Cheese Industry Makes a Difference

Cheese Industry Makes a Difference

Coast to coast, cheese producers step up during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a heartwarming show of support for the country and Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic, artisan cheesemakers and importers throughout the nation have stepped up in a myriad of ways.

Small business is the life blood of food source sustainability. If a small producer suffers a calamity, other small businesses can pick up the slack. Food survival is a symbiotic relationship between the small producer and local support.

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A Pandemic’s Impact on Imports

Coming to terms with the effect of COVID-19
on cheese imports to the U.S.

It’s difficult to find a historical parallel for the COVID-19 outbreak and its dramatic, wide-ranging impact on the cheese import industry.

Adam Moskowitz, owner of Larkin Cold Storage in Long Island, NY, offers the possibilities of World War I, World War II and the Spanish Flu because of their comparable global ramifications, but it takes returning to the first half of the 20th century to find episodes worthy of discussion—a time when the cheese importing industry looked much different.

Philip Marfuggi, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Cheese Importers Association of America, says the pandemic simply represents unchartered territory.

“There have been segments of business, impacted by strikes, value of the dollar, tariffs, oil prices, supply issues and bacteria outbreaks that we have faced, but this COVID-19 outbreak totally encompasses all aspects of business and life as we know it,” Marfuggi says.

He adds that the pandemic’s emergence began to be felt on cheese imports in the United States as early as February 2020. By March, the entire U.S. economy had been thrown into turmoil—cheese imports right along with it. Marfuggi says the initial impact of the pandemic included canceled orders and the loss of sales related to the closing of restaurants and lodging facilities. And cheese that was more perishable became “a liability at the retail level.”

Compensating & Adapting

Many retailers shut down their cut-and-wrap programs, increasing the demand for prepackaged, exact weight and random weight cheeses, while reducing the demand in bulk orders, as consumers and stores practiced social distancing. Importers couldn’t sell some perishable cheeses even at reduced prices and were forced to destroy some product.

“COVID-19 has certainly made its mark,” says Lassa Skinner, who oversees a new branch of Switzerland Cheese Marketing in the U.S. “It is too early to really understand the monetary impact, but because all tastings, cutting to order and even customer handling of pre-packed cheeses has been stopped at the retail level, sales have certainly slowed.”

Moskowitz says cut-to-order cheese is “in dire jeopardy now,” and he worries the short-term problems in that area will lead to long-term challenges.

“The labor shortage coupled with there being a concern about COVID-19 has made everything around cut to order just tighten up,” Moskowitz says. “Everything’s being wrapped right now; the demand is for pre-packs or nothing. And I wonder how that will play out long-term. Are we not going to see cut-to-order cheese shops anymore? Are we going to see it in a modified form? What is that going to look like?”

The supply chain’s abrupt unpredictability also immediately created a host of issues for importers. Moskowitz says freight costs increased on April 1 because of an equipment imbalance surcharge tied to reduced freight moving from Asia and a subsequent decline in available empty containers to ship goods.

“So not only is there an increased cost per container, but you have to work rather diligently to actually even be able to get the containers that you want to put cheese in,” Moskowitz says.

He also has seen freight delays related to a slowdown at the ports ranging from a few days up to a week.

“Freight delays have been a very big deal,” he says.

Moskowitz adds the disappearance of catering to offices and parties has been a blow to both independent and chain retailers who depend on that revenue source for their business models. Food distributors who worked with restaurants are among those most directly and hardest hit by the crisis.

“They lost 90 percent of their business overnight,” Moskowitz says. “These are companies that have been around for years, if not decades, and they have built up this business and then in a matter of a couple of weeks, they’ve literally lost all their business.”

Because the distributors ceased to buy cheese, among other products, for their restaurant clients, importers instantly felt the blow as orders stopped and distributors struggled to pay the bills they owed.

“A lot of cheese is bought weeks in advance based on what we’ll call advance orders or just general buying patterns,” Moskowitz says. “And so a bunch of importers were buying under the impression that they would be selling what they normally sell. Now their customers just disappeared. Yet that product is still coming in, and they still own that product. So there’s a scramble in terms of, ‘what do I do with all this product that I have now?’”

