Dick Groves
Editor, Cheese Reporter


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The US Imports What, From Where?

US dairy import statistics offer an almost endless array of interesting information. And frankly, some of the numbers leave us scratching our head.

This hasn’t always been the case, necessarily. Half a century ago, for example, the US was importing only about $65 million worth of cheese annually, and that cheese was coming from less than three dozen countries.
But just during the first half of this year, the US imported over $500 million worth of cheese, and those cheese imports came from over 60 different countries.

Obviously there are some familiar countries that were exporting cheese to the US 50 years and continue to export cheese to the US today. For example, of the top 10 sources of US cheese imports on a value basis back in 1967, seven countries were also among the top 10 sources of US cheese imports on a value basis during the first half of 2017, including Italy, Denmark, New Zealand, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands and Germany.

Of the three countries that dropped out of the top 10, Finland still ranks 15th as a source of US cheese imports (again, on a value basis), while Austria ranks 24th and Argentina ranks 27th.

In addition to the sheer number of countries exporting cheese to the US being greater now than half a century ago, there are also some pretty intriguing names on the list of current sources of US cheese imports.

For example, the US imported $68,000 worth of cheese from Russia during the first six months of this year. Granted, that’s not a lot of cheese, but it does raise at least one question.

That is, if Russia has banned the import of dairy products from the US, why in the world is the US still importing cheese (or any other dairy product, for that matter) from Russia? This ban has now been in place for three years, and Russian President Vladimir Putin recently signed a decree extending Russia’s ban on the import of agricultural products from the countries that applied economic sanctions against Russia, including the US, until the end of 2018.

And prior to that ban being implemented, Russia had effectively banned the importation of US dairy products since September 2010, when Rosselkhoznadzor (Russia’s Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance) instructed customs officials to allow shipments only from exporters on Rosselkhoznadzor-approved lists, according to the Office of the US Trade Representative’s annual 2017 National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers, which was released earlier this year.

In fairness, it should be noted that the US is still exporting some dairy products to Russia; more specifically, during the first half of this year, the US exported over $1 million worth of whey protein concentrate to Russia, along with small amounts of cheese, lactose and ice cream. But it still seems kind of odd, given the state of relations between the two countries, that the US is importing a little bit of cheese, along with small amounts of other dairy products, from Russia here in 2017.

Meanwhile, during the first half of 2017, the leading suppliers of non-cheese US dairy imports, on a value basis, were, in order, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada, the Netherlands and Mexico. The first four of those countries make a lot of sense; all are major dairy producers and all but Canada are major dairy exporters.

But Mexico is actually one of the world’s leading dairy importers, so that country’s appearance near the top of the list of US dairy import sources is interesting, so say the least.

And this issue was touched upon recently by Tom Vilsack, president and CEO of the US Dairy Export Council and former US secretary of agriculture. In testimony last month at a House Ag Committee hearing on the North America Free Trade Agreement, one of the topics Vilsack addressed was dairy rules of origin (ROO).

The driving goal in NAFTA dairy-specific ROO with Mexico for most dairy products was to seek to ensure that high dairy-content products traded under the agreement were being produced from milk from the exporting country,
Vilsack pointed out. So, for example, Mexico “should not be able to import concentrated butterfat from outside the NAFTA region, add sugar or cocoa to it, and sell it into the US as a food preparation.”

Vilsack continued: “It is important to ensure that Mexico is not a platform for other major dairy exporters to ship butterfat simply as a conduit to inappropriately access the US market. Based on customs rulings and trade data with Mexico and New Zealand this is a reasonable cause for concern.”

With Vilsack’s comments in mind, it’s interesting to note, for example, the US imports of one category of food preparations from Mexico (HTS 210690400) have increased from less than 200,000 pounds in 2012 to about 4.7 million pounds last year.

It’s also interesting to note that Mexico has in recent years become a leading source of US anhydrous milkfat imports. More specifically, US imports of AMF from Mexico rose from about 1.4 million pounds in 2012 to 22.1 million pounds last year (although US imports of AMF from Mexico during the first half of this year were down 56 percent from the first half of last year).

US import statistics half a century weren’t necessarily all that interesting because, first of all, US dairy imports weren’t all that huge and second, because the sources of those imports were far more limited back then.

Today, the US imports an incredible array of dairy products from a very large number of countries, and at least some of those imports raise some interesting questions.

Cheese Reporter welcomes letters to the editor. Comments should be sent to: Dick Groves by Fax at (608) 246-8431; or e-mail your comments to
dgroves @cheesereporter.com.


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