When the export market for Italian Parmesan collapsed due to the recession earlier this year, the Italian government stepped in to buy up large volumes of maturing stock, leaving more aged varieties harder to source now, said Chris Chisnall, sales and marketing director at cheese distributor Bradbury & Son.
"They sold off stock that would now be 18 to 30 months old, when it was 12 months old," he said, adding that the UK market was particularly exposed to the shortages because retailers tended to stock Italian Parmesan with a slightly older age profile. Although Parmesan was still available, importers were having to pay a lot more for it, he said.
Italian output had declined as poor returns turned farmers away from Parmesan production, confirmed a spokesman for the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano. "The stocks of Parmigiano-Reggiano wheels are decreasing," he said. "The reduction of the wheels produced is linked to the low price paid to the producers."
Prices were already beginning to rise, added Mike Mills, general manager of Parmesan importer Castelli UK. However, although 24-month aged product was becoming more difficult to source, there was still plenty of 12-to-24-month-old product around, he claimed.
Mozzarella is following a similar trend. "There are huge price rises on the cards for buffalo mozzarella," said Chisnall, pointing out that block mozzarella was now more expensive than mild Cheddar.
Importer Paxton & Whitfield also said it had noticed problems in the supply chain following the slump in Italian mozzarella production in 2007 and 2008. At that time, water buffalo herds in Naples, Italy's biggest mozzarella production area, became infected with brucellosis. Tens of thousands of water buffalo were slaughtered as a result.