Meanwhile, Marfuggi says one of the most important tasks importers face is attempting to keep employees on the payroll in the face of “lost sales, lost customers, bad debts and lost profit.” And they have been attempting to accomplish that while ensuring the safety of employees and transitioning some in office staff to remote working.

But there is a bright spot. Moskowitz says cheese professionals were already following strict hygiene practices that have made them prepared to manage food safety efforts tied to the pandemic.

“Many of us in the industry have already been practicing deep cleaning, sanitation, using gloves, etc.,” Moskowitz says. “I think we were ready for this in terms of how to conduct ourselves in the workplace.”

Searching for a Recovery

According to Marfuggi, the unpredictability of the outbreak and its eventual resolution makes forecasting and planning for the future particularly difficult and complicates decision-making. Purchasing is a challenge, as it becomes more difficult to maintain inventory with lead times ranging from five to eight weeks to bring in product from overseas, he says.

“The impact will be felt for some time,” Marfuggi says. “I do not think the restaurant, hotel and foodservice sector will respond favorably when this outbreak subsides. I feel that companies in whatever business they are in will cut back on travel and entertainment as well as the general public, and that does not bode well for the hospitality trade. The retail sector I feel will bounce back much quicker, but I do think the trend will be towards more pre-packaged product.”

Marfuggi says it is too early to project when a recovery could even begin for the imported cheese industry, as this depends on a range of factors tied to COVID-19, including the availability of a vaccine.

“At the present time, with what little we know about this virus, along with the cancellation and postponement of all trade shows, sporting events, concerts, live broadcasts, no travel, etc., the world is shut down. Some parts are just opening up but with face masks, restrictions, etc.—it is very difficult to be optimistic for the near future,” Marfuggi says. “But I do feel when we actually are 100 percent certain of the cause and start by eliminating how and where this started, find a suitable treatment and develop a vaccine, we will as a world or nation come back strong. But it will be a while.”

Part of the challenge in envisioning a pandemic recovery is the many players around the world in cheese importing and the ways they are closely linked. The fate of one company can send ripples around the world.

“This is global, right?” Moskowitz says. “This is having an effect not just on us but on the producers and exporters in foreign countries. Everyone is going through something similar.”

In general, Moskowitz says, it’s difficult to anticipate what the new normal in the imported cheese industry will be.

Marfuggi similarly wonders what a recovery will look like. Will customers continue to buy specialty cheeses? Will there be fewer consumers with the funds to buy imported cheeses?

Skinner says importers will need to be innovative in the challenging climate.

“We are looking toward creative ways to introduce our cheeses to buyers at all levels, both digitally and through partnerships,” Skinner says.

According to Marfuggi, it will be crucial for cheese importers to stick together through the difficulties.

“It is a time where all cheese importers can help make a difference by keeping your employees safe and working wherever possible to ensure a safe product for the consumer,” Marfuggi says “And even though we are all competitors, sometimes even customers of each other, we should try and help each other where we can.”

Skinner says the appeal of specialty cheeses will not dim, even as these obstacles emerge.

“COVID-19 will leave its mark on the consumer in ways we don’t even understand yet, but it doesn’t stop people from wanting to eat well and indulge in specialty cheeses,” Skinner says.

And, in fact, if there’s a glimmer of optimism to be found amdist the chaos; Moskowitz says it has been clear that people continue to find comfort in food, even in the toughest of times. “Those in the cheese business are a resilient and positive community,” Moskowitz says. “And cheese has been a staple food for humanity for thousands of years. Cheese brings pleasure. With cheese, your meal feels better. So, if there’s a silver lining, hopefully this will inspire people to slow down and spend more time with family and enjoy their meals a bit more. I’m hoping that we all learn what’s most important in our lives and look to spend more time on that. And a great, great way for that to happen is over some cheese.”

A LOOK INTO THE CHEESE MANY LOVE

A LOOK INTO THE CHEESE MANY LOVE

Soft-ripened Brie is flavorful and a favorite.

