Wisconsin milk is often used to make a wide variety of cheeses.

In 2020, the cheese-making industry suffered a rare setback as domestic sales dipped for only the second time since 1994.

The last time this happened was 2008, so, naturally, while cheese is a cornerstone of the dairy industry and the average American diet, not even cheese can simply shrug off economic recessions.

This is tied to the fact that cheese is typically a complementary purchase. Specifically, it’s a food product that’s often attached to others, like nacho cheese dip, pizza toppings or mac n’ cheese. When hard economic times hit — or entire sectors of the economy are shut down — these luxury items often get axed from the budget.

“In the industry, there are just as many winners as there are losers,” said Mike Koch, owner of a cheese operation in Maryland and vice president of the American Cheese Society. “There were those that could react to some of those shifts. They are doing okay. And then there are those who couldn’t adjust, and they’re not doing so great.”

While the industry has been unstable the last couple years and prognostications of the future remain murky, there are signs that cheese will remain the sales juggernaut its been for decades. In fact, it’s the setbacks of 2020 that illustrate just how strong the cheese industry is, both domestically and internationally.

As a general rule, cheese — spearheaded by mozzarella and cheddar by a large margin — represents a primary seller for the dairy industry at large. In a given year, the average American consumes about 12 pounds of mozzarella and just over 11 pounds of cheddar.

That’s a far cry from as recently as 1997, when Americans consumed about 8 pounds of mozzarella in a given year, or 1977, when the Italian variety amounted to 2.5 pounds per capita consumption. Where liquid milk once dominated the dairy industry, accounting for more than 70% of sales in the 1900s, it now accounts for less than 30%, and much of this can be tied to the rise of cheese as dairy’s workhorse product.

And, so far, it’s been a steady upward trend. Since 1994, sales have increased every year, like clockwork, except for recession years in 2008 and 2020.

Even then, it’s hardly catastrophic. To put it in perspective, sales dipped by 0.5% in 2008. Last year? A meager 0.1%.

It speaks to the staying power of cheese that restaurants and concession stands across the nation closed during a global pandemic, yet incurred losses barely made a dent in nationwide profit margins.

“The only reason that we didn’t see an increase in cheese consumption in 2020 was people simply didn’t get to the restaurants they wanted to get to — for all the right reasons — but it wasn’t because they turned away from dairy or eating dairy products,” said {span}John{/span}{span} Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. “What people bought in the first weeks and months of the pandemic just about covers the massive closure of restaurants. So the number nearly equaled out, but it was just a little short.”

And, contrary to what 2020 sales figures might suggest, a post-pandemic sales revival may be driving new and diversified modes of cheese consumption — it’s just that sales are more concentrated at home, versus restaurants and eateries as in decades past.

Based on tracking sales figures over the course of 24 months — from August, 2019, through August, 2021 — the pandemic did little to slow an upward swing in cheese sales. For example, in that time frame, sales of mozzarella increased by 16%.

There are also indications that artisan and niche cheese varieties may also be enjoying a post-pandemic boost just like the staple types. Strikingly, parmesan saw sales spike by 27% in that time frame.

”The data is undeniable that when you’re seeing sales increases of 27%. This is grocery store scanner data. It’s just impeccable data,” Umhoefer said. “It’s clear they have found a new buying habit. And perhaps they found a few dishes that they made at home that they hadn’t made before because they’re doing more cooking at home.”

So why is cheese enjoying such a golden age?

First, it should be noted that federal government aid to dairy producers heavily benefited cheese producers during the pandemic, Umhoefer said, which may account for some recent fluctuations.

A healthy uptick in dairy exports can also be credited. Just thirty years ago, the United States had virtually no dairy exports. Now, about 15% of all dairy sales are shipped abroad and non-Americans like their cheese just as much as the folks stateside.

In a long-term sense, much of cheese’s popularity can be attributed to cultural changes, Umhoefer and Koch noted. Where many children in the ‘50s and ‘60s were accustomed to a glass of milk at every meal, that just isn’t the case for most families these days.

Now, people’s spending habits and tastes reflect a diverse, more cosmopolitan world, Umhoefer and Koch noted. Younger consumers are more likely to seek non-traditional dishes that often incorporate cheese, or they’re more willing to spend money on artisan cheeses than their grandparents.

At the end of the day, there’s grades of milk from skim to whole, or different flavors like chocolate and strawberry that can be added, but milk is milk. Cheese offers thousands upon thousands of varieties to fit every taste palette and every occasion. Cheese is a product perfectly crafted to cater niche interests, much like wine. And this, Koch said, is reflected in sales figures.

There are also more negative factors to consider. Reported rates of lactic allergies and food intolerance have been steadily increasing from year to year in recent decades, Koch said, which may drive people to eat more cheese than straight milk for their dairy needs.

All these things considered, the cheese-making industry has good reason for optimism during a time of great uncertainty. And it’s not just cheese sales that support this perspective, Umhoefer said, it’s how producers responded to the upheaval of 2020.

”We’re optimistic,” Umhoefer said. “Despite this pandemic and despite the economic downturn, the industry held largely intact. On the farm side and on the dairy processing side and on that cheesemaker side, the industry communicated really well. Those relationships are continuing.”

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