Why are we asking this now?
According to research published over the weekend by DairyCo, a body representing milk producers in Britain, the proportion of cheddar on sale in British supermarkets that comes from overseas is growing sharply. Over the first six months of this year, we imported thirteen-and-a-half more tons of foreign cheddar than last year. Far more cheddar is produced in Britain than is imported from overseas, but the shrinking gap between the two is an indication of a changing marketplace for the world's most popular cheese. Those feeling nostalgic about the quintessentially English origins of cheddar, and those who stand to lose money from its being sourced from overseas, have greeted the news with concern.
But isn't all cheddar from... Cheddar?
That view is widely held but wrong. Cheddar is, in fact, a generic name and so, unlike some cheeses produced in parts of Europe or Asia, it can be produced anywhere. It originated in Somerset around the late 12th century, from the Gorge or caves in the town of Cheddar that were used to store the cheese. The humidity and constant temperature of the caves made it ideal for maturation.
The accounts of Henry II, then King of England, show that in 1170 he bought 10,240lbs (4.6 tons) for a farthing a pound. His son, Prince John, regularly ordered cheddar for royal banquets. Much later, Charles I (who reigned from 1625 to 1642), pre-ordered cheddar from Cheddar before it was even made. Today, in one form or another, cheddar is almost certainly the most widely consumed cheese in the world, according to the British Cheese Board, an industry body.
It is not, however, the most pungent. Cheddar, which is sold in varying degrees of maturity, cannot compete with the Stinking Bishop, made by Charles Martell of Martell and Son in Gloucestershire, which was crowned champion of Britain's Smelliest Cheese competition in May.
How much of our cheddar is foreign?
Between January and June of this year, Britain imported 62,003 tons of cheddar from abroad. That compares with 48,633 tons of cheddar in the same period last year. British cheddar still dominates the market, with around 258,000 tons produced in the UK last year.
The amount of foreign cheddar consumed is accentuated by a legal loophole that means even cheddar labelled "packaged in Britain" may not be a British product at all. In fact, it is likely to have been imported from southern Ireland but given a "British" credit if wrapped in Britain.
Where is British cheddar made today?
The domestic market in Britain may be struggling, but it is doing so from a strong base. Fourteen different makers based in the West Country are licensed to use the EU Protected Designation of Origin "West Country Farmhouse Cheddar". It has to be made on a farm in Devon, Cornwall, Dorset, or Somerset, the British Cheese Board says, and from locally produced milk and using traditional cheddar-making techniques.
Other, bigger dairies across Britain also produce cheddar, of course. Many supermarkets have realised there is added value in telling customers which creamery or farm any particular cheddar was made in. That's why packaging increasingly boasts of names such as Taw Valley, Aspatria and Davidstow. Popular brands, meanwhile, include Seriously Strong, Pilgrims Choice, and Cathedral City.
Why is our domestic market struggling?
One of the most immediate effects of globalisation is that it makes products from overseas available to a wider market. Supermarkets believe there are two merits to the imported cheese they sell. First, in some instances, they taste better, and are therefore easy to promote as a brand. And second, they can be imported cheaply, and thereby boost profit margins.
The other factor behind the relative decline of British cheddar relates to the plight of dairy farmers in Britain today. They have had an extremely difficult few years. The Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF) says that the number of dairy farmers has halved in the past 10 years to the current figure of 17,060. Farmers are quitting their careers and leaving the industry at the rate of 14 every week. Why? Mostly, it's because of the price of milk.
What's it got to do with the price of milk?
Global milk prices reached record highs in 2007, super-charged by a surge in demand in Asia. But since the global downturn set in, a collapse in demand has meant the price of milk has fallen prey to severe deflation. Last October, British farmers could claim 27.3p per litre of milk, a 13-year high. Today, that has fallen to 22.5p per litre. The fall is sudden and sharp and, when combined with the rising cost of energy and cattle feed, unbearable for many farmers.
The British dairy market is therefore contracting. Whereas two years ago it produced 14 billion litres of milk (the maximum allowed by the EU), this year only 12.5 billion litres will be produced. So: shrinking margins are leading to a shrinking sector, unable to generate profits on milk, and therefore unable to compete with foreign competitors when producing cheddar. It takes 10 litres of milk to produce a single kilogram of cheese, so a fall in milk production is potentially fatal to cheese makers.
Lyndon Edwards, the chairman of RABDF, yesterday told The Independent: "The price hike in 2007 was sharp but short-lived. For nine of the past 10 years, British dairy farmers have been selling milk at a loss."
Could this spill over?
It already has, so to speak, albeit in mainland Europe. In southern Belgium last week, farmers irate with the state of their dairy industry dumped an entire day's worth of production. Three hundred tractors dragged milk containers over fields, not long after similar protests had erupted in the Netherlands, France, Luxembourg and Germany. The RABDF said yesterday that such protests are a long way off happening in Britain, but tensions among dairy farmers are growing daily. There is the added problem of working out who will replenish the workforce on Britain's dairy farms, where the average farmer is 49 and the average herdsman is 42.
What's being done to stop the rot?
The RABDF wants supermarkets to source more milk and dairy products from within Britain, and the Government to pass legislation forcing this if necessary. Several big chains have shown an interest in being more positive toward the British dairy industry, but they cannot be relied upon to source produce from within Britain if there are greater profits to be made from foreign cheddars. And the RABDF also wants to end the practice whereby non-British cheddar has a UK stamp on it. "Closing the packaging loophole could go a long way", Edwards said yesterday. "People may very often be deceived into buying something they think is British when it is not."
How about other cheeses?
The cheddar market has been much more strongly affected, according to the RABDF, than that of other cheeses. Imports of foreign specialities such as brie, camembert, and roquefort have remained stable for many years. It's only foreign cheddars whose imports have risen dramatically. That's because cheddar constitutes the biggest sector of our cheese market.
Is the British cheddar market facing terminal decline?
*The sudden, sharp drop in the price of milk means dairy farmers face another year of difficulty
*Problems around the rest of Europe erupted into protests last week and don't bode well for the UK
*The average age of British dairy farmers is 49 and there is no sign of a younger generation to replace them
*As the global economy picks up demand from Asia may rise, and with it hopes of turning a profit on milk
*There are enough farms around Britain still producing popular cheddar to give hope to farmers
*New legislation – especially on packaging – could help direct consumers towards British cheddar
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies