Twenty years ago this week, a new dairy organization announced its formation. The Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute was born January 1, 1994, when Wisconsin made 8 million pounds of feta cheese and not quite 4 million pounds of Asiago.
What a difference a couple of decades, and a shared vision, can make.
Today, the Wisconsin and US specialty cheese industry and its cousins in the artisanal cheese industry are celebrated worldwide. The phenomenal growth of American specialties has spurred Europe to intensify its interest in geographic indicators for cheese names and has invited close scrutiny from US food regulators. Success is never easy.
As 1994 dawned, the dairy industry was working its way through new nutrition labeling requirements from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the controversy over the use of recombinant bovine somatotropin in milk was about to flare into an FDA guidance and labeling legislation in Wisconsin and Vermont.
“Dozens of manufacturers in Wisconsin produce the nation’s finest specialty cheeses,” this WCMA column wrote on January 7, 1994. “These manufacturers foresee strong growth for high quality, natural cheeses that appeal to America’s love of the finest foods, and their excitement over new tastes and exotic dishes.” Mission accomplished.
In 2012, Wisconsin produced 77 million pounds of feta cheese and 31 million pounds of Asiago. And alongside these successes, literally hundreds of new cheeses, new cheese flavors and new takes on traditional cheeses have been invented and thrived in America’s
At the same time, farmstead and small, artisanal cheesemakers have boomed across the US. At this time, successful goat cheese maker LaClare Farms has opened its dairy operation, cheesemaking facility and retail outlet in Pipe, WI, and Holland’s Family Cheese is completing its all-new farm and cheese factory in Thorp, WI, to produce award-winning Marieke Gouda.
Emmi Roth’s new, state-of-the-art cheese facility in Platteville, WI, will satisfy America’s demand for a cheese style that this column would call “gruyere” if the Swiss owners of Emmi Roth hadn’t objected to its American subsidiary using the geographically-protected term “gruyere.”
The Emmi decision to retain the cheese name “gruyere” for its European operations (the Emmi Roth plants in Wisconsin make the branded cheese Grand Cru) illustrates Europe’s growing interest in protecting cheese names.
Most directly, European protection of cheese names such as feta and parmesan and gorgonzola within the European Union (EU) means that US specialty cheese makers cannot market cheeses with these common names in Europe.
Of equal or greater concern, however, is EU free trade agreements with other nations, where these cheese name protections are being codified into law in other global markets.
The Consortium for Common Food Names, the Washington DC organization that works to resist this over-reach on food name protection, recently wrote: “Costa Rica’s government last month conceded to the EU as part of its free trade agreement that all non-EU cheese producers could no longer use the names parmesan or provolone on their cheeses. Colombia has made a similar decision with respect to parmesan. El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama have all approved restrictions on fontina and gorgonzola, among other names, in their free trade agreements with the EU.”
Clearly, the international stature of American cheese makers and their success in global cheese judging competitions has caught the attention of European cheese makers.
And the food safety angle has FDA’s attention. According to National Cheese Institute, FDA intends to execute a product sampling program for aged raw milk specialty cheeses made from cow, goat and sheep’s milk in 2014.
The agency has focused on soft-ripened raw milk cheeses in previous reports and pathogenic outbreaks in Canada and the US have regulators clearly focused on the raw milk portion of the specialty cheese industry.
Product quality and safety have always been paramount for Wisconsin’s cheese industry, reflected in the WSCI’s original structure which included a cheese quality committee.
It’s tempting to predict the growth and issues specialty and artisan cheese makers will face 20 years from now, in 2034, when cheese newspaper headlines will describe the impacts of lunar gravity on Swiss cheese eye formation and Steve Krause’s decision to definitely retire from Tosca Ltd.
Wisconsin production of specialty cheeses stands at more than 600 million pounds now or 22 percent of Wisconsin’s total cheese production. It is realistic, with growing consumer interest in world food tastes and new food experiences, to predict that this production could double in 20 years.
Many factors impact the future of specialty cheese in Wisconsin and the US, from sustainable growth in the milk supply to the safe production and handling of these special products. But the vision of the founders of the Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute was sharp, and Wisconsin’s spirit of working together toward a common goal, remains strong. JU
John Umhoefer has served as executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association since 1992. You can phone John at (608) 828-4550; Fax him at (608) 828-4551; or e-mail John Umhoefer at
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