaho, Weber State University and Washington State University

• Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin-Madison

These centers include 130 technical experts who work with a daily purpose of helping dairy companies — including specialty cheesemakers — hone their crafts. Their support ranges from helping a newcomer understand the basics of cheesemaking chemistry to working with an established company that seeks more tricks of the trade from a master cheesemaker.

Having these resources, expertise and training, and giving it a real-world application, is what ultimately helps companies be their best. The network assists with product ideation and formulation through short courses and training as well as solving defects or helping a manufacturer make cheese that meets consumers’ needs. And staff members always are available for follow-up and technical support.

Over the years, the centers have solved industrywide challenges, such as finding solutions to extending shelf life by applying high-pressure processing or improved cooling techniques so that more cheese can be exported. Other highlights include eliminating calcium lactate crystals from cheddar so consumers don’t mistake them for mold, and improving the stretch and melting qualities of mozzarella to meet the demands of pizza makers around the world.

The centers also are a conduit to bringing international cheesemakers to the United States to share their insights.

• In global conversation to stay

The research centers also provide expertise on how to avoid pitfalls, namely food safety issues. They support food safety outreach in many ways, including through the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, an organization that convenes dairy’s value chain to address common challenges and opportunities. The goal is to adopt a pre-competitive mindset and focus on the greater good for the entire industry, regardless of a company’s size.

The ability to produce high quality and innovative dairy products that maintain consumer confidence not only here but abroad cannot be overstated. The No. 1 mission of the U.S. Dairy Export Council is to find new global markets for domestic production of dairy. The recognition that comes from contests such as the World Cheese Awards further creates a halo effect of quality and safety that will cause international customers to look at U.S. cheeses in a brighter light.

It is my belief that all of this behind-the-scenes work from the research centers will keep U.S. cheese in the global conversation and that even better days are ahead. The perception that U.S. cheese is a mass commodity wrapped in cellophane has been proven false. The research centers have helped change the narrative.

All you have to do is look at the results to see how.

CMN

The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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