Cheese continues to appeal to consumers. But a shift in eating habits has changed the way it is consumed. Consumer profiles are becoming more diverse: they are looking for advice and are more interested in the history of the products than previously.
The challenge for professionals is to be able to cater for these new needs, and to accompany - and sometimes trigger - the change in habits. Innovation is fundamental to the industry, both in the training on offer and in the products on sale.
The professionals themselves follow more unusual paths. They are expected to have diverse skills, which they can acquire through innovative training.
Changing consumer expectations
What do consumers expect from food?
The CNIEL, Centre National Interprofessionnel de l'Économie Laitière (National Interprofessional Centre for the Dairy Economy), produced a panorama of consumer expectations at the beginning of 2022.
Apart from taste, which is the main criterion for choosing a cheese or a dairy product, 7 main purchase criteria were identified:
- Price, all the more important given the current crisis and strains on household budgets: 40% of French people say that they cut back at the end of the month.
- Hygiene aspects of the products consumed, a criterion that is underscored by the health crisis.
- Pleasure: cheese is consumed out of love of the product, but also in order to share that pleasure. The Covid-19 crisis has boosted the growth of cheese-based cuisine.
- Health: food should be healthy, simple, natural and provide well-being and immunity.
- Simplicity: things that make life easier, such as products that are simple to cut up and eat.
- Product origin: the country, but also the producer.
- Product composition: we want it to be as simple as possible, without preservatives, additives or colouring. Consumers are looking for quality, labels and organic products.
3 criteria are emerging, to do with animals and climate impact, and they should be taken into account by professionals in the sector:
- Less consumption of animal-based foods: "Flexitarians", who have reduced their meat consumption, represent about 30% of the population.
- The climate issue contributes to French consumers' choices: they are looking for guarantees on ecological production methods as well as organic products. Consumers are concerned about production methods and question the animals' living conditions.
- Increased farming: consumers are asking what a farm is today, how many animals it has and how it works.
Are dairy products future product?
What emerges from the study conducted by the CNIEL is that consumers are looking to give meaning to their food. These questions also exist abroad: seasonality of products, animal welfare and particular attention to the producers’ remuneration and living conditions.
Younger people in particular are questioning their buying patterns and looking to buy less and better.
The Covid-19 crisis has accelerated the growth of local purchasing and the choice of short circuits. Although this trend seems to be slowing down as business resumes, the choice of local products remains fundamental for the future consumption of cheese and dairy products.
Behind the sustainable aspect of local consumption, the French origin of dairy products promotes jobs at a national level and strengthens regional economies - thus reinforcing the attractiveness of French territories.
Cheese and dairy products enjoy an excellent image: their consumer appreciation scores are very high. They convey an image of heritage, authenticity, know-how, sharing and above all pleasure.
French cheeses have an upmarket image, and French and international consumers have high expectations in terms of their quality and taste. Consumers are more demanding, more interested in the history of the product and the way it was produced.
Over the past decade, cheese consumption habits have changed. The traditional end-of-meal consumption is in decline: it has dropped from 80% to 50% of all cheese consumption.
It is now also used in main courses, as an ingredient in dishes and cooking. Consumption of cheese with an aperitif has even increased by 69% in 10 years.
New uses are emerging, and consumer profiles are becoming increasingly diverse. Cheese has a fine image, but it must continue to appeal to a diverse audience by telling a strong story.
What innovations are coming on to the market to meet consumer expectations?
Innovation is ongoing in the world of dairy products. Mintel, the innovation research firm, keeps an eye on global trends. In particular, it monitors the way in which manufacturers adapt cheese production to consumer expectations, so as to modernise it and bring it into the 21st century.
The research firm revealed that 8637 new cheeses arrived on the market in 2021. The Covid-19 crisis has therefore not slowed down cheese innovation, 56% of which is taking place in Europe. France is the second most innovative market, after the United States and ahead of Germany.
New uses for cheese
The innovations reflect changing consumer habits. In France, 20% of new cheeses are spreadable: easy to eat, they are often ingredients in ready-made meals.
During the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns, we started to enjoy cooking again. This relaxing and comforting activity restored cheese's status as a comfort food.
Cheese is also visually satisfying: it can now be seen in many TikTok or Instagram recipes. Social networks keep the consumer experience alive, and the final visual result of recipes or cheese boards plays a role in consumer choice.
Manufacturers are encouraged to create products that are suitable for this kind of format, but also for new, more informal uses.
Consumers are looking for different and innovative experiences, but cheese remains a relatively expensive product. This explains why small, affordable treats are appearing on the markets: sweet cheeses, or fresh cheeses for snacks.
Consumers are concerned about health and the environment
The current debate on healthy snacking but also on proteins is pushing manufacturers to innovate. Some flexitarian consumers want to reduce their meat consumption, without losing the nutritional benefits of meat-based products.
The nutritional aspect is increasingly important: cheeses with probiotics are being promoted, and the list of ingredients is kept to a minimum.
Vegan cheeses are appearing on the market. The big brands are launching these variants under their parent brand, a sign that the product is marketable. Milk proteins developed in laboratories are also gaining ground: a number of launches have taken place in supermarkets in the United States.
