British cheese producers are increasingly looking outside the UK for the next phase of growth.

The volume of cheese exported is still relatively small 70,384 tonnes left the UK between January and August this year compared with 280,318 tonnes coming in from abroad [Defra] but there is a clear upward trend. In the first eight months of 2010, exports were up 10.8% on the same period last year, driven by Cheddar (up 15% to 22,611 tonnes) and 'other cheeses' (up 15% to 46,636 tonnes).

"There is no doubt that exports are an expanding opportunity," says Dairy UK director general Jim Begg. Whereas exports used to be driven largely by the demands of ex-pat communities, many overseas markets are now developing their own appetite for UK-produced cheese.

The US is one such example. Tuxford & Tebutt, a Stilton producer within the Milk Link co-operative, recently announced it was increasing exports to the US, while fellow Stilton specialist Long Clawson has already established a strong US export business. Increased demand for dairy in Asia is an oft-cited example of where opportunities might lie but, for the time being, most British cheese ends up in the European Union.

This is where producers should focus their efforts in the near term, believes Kevin Bellamy, dairy consulting director at Zenith International. Too few British cheeses are available in French supermarkets, he says. Spain, Portugal and Belgium also show potential.

The challenge lies in building a reliable and secure export business. Red tape, particularly when dealing with markets outside of the EU, can still present obstacles to export-hungry businesses. But, as pressure from imports into the UK mounts, few producers will allow that to put them off in the long run. After all, says Richard Clothier of Wyke Farms, "the UK isn't necessarily going to be the biggest market going forward."

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