Perceived health benefits very important to consumers of farmstead and specialty cheeses

Staff report

DAVIS, Calfornia: A survey of California specialty cheese consumers by Barbara Reed and Christine Bruhn of the University of California/Davis found that perceived health benefits were the number one reason consumers gave for choosing premium-priced specialty cheese.

Fifty-three percent of the survey participants rated “Buying foods that have potential health benefits” as very important, and 41% said it was important.

Primary concerns of these participants was whether or not antibiotics or hormones had been used in the milk and whether or not the milk came from grazed pasture.

Thirty-eight percent said they sought out raw milk cheeses versus 17% who said they avoided them. Forty-five percent said they didn’t care whether the milk was raw or pasturized.

Aged hard cheese was the favorite cheese and was purchased by 98% of the consumers surveyed.

In a test of printed case-card statements, ranked by propensity to buy was a statement stating that the cheese was from raw-milk. Other claims which increased propensity to buy were “grazed on organic pastures” and that the cheese was from a “small family farm in Northern California.”

The specialty cheese consumers said they did not respond to packaging but to taste testing and the enthusiasm of the retailer for a certain cheese.

The consumers listed the “narrative” or background story about the cheesemaker and the details of its production as very important and part of the fun of buying a specialty cheese. They said they would often buy a cheese just on the strength of the story.

The consumers most liked narratives that evoked European images of stone cottages and rolling green pastures. They said they would really like to meet the cheesemaker in person and be able to ask specific questions about his production protocols.

This desire to meet and be able to talk to a real farmer was the highest in the state’s most urban areas.

Specialty cheeses range from in price from $6 to $30 a pound and in 2003 made up three percent of California’s cheese production.

Reed and Bruhn said the California artisan cheese industry is still in its infancy but has plenty of room to grow.

They said they expected it to grow similar to the way the California wine industry did by creating products on a small scale that are equal in quality to the best European categories.

Complete details of this survey appeared in the September 2003 issue of California Agriculture.

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