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The Case for Queso

Research asks why U.S. cheeses don't cut it with Latino customers.

Everyone knows about Wisconsin cheese—but that doesn’t mean that everyone likes it. For many Latino consumers, for instance, our cheese just doesn’t cut it.

“It’s not viewed as authentic,” says Scott Rankin, an associate professor of food science. “When a (Latino) consumer sees a package of blended Colby, Jack and Cheddar labeled ‘Mexican-style’ cheese, it’s almost insulting.”

With the growth of the Latino population in the United States, Latin American-style cheeses have become one of the U.S. dairy industry’s fastest-growing markets. Production of these cheeses jumped about 36 percent from 2003 to 2006, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. But Latino consumers are also “very attuned to a cheese’s performance, such as melting qualities,” says Rankin. “The shape, color and package all have to work.”

For the past two years, Rankin has studied Latin American cheeses to learn why American-made ones don’t measure up. With graduate student Luis Jimenez-Maroto and postdoctoral researcher Arnoldo Lopez-Hernandez, he has analyzed the chemical, microbiological and physical components of three popular types of cheese sold in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

The team found that some American-made cheeses compare favorably to the taste of authentic Latin American cheeses, which have a simple flavor meant to complement other foods. But there were other differences between these cheeses that may factor as heavily as taste.

One of the biggest surprises was the importance of packaging and marketing. Cheeses from Mexico are usually round and prominently display the red, white and green colors of the Mexican flag on their labels. In Mexico, these cheeses are often sliced from larger blocks directly in the store. “The experience of buying cheese is important,” says Rankin, noting that consumers typically have close relationships with merchants and show strong loyalty to local varieties.

Partly because American-made cheeses don’t offer the same experience, there’s now a growing black market for authentic Latin American cheeses, which raises concerns about food safety. And that may be all the more reason for Wisconsin cheesemakers to take a closer look at the Latino market.

“There is no great technological hurdle to making this change,” Rankin says. “The cultural change on the part of American producers is the hardest thing right now.”