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South Korea Now a Major Importer of U.S. Cheese

21:39PM Dec 04, 2014

A growing taste for pizza has helped the Asian nation become the second-largest export market for U.S.-produced cheese.

The Republic of Korea, also known as South Korea, is home to about 60 million people, many of whom are acquiring a taste for cheese, particularly U.S. cheese. Due mainly to the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, U.S. consumers are increasingly becoming familiar with Korean made goods like Samsung and Hyundai, while at the same time, Koreans are acquiring a taste for U.S.-made mozzarella.

"It is fairly well known that Mexico is the United States’ largest export market for cheese. What is less known is that South Korea has evolved to become the second largest export market for U.S.-produced cheese,” says Mary Ledman, dairy economist with the Daily Dairy Report and president of Keough Ledman Associates Inc., Libertyville, Ill.

“A decade ago, South Korea imported less than 10 million pounds of cheese and ranked fourth in the hierarchy of export destinations for U.S. cheese,” notes Ledman. “At that time, Mexico imported 47 million pounds of cheese, followed by Japan and Canada.”

Total U.S. cheese exports in 2004 were close to 135 million pounds. During the first nine months of this year, the United States exported 640 million pounds of cheese, nearly 135 million pounds more than last year and nearly five times as much as in 2004. Since 2009, U.S. cheese exports to South Korea have increased four-fold to 108.5 million pounds in 2013. From January through September 2014, cheese exports to South Korea have surpassed 122 million pounds and now account for 19 percent of all U.S. cheese exports.

“Two-thirds of South Korea’s cheese imports from the United States are in the fresh cheese category, which includes mozzarella and cream cheese,” notes Ledman. “Mozzarella is sold primarily as a pizza topping and accounts for 59 percent of the volume of natural cheese sales in South Korea.”

While pizza cheese is making a splash with South Koreans, cheddar cheese sales are still in their infancy. For the first nine months of 2014, South Korea imported 13.7 million pounds of cheddar cheese from the United States, up 135 percent from 2013.

South Korean cheese production is only a small share of the country’s total cheese consumption. In 2013, South Korea produced 22,389 metric tons of cheese, or 1 percent less cheese than in 2012, according to USDA. At the same time, total cheese imports increased 10 percent to 85,069 metric tons and consumption rose 8 percent above the previous year. Most major cheese manufacturers in Korea produce several types of unprocessed soft cheeses, which are eaten along with wine as a dessert. They are also trying to introduce new value-added products, including soft slices for kids and a squeezable product to use in cooking.

With cheese consumption rising rapidly in South Korea, imports should at least keep pace if not surpass demand growth into the foreseeable future, says Ledman. And that is good news for the U.S. dairy industry.


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