California's cheese industry showed dramatic growth in 2001, up 9.8% to 1.643 billion pounds, according to preliminary estimates from the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

The figures contrast with news that for the first time since 1984, total US cheese production actually decreased in 2001, falling 1.2% to 8.155 billion pounds according to USDA estimates.

California became the leading milk producing state in 1993 and currently is the second largest cheese producer. Many industry experts recently have projected that California soon will pass Wisconsin in total cheese production. In 2001, Wisconsin produced 2.124 billion pounds, a 3.1% decline.

Stan G. Andre, CEO of the California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB), commented: "California currently has enough new cheese plants under construction or in the planning stages to deliver at least another 300 million pounds of cheese by the end of 2004.

"That, combined with continued increased production at existing plants, clearly indicates California will become the country's largest cheese producer within the next few years."

Cheese production in California has more than doubled since 1990 when the state produced just 702 million pounds. California currently produces one out of every 5 pounds of cheese made in the US.

Milk Production Also Hits Record

California milk production also reached a record level in 2001, increasing 3% to 33.1 billion pounds year on year. Nearly half of California's milk supply goes to cheese production; it takes 10 pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese.

California's cheese boom is not limited to the large commodity producers, reports Andre. He notes that California also is seeing strong growth in the specialty cheese category, including the high-end artisan and farmstead producers. "California now has 60 cheesemakers producing 160 varieties and styles of cheese. About half of our cheesemakers are specialty, artisan or farmstead producers," he said.

As a result of this growth, the CMAB is expanding sales of California cheese outside of the state. Since 1995, California has launched programs to introduce cheese bearing the Real California Cheese seal to consumers in Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Oregon and Washington, with additional markets planned within the coming year. In addition, several major supermarket chains and foodservice distributors are marketing California cheeses throughout the US.

The Real California Cheese seal was developed by the CMAB as a way for consumers to recognize cheese made in California with California cow's milk. Most California cheeses now carry the seal.