The environmental aspect is becoming increasingly important. Traditionally, communication on dairy products was focused on know-how. In recent years, the message has shifted up the value chain, highlighting the farming practices that made it possible to collect the milk. Products' water and carbon footprints are being questioned.
Environmental concerns are leading to initiatives to do with packaging. Although consumers are concerned about the state of the planet, it is through the packaging - and its environmental credentials - that they judge the brands' commitment.
In Europe, 10% of new cheeses are organic, generally more environmentally friendly and packaged in line with environmental standards.
In summary, 2021 was a turning point for cheese. It is now considered comfort food, healthy and affordable. For professionals, it is essential to continue to attract consumers by adapting to their expectations and their communication methods (especially social networks).
We must continue to work on the environmental imperative: brands must become more committed on the subject and take tangible steps to reduce their footprint on the health of the planet if they are to continue to convince generation Z. From farm to fork: the consumer expects the whole story.
Changes in cheese professions and related training
Do the new consumer expectations have an impact on the cheesemonger trades?
Consumer profiles are diversifying and their expectations are changing, but so are the professionals in the industry. 75% of cheesemongers are in the profession as a result of retraining. They are getting younger and their level of education is higher.
Cheesemongers work in this business because they love the products, because dairy products have a history. Everyone is looking for meaning and new values.
Young people are attracted to this profession, as it allows them to be self-employed. Questions about living, working and pay conditions are important for the younger generation.
The cheesemonger's job has two aspects: selling products and finding good products, and knowing the local terroir and producers. Selling this living product means being part of the history and geography of France.
Consumers are increasingly keen to hear about the history. The traditional shop trades, which were dying out barely 20 years ago, are coming back to life because people want to learn more about the products they consume.
The consumption of dairy products has to do with their price, but also the notion of pleasure. Cheesemongers have an exceptional role to play by showcasing local products and enabling consumers to find the products that will give them the pleasure they are looking for.
Have the needs of the profession changed over time, and have training courses adapted to those changing needs?
The training courses have moved with the changing trends. Long-term vocational courses in the agricultural sector are available as well as training courses lasting just a few days on specific topics that lead to a certificate or qualification.
The ENIL network is an organisation that promotes vocational training in the dairy industry.
It reports a double evolution: adapting to the evolution of the cheesemonger profession, as well as to the evolution of cheese-making technology. Plant-based products are trending, for example: professionals are learning to talk about them, they are learning about plant proteins, and they are adapting to the changing context.
Teaching methods have changed significantly. Classes are now often delivered via distance learning, and the training courses are a mix of remote and face-to-face. The training solutions are highly individualised.
The aim of these almost bespoke training courses is to give project stakeholders the best help possible. They need to be properly trained to help them set up their business and guide them through opening their shop.
The ENILs provide WEBALIM, an agri-food e-learning platform. The modules’ teaching content has been redesigned to adapt to the needs of learners in the trade and in the food industry.
Previously, the modules had a mainly industrial focus, but the professionals were keen to get closer to the terroir. New modules on dairy or farm processing have been developed, with a module dedicated to each manufacturing technology and to safety hygiene in farm food processing.
The e-learning courses, aimed at people who are undergoing vocational retraining, range from CAP level to a professional baccalaureate. Someone who is not from the agri-food industry can learn all the basics of chemistry or microbiology, for example.
E-learning, because it is available 24/7 on smartphones, tablets and computers, removes a lot of the barriers in terms of access to training. A professional can therefore retrain by following a distance learning course in his or her spare time.
For technical professions, 100% distance learning is not possible. The course can therefore be tailored: depending on the learner's basic level, the course is structured remotely and the technical aspects are covered in person.
When we talk about dairy products, we are talking about products that have a living history. This history is passed on through the professions that work with these products. The training modules are evolving to provide more video content, with more human and regional history. Trade professionals speak, presenting their trades and their techniques.
The aim is to give the distance learner the impression of being there, in the workshop. A virtual reality experience allows learners to find out about a production site, to prepare themselves for the gestures involved, and to get a glimpse of their future workplace.
What are the employment opportunities?
There are veritable dairy business careers, rather than ‘just jobs’ on offer. They are mainly in the countryside, or in towns with populations of under 15,000. But the industry has global image issues: knowledge of these professions is limited.
It is essential to promote the professions, the new products, and the careers that are involved in these new products.
The cheese and dairy products sector is hiring, but we still need to work on making our professions more attractive. There is a concern about generational renewal, especially among milk producers. The new generations must tackle the inevitable ecological transition.
The industry's training courses enable ongoing career development, and complementary training to address a new branch of the industry. Learners can start with dairy training and then move on to sales and trade.
There are many different professions: the choice is not just between cheesemonger or cheesemaker!
*The conference included presentations by Noëlle Paolo, Director of Studies at the CNED, and Caroline Roux, a cheese expert with Mintel, who specialises in innovation and follows new product launches around the world. It continued with a round table discussion on the impact of these innovations on cheese-making professions and training with Claude Marais, President of the Fédération des Fromagers de France (French cheesemongers federation), Thierry Michelet, ENIL coordinator, and Sophie Cauvin, ENIL digital manager.