According to legend, French Emperor Charlemagne tasted his first bite of Brie in the eighth century at a monastery in Reuil-en-Brie and fell instantly in love with its milky flavor and luscious texture. The king’s favorite—and sometimes called the king of cheese—Brie has become a widely and deeply beloved cheese sought after and enjoyed around the world. It’s often a gateway to more obscure artisanal cheeses; it’s a cheese nearly impossible not to love.

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The Better the Butter

The Better the Butter

French butter’s higher butter fat lends to its unique flavor characteristics.

Do the French really do butter better? For those looking at the amount of butterfat, this may be the case, as it’s the acidity and the butterfat content that is the biggest distinction between French and American butters.

The most obvious technical difference is the amount of butterfat in each. By law, American butter must contain at least 80 percent butterfat; the minimum for French is higher at 82 percent. For salted, it is slightly less for the French version, as 80 percent is permitted, with 2 percent salt.

Although a paltry 2 percent may not seem like much, as anyone in the dairy industry will tell you, minute variables make all the difference in the flavor And it should be noted that higher butterfat is not synonymous with ‘better’, as you can still find incredibly bland butters with high butterfat content.

Butter is my favorite type of fat. Fat gets many a negative connotation and is blamed for health issues and obesity; however, is fat really a bad thing? If animal protein and fat consumption characterize a longstanding commonality between a number of different cultures, can it really be so bad for you?

There is a short and a long answer to this. My short answer is that butter is great, and I don’t care nor want to know if it is bad for me as I love it too much. A more mature answer, however, is that it really does all depend on your personal genetic makeup. Too much of anything is never ideal and moderation is key, yet certain people are almost immune to natural saturated fats affecting their LDL cholesterol, whereas others are more susceptible to dietary changes.

How is Butter Made?

In theory, butter is a very simple invention. To make butter, you are essentially altering the state of cream (milk fat) to turn it into a solid entity. In the simplest sense, you can make butter by shaking a jar half filled with cream until it starts to separate into little yellow bits of a substance already resembling butter and a milky liquid. In theory, it is as easy as this. You will be able to separate those two elements, salt, knead and shape the solids, and there you have it. You can then use the remaining buttermilk for a variety of different recipes. However, there are, as with cheesemaking, minute variables that make all the difference between a regular butter and an exceptional butter.

Cultured vs Sweet Cream

For a long time, prior to refrigeration and industrial production, cultured butter was the main, if not the only, style of butter in the world. Cultured butter is the natural result of letting raw milk rest, the cream rising organically to the surface and being skimmed off to make butter. There are partnerships in cheese, such as factories that produce both butter and cheeses like Emmental, which are made with skimmed milk. So what makes it cultured? In this instance, when the raw milk is resting, lactic acid bacteria that exists naturally in dairy environments penetrates the cream and, in turn, ‘cultures’ it.

You can make cultured butter from pasteurized cream also, however, as the ambient microflora has been killed off during pasteurization, you need to add this back in to ripened cream. A further stage is commonly used, but not essential, known as tempering. Tempered creams are characteristically smoother in texture, as the tempering agitates and moves the crystallisation in the fat molecules. These days, for larger production, cream is forcedly separated out from the milk by centrifuge and, in most cases, pasteurized.

Sweet butter is made from butter that is fresh and sweet tasting, hence the name. It is uncultured, not tart and not aged, resulting in a light, uncomplicated flavor that doesn’t involve much thinking.

Salted vs Unsalted Butter

Salted butter is typically smooth in texture with no prevalent salt crystals. Butter judges in the past would, in fact, count any crystallisation or granular textures as a fault. This has now changed, and a new wave of ‘crunchy, crystally’ salt is now very popular and a whole category of its own.

Sea salt is generally used for French butters available in the U.S. In cooking and baking, unsalted butter is generally used, whereas salted butter is more commonly used as a table butter.

Grass-fed Butter

The natural color of butter depends on the amount of ‘green’ feed in the animal’s diet (this being grass, silage, alfalfa, etc.) The green color from these feeds translates into a deeper yellow hue in the butter, which comes from the beta carotene in the plants themselves. Spring grass is more tender and easier for the animals to break down, so you will see a richer golden color. Towards the latter part of the season in late summer, the tougher grass is harder to break down digestively, resulting in a paler butter.

