Dairies sound appeal as Stilton cheese sales drop by 30 per cent
A 30 per cent drop in sales of Stilton cheese during the coronavirus pandemic has prompted producers to appeal to the public to buy more of it to help them cope with the major economic hit on their industry.
Demand for the blue cheese - one of the flagship products which has established Melton’s reputation as the nations’s rural capital of food - has decreased significantly since restaurants, pubs and shops were closed to limit the spread of the virus.
Production has reduced as a consequence and because of the need for dairies to practice social distancing to keep employees safe.
And cheesemakers have called on shoppers to buy Stilton rather than cheese made by continental competitors to help them ride out the current challenges to their businesses.
Ashley Reek, managing director at Long Clawson Dairy, one of the largest producers of Stilton, told the Melton Times: “This is a challenging time for us because about 25 per cent of our business is sales to the food sector and around 20 per cent is exports.
“A huge amount of Stilton was being sold to restaurants, pubs and delicatessens, which are now closed and likely to remain so for several months.
“Even when they do open, they will have to observe social distancing which will limit their abilities to trade as they have done before all this.
“The key thing for us and the other producers is that consumers continue to eat Stilton and that they buy it instead of cheeses from Europe.”
The dairy, which employs 400 staff, has furloughed around 15 people, where the government pays up to 80 per cent of wages, although this is mainly due to them having underlying conditions which put them at greater risk of contracting Covid-19.
The business is working to support the 41 local dairy farms which supply it with milk and which have also seen their industry depressed by the lockdown restrictions.
Mr Reek said: “We have reduced production over the last eight weeks although that was partly to make sure we had social distancing protections in place.
“We are also managing our intake of milk during this difficult period.
“We are trying to plan for when the food sector will be up and running again and we have to make stock about 12 weeks advance to be able to supply these businesses.
“It is a tricky situation because Stilton has a shelf life of between 10 and 15 weeks and it can’t sit on a shelf for six months.”
Stilton was the first British cheese to be awarded the protected designation of origin status (PDO) giving it the same status as Champagne and, of course, Melton Mowbray pork pies.
It has to be made to a specific recipe in Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.
And Mr Reek pointed out that its importance to the community stretched far beyond its popularity as a food product.
He added: “We employ about 400 people at Clawson, the other local dairies have about 300 employees, there are 70-odd dairy farms who supply us all with the milk and there is also a link down to Melton Cattle Market and the local farmers’ market so it very important that people continue to support us all by buying Stilton when they can.”
Billy Kevan, CEO at Colston Bassett Dairy, described the current economic climate influenced by lockdown as ‘tough’ and that sales were down 20 per cent as a result.
He told the Melton Times: “For a producer of traditional products, our challenge has always been to inspire consumers to use our cheeses in new ways and think outside the box.
“Whilst the current pandemic has meant that we have needed to put even more emphasis on the versatility of both Stilton and Shropshire Blue, the rise in home cooking is encouraging more experimentation in the kitchen and through our social media we can see that consumers are trying new things with our cheeses.
“It is also fantastic to see the support we are receiving for British cheeses at the moment.
“Jamie Oliver’s backing for Colston Bassett in his recent Instagram post is something we are hugely grateful for and it allows us to remain positive that we will come through this with a successful future ahead.”
The Stilton Cheese Makers Association (SCMA), which represents the UK’s producers of the cheese, said there had been a 30 per cent fall in sales due to the closure of the country’s hospitality and events industry and with export markets also being in lockdown.
The trade body is also concerned that the current situation will discourage the next generation of cheesemakers and that some producers could go out of business as the food service industry remains locked down and contracts as a result.
Robin Skailes, chairman of the SCMA and director of Cropwell Bishop Creamery, said: “Like many British food producers, Stilton sales have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We hope that the British public will support us by buying Stilton instead of imported blue cheeses which, in turn, will support British dairy farmers.”
Stilton, the UK’s most popular blue cheese, was first written about by Daniel Defoe in the early 18th century and was thought to have first been made popular by Wymondham cheesemaker, Frances Pawlett, who made the earliest standardised version of the blue vein favourite.
Dr Matthew O’Callaghan, of the UK Protected Food Names Association, said: “Stilton, like many other cheeses, is going through a tough time at the moment.
“The fact that Stilton sales have dropped by over 30 per cent through the closure of the hospitality industry, etc, shows the importance of Stilton as a key ingredient for many of our great restaurants and hotels.
“Stilton is not just for Christmas, it’s an ideal summer cheese, great for picnics, as a topping on barbequed steaks, in baked potatoes, with pasta, on salads.
“Summer and Stilton were made for each other.”