Cheese Industry Profile

By Malinda Geisler, content specialist, AgMRC, Iowa State University. 

For more information or specific inquiries, please contact Madeline Schultz at

Reviewed May 2012.


All traditional cheeses are made from some type of milk, whether it is from a cow, goat or sheep. In the United States, more than 300 varieties of cheese are produced, largely from cow's milk. In fact, the demand for cheese has been one of the most significant factors influencing the dairy industry. The Foreign Ag Service (FAS) forecasts that cheese production is expected to be fractionally lower due to an expected drop in milk production.  


Total U.S. cheese production in 2011, excluding cottage cheese, was 10.6 billion pounds, up 1.5 percent from 2010. Of that production, Italian-type cheese totaled 4.5 billion pounds, up 3.3 percent from the previous year, and American-type cheese totaled 4.3 billion pounds, down 0.5 percent.

Wisconsin led the nation in cheese production in 2011 with 2.6 billion pounds, accounting for 24 percent of total U.S. cheese production. Likewise, California continued to rank second, producing 2.2 billion pounds of cheese. Other top cheese-producing states include Idaho, New Mexico and New York.

In terms of international cheese production, only the European Union-27 continues to produce more cheese than the United States (FAS).


U.S. per person cheese consumption was 32.8 pounds in 2009, a slight increase from the previous year. Cheddar cheese and mozzarella cheese remain the most popular varieties of cheese. Americans typically consume 10 pounds of cheddar and 10.6 pounds of mozzarella yearly.

Overall cheese consumption continues to increase due to its versatility and adaptability to recipes, more available varieties and more women employed outside of the home. The consumer shift from at-home food preparation to purchases of partially or fully prepared foods has also benefited cheese sales.

Another contributing factor to cheese popularity in the United States has been mainstream acceptance of ethnic cooking, such as Italian and Mexican, which use substantially more cheese. The popularity of Latino foods and Hispanic cheeses is at an all-time high.

Additionally, America’s dairy producers are working with foodservice chains such as Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Applebee’s, further increasing demand for cheese. According to Dairy Management Inc., demand for traditional pizza has shifted to other segments such as submarine sandwich shops and quick-casual chains, resulting in increased demand for new types of cheese.

Internationally, Greece has the highest per person annual consumption of cheese, 82 pounds. Citizens of France and Germany also consume more cheese per year than Americans, 52 pounds and 45 pounds, respectively.

Value-added Products

Increased cheese consumption can be attributed, in part, to growth in specialty, artisanal and farmstead cheeses.

Specialty Cheese
Specialty cheese is a value-added product of high quality and limited quantity. Some of the unique qualities of this cheese include having an exotic origin, distinctive processing, extraordinary packaging or unusual use and channel of sale, with particular attention paid to natural flavor and texture profiles. Specialty cheeses may be made from all types of milk and may include flavorings, such as herbs, spices, fruits and nuts. To be regarded as a specialty cheese, annual production cannot be more than 40 million pounds.

In Wisconsin, specialty cheese production accounted for 21 percent of the state’s cheese production. In 2010, Wisconsin produced 552 million pounds of specialty cheese, an increase of 48 million pounds over 2009. Ninety of the state's 129 cheese plants process at least one type of specialty cheese.

Reasons why the specialty cheese market is growing include: more U.S. citizens traveling abroad and trying unique varieties of cheese; U.S. restaurants offering a cheese course (a time-honored European tradition); greater access to a wide variety of cheese; an increased interest in ethnic food; the overall trend of U.S. consumers desiring more variety and robust flavor in food; and education from retailers, foodservice and cheese organizations on the use of unique cheese. Successful merchandising of specialty cheese is a key factor in the growth of the retail market for specialty cheese.

Artisan or Artisanal Cheese
The word “artisan” or “artisanal” implies that a cheese is produced primarily by hand, in small batches, with particular attention paid to the tradition of the cheesemaker’s art, thus using as little mechanization as possible in the production of the cheese. These cheeses may be made from all types of milk and may include various flavorings. According to a 2010 report by Packaged Facts, the retail market for natural and specialty blended cheeses is worth $14 billion.

Farmstead Cheese
Farmstead cheese is another leading force behind the growth in traditional European-style cheese sales. Farmstead cheese is defined as an artisan cheese that is produced on a farm using only milk from the farm’s herd or flock. The milk cannot be obtained from any outside source. Farmstead cheeses may be made from all types of milk and may include various flavorings.


According to USDA, U.S. cheese exports were 224,306 metric tons (MT) in 2011 and were valued at $958 million. Top buyers were Mexico, South Korea and Japan.


U.S. imports of cheese were 142,146 MT valued at $1.07 billion. Top sources for importing cheese were Italy and France.   


Cheese, International Dairy Foods Association.

Dairy Products Annual Summary, National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), USDA.

Dairy: World Markets and Trade, Foreign Ag Service (FAS), USDA, 2009.

Food Availability, Economic Research Service (ERS), USDA, 2009.

Global Agricultural Trade System (GATS), FAS, USDA.

Livestock, Dairy & Poultry Outlook, ERS, USDA.

Natural and Specialty Blended Cheese Market Reaches $14 Billion in U.S., Packaged Facts, 2010.

Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Production, Wisconsin Office, NASS, USDA.

Profile created February 2003 and revised May 2012.