Annatto is an ingredient that doesn’t have to be stated on labels, so it is sometimes hard to distinguish imitations from the real deal. Knowing the source of the butter is always the most reliable way of determining whether it is truly grass fed or not. Cows only need to have grazed on pasture for a bare minimum to be called ‘grass fed’ butter with the rest being supplemented with grain and other fodder.

There are many French butter brands available in the U.S. Here is an extensive, but not finite, list for you to look out for.

Beurre D’Echiré PDO

Beurre D’Echiré is from the Deux Sevres in Poitou-Charentes, Western France. The Coopérative laitière de la Sévre is made up of 120 goat and cow farms. All the milk is collected from within a 18-mile radius of their two sites: the butter dairy at Echiré and the cheese factory at Celles-sur-Belle.

Beurre D’Echiré has a flavor of crème fraîche acidities and whole cream. It has a good spreadability and slow melt, which epitomises the differences between French and American butters. Beurre d’Echiré uses a minimum of 84 percent butterfat in the same style as it was over 100 years ago. It is so reflective of its terroir that it holds an appellation status, as does Isigny. The region is made of predominantly Jurassic limestone earth, covered by red clay silts, which encourages the growth of crops such as alfalfa, which in turn contribute to food self-sufficiency for farmers as well as being essential for high-quality milk.

Isigny PDO

Isigny Butters are from Normandy in Northern France from the Cotentin peninsular to the Bessin area. Like Beurre D’Echiré, the terroir is a vital part of its flavor and complexity. The region has a warm, temperate climate by the sea and the pastures for grazing are packed with salts and minerals, which come through in the final product. It is matured slowly in “the old-fashioned way”, allowing the cream to develop its full flavor and organoleptic qualities. The cream, along with its lactic cultures, rests for up to 18 hours, before being churned, stirred, rinsed and salted. Isigny Camembert is also very special, and a lot of this is owing to the lush, Norman marshlands imparting mineral and seaside flavors into the cheese.

President

President butter is a larger scale producer owned by Lactalis. Its butter and cheeses are sold internationally throughout 160 different countries, and it has been in existence for over 50 years. Made in France from cultured cream, it uses milk from grass-fed cows in a region known for its rich soil and lush pastures. It has a distinctive, pleasant tang and slight nuttiness in flavor.

Rodolphe le Meunier

Rodolpe le Meunier, a Meilleur Ouvrier de France since 2007, is known for his cheeses as well as butter. The grandson of a goat farmer and cheesemaker, he was destined to join the dairy world. Based in La-Croix-en-Touraine the Loire, his cultured butters are made using milk from specially selected farms around France. His butter or ‘beurre de baratte’ is made in a wooden butter churn using pasteurized cream, then hand molded in a traditional method.

Butter is essential to many recipes including baking, Viennoisserie and sauces. It is found in abundance in French cooking, adding to its style and richesse. Making your own sauces at home gives a completely different flavor profile compared to store bought, and once you have mastered it, you will never look back.

The Intricacies of Prosciutto di San Daniele

The Intricacies of Prosciutto di San Daniele

This specialty from northern Italy has characteristics all its own.

Where prosciutto is concerned, region plays a big part in the dry cured ham’s characteristics and flavor. Prosciutto di San Daniele, which comes from the northern Italian region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, has a melt-in-your-mouth texture, rich flavor, just the right level of saltiness and versatility that make it a wonderful addition to a variety of dishes—or perfect paired with a slice of cheese and nothing else.

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Online Opportunities

Online Opportunities

The opportunities and challenges of the specialty cheese e-commerce market.

Dorothy’s Cheese has partisans across the United States who can purchase its Comeback Cow and Keep Dreaming cheeses at a variety of stores where the brands are available. Sometimes, however, the stores aren’t within driving distance of potential customers, so convenience is an issue. For that reason, those cheeses are also available online. Sebastien Lehembre, senior brand manager for New Holland, PA-based Savencia Cheese USA, which produces Dorothy’s cheeses, says e-commerce is not a profit center for the brand, but the company felt it was important to offer the cheeses to an online audience as a way of being “consumer centric.”

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