A major UK cheese exporter has raised doubts over Food Minister Jim Paice’s plans to invest in cheese processing to boost exports.

Stephen Jones, managing director of Somerdale, a firm specialising in British cheese exports, blasted previous cuts in government support and believed supermarket domination meant any future investments in cheese production would be in vain.

Supermarket sweep

“So many dairy farmers are out of business from supermarkets that squeeze the market – they just cannot afford to produce milk,” Jones told DairyReporter.com.

“Compared to the Italians and other European countries the UK gets very little support.”

The Somerdale chief called for greater government investment in overseas trade shows and private companies, but remained sceptical of governmental support for a matter that was “not a sexy issue”.

Jones criticised cuts to Food from Britain, the government backed body that supported national food and drink exporters, which closed in March 2009.

“Due to supermarkets squeezing out the competition, it is very difficult for the government to do anything,” he added.

Industry body Dairy UK said cheese exports in 2009 amounted to a record 104,000 tonnes, up from 86,000 tonnes the year before. Director general Jim Begg said: It is important that government does its best to nurture this important part of the economy.”

In its recently published ‘Dairy Manifesto’ the organisation called on the new government to play a supportive role in the industry’s development. Among its five key government actions was to ensure that competition policy allows UK dairy companies to compete at the global scale.

An industry view

Wyke Farms managing director Rich Clothier felt that cheese producers were not getting enough help in the right areas. He told DairyReporter.com that more marketing support was needed from government to build awareness of UK cheeses. Removing some of the red tape should also be a priority, he added, “interpretation of legislation in the UK with regard to exports can be over zealous & therefore costly.”

In spite of a perceived lack of governmental support, Wyke Farms said it plans to expand exports in the next year and build upon its £500k per month exports which make up approximately 10% of total sales by targeting new regions such as the Far East, Australasia and the US.

Minister’s Milk Day pledge

UK Food Minister Jim Paice said in the build up to today’s World Milk Day that the government needed to do more to help the dairy industry invest in processing.

“We now need to help the dairy industry invest in processing, so that we can become a net exporter of all dairy products and send Britain’s iconic cheeses and other dairy products to the world,” said Paice.

“We produce milk at highly competitive prices, but the gap between liquid milk and milk for processing is too wide,” he added.

The Minister hoped the UK would become a net exporter of all dairy products and bring Britain’s 700 variety of cheeses to the world.

The UK imports £2.3bn dairy products a years, but exports just £900m.

Food and drink exports grew in value by 4.4 per cent to £9.65bn as a whole in 2009, according to research by the Food and Drink Federation (FDF). The study concluded that cheese was the UK’s sixth top export in 2009, worth 282.6m, but grew only 0.5 per cent on the previous year.