(last updated July 2019)
What has been happening in the cheese making industry
It has been estimated that a century ago there were several thousand independent cheese makers in the UK. After the second world war, the number fell to fewer than 150, but in recent years numbers have increased again and there are currently thought to be several hundred cheese makers in the UK. Since the 1980s there has been a growing interest in speciality cheeses and a corresponding increase in demand as shoppers have searched out tastier alternatives to blocks of bland, factory-processed products. There are now more than 700 unique varieties of speciality cheese produced in the UK.
There has been a revival of traditional cheese making to meet demand. This revival has also been encouraged by farm businesses diversifying (often in order to survive). A cheesemaking enterprise is an ideal way to expand the business and grants are often available for diversification projects. Of course, the big dairy processors and supermarkets haven't ignored this trend and have brought out their own products to meet demand.
Recent food scares (and worries about GM food) have made many people far more aware of the origin, quality and safety of the food they eat. This has led to strong demand for fresh wholesome food and particularly organic produce. Customers are also keen to meet the people who produce their food and many are eager to show their support for local businesses. Similarly, concerns about 'food miles', the environment and animal welfare have encouraged people to buy locally produced and welfare-friendly food. And celebrity chefs and 'foodie' writers are constantly emphasising the quality of specialist locally-sourced products made by small artisan producers. Speciality cheesemakers are ideally placed to take advantage of this growing market and many established producers have seen an increase in demand over the last few years.
After the financial crisis in 2008 the economy was very weak. This continued for several years until 2013 saw something of an improvement. The recovery continued throughout 2014 and into the first half of 2015 before slowing again during the second half of the year and into 2016. The vote in June 2016 to leave the EU led to a great deal of economic uncertainty. The economy stagnated during 2016, 2017 and 2018 and consumer expenditure fell. It is forecast to remain low during 2019 due to inflation and the economic uncertainty during the Brexit negotiations. It is likely that expenditure on non-essentials will be reduced, although in times of austerity people do like to treat themselves to nice things from time to time.
EU rules for protecting against animal disease and pests in the food chain ('Smarter rules for safer food package') entered into force in 2017. There will be a five year implementation period, during which the detailed rules will be developed and then made into law. The new rules will apply in April 2021. Since the UK remains a member of the EU until negotiations for leaving are complete, the new rules will apply to UK manufacturers.
Following the vote to leave the EU the government announced in October 2016 the launch of the Food Innovation Network to help entrepreneurs in the food and drink industry to develop new products, improve prospects for growth and enhance the reputation of the UK as a world-class food industry. The Network will provide them with access to expert advice, new technology and facilities, including test kitchens and laboratories, to help them produce food and drink, devise new packaging and deal with waste management. Advice, including advice on developing new technology and protecting their intellectual property, will be available online.
New marketing opportunities
In recent years, regular farmers' markets have emerged in many areas as an additional outlet for many small cheese making businesses. The first farmers' market started in 1997, but there are now several hundred, which reflects the huge increase in public demand for fresh, high quality food. Markets are usually held on a weekly or monthly basis and the emphasis is on quality and freshness. At these markets, local growers and producers sell their own goods directly to the public - everything sold should have been produced by the stallholder. Taking a stall at a local farmers' market may be a good way to make sales and raise awareness of your products.
Other new marketing opportunities include vegetable and deli box schemes, which like farmers' markets have really taken off over the last few years. Boxes of fresh, seasonal vegetables are delivered directly to customers' doors, usually every week or fortnight. Some schemes now offer boxes that include dairy products and may be a potential source of custom for cheese makers.
Meanwhile, the internet and e-commerce have enabled cheese makers to advertise and sell their goods directly to a much wider audience.
Food labelling and other regulations
New food labelling regulations were introduced at the end of 2014 affecting all food businesses, including cheese manufacturers. The regulations include a requirement to emphasise any of 14 listed allergens on the label if they have been used as ingredients in a pre-packaged food. This can be done by listing them in bold or italics, or by highlighting or underlining them. You can read about the labelling provisions for allergens on the Food Standards Agency website.
The introduction of specific rules covering the composition and labelling of cheese products was delayed for four years to allow the industry and the government enough time to consider how best to implement the changes. A Code of Practice, drawn up by Dairy UK was published in December 2018 designed to protect consumers while giving producers greater flexibility over what can be labelled as cheese (for example products with a lower fat content). The Code of Practice on compositional standards for UK named variety cheeses, permits the variety name to be used for cheeses which have a modified composition so long as the name is qualified by other words describing the modification. You can read the Code of Practice on the Dairy UK website.
In late 2014 the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme in Wales, under which food businesses are required by law to display their most recent food hygiene rating score, was extended to apply to businesses like food manufacturers.
New nutrition labelling provisions became mandatory from December 2016 and apply to the majority of pre-packaged food. Under these provisions, you must declare energy values and the amounts of fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt. You're exempt from the provisions if you are a manufacturer of small quantities of products which you supply directly to the final consumer or to local retail establishments directly supplying the final consumer.
You can read about the scope of the nutrition labelling provisions and the exemptions that apply to manufacturers supplying small quantities to the final consumer on the Gov.uk website.
Keeping up to date with the cheese making sector
Joining a trade association is an excellent way of keeping up with developments in your industry.
The Specialist Cheesemakers Association represents cheese makers in the UK. They represent the interests of their members to the government and the media, promote their members' products and offer help and advice to their members on many issues.
The British Cheese Board promotes cheese in the UK and its members account for the majority of the cheese produced in the UK.
The Guild of Fine Food focuses mainly on speciality food retailers, but includes a producer membership category and is active in helping specialist food producers to market their products.
Visit their websites for further information.
You can get a lot of useful information by visiting a trade show for the food sector. You will be able to meet manufacturers, suppliers and importers and potential customers. Information about forthcoming trade shows can be found on the exhibitions website.