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Specialty cheese trade mission a success

olgna/iStock/Thinkstock many types of cheese
More than a dozen dairy buyers from Middle East participate in cheese-centric U.S. tour.

More than a dozen prominent dairy buyers from the Middle East are wrapping up a three-state Specialty Cheese Trade Mission for Middle East importers. The event was organized by the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC) with funding from the dairy checkoff program.

The group landed in New York City on June 22 and attended the Summer Fancy Food Show, the largest specialty food industry event in North America. From there, they spent two days in Vermont, including a visit to the headquarters of Cabot Cheese, which manages four plants in three states and employs more than 1,000 people.

The Spring Brook Farm and Spring Brook Farm Cheese operation the group visited in Vermont is tiny compared to some of the plants the group toured on the trip, but it made an impression, showing the quality and craftsmanship of artisan U.S. cheese-makers.

Spring Brook Farm Cheese comes in only three varieties, which were displayed on wooden cutting boards for sampling.

It was the moment of truth for Jalal Thamer, whose trading company, Alholool Almulemah is based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. "I think U.S. cheeses are better than the French, Belgian and even the Italian cheeses,” Thamer stated.

Thamer’s clients include Saudi hotels as well as highly rated restaurants and supermarket chains, and he said he wants all three cheeses available for his customers and their customers in Saudi Arabia.

He said he knows the cheese will be well received if the export logistics are figured out and the products are properly introduced to Saudi cheese lovers. Thamer said many don't realize that the U.S. makes cheese, but the upside potential is there.

“Our market has been dominated by French cheese, and I want to see competition," he added. "I wish this farm had more than three flavors. I would buy them all. The quality isn’t just good; the quality is excellent.”

In Wisconsin, the attendees were able to see a “360-degree view” of U.S. cheese-making through tours of cheese plants, meetings with dairy industry leaders and a mini-trade show where they met one on one with Wisconsin cheese companies.

The Wisconsin visit was coordinated by USDEC with support from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade & Consumer Protection, Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Dairy Research and other dairy organizations.

According to USDEC, the mission was part of a larger cheese strategy aimed at building awareness of and heritage for U.S. natural cheese in retail and foodservice channels. With farmer funding through the dairy checkoff program, USDEC’s efforts serve to increase awareness of U.S. cheese heritage, cheese tastes and applications among buyers, distributors, chefs, consumers and other end users around the world.

This builds sales in the added-value, non-commodity end of the market, which benefits farmers and others in the industry, USDEC said.

It also builds on industry efforts to contribute to an industry-wide initiative led by USDEC called "The Next 5%." The goal is to build U.S. dairy export volume from about 15% of U.S. milk solids to 20% while at the same time increasing value.

"We know cheese exports add value to dairy farmers' paychecks and processors' profitability," USDEC senior vice president of global cheese strategy Ross Christieson said.

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