Representatives of Oregon’s dairy industry recently completed a trade mission to Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore, where they were building a “pipeline” to sell artisan cheese in Southeast Asia.

Dairy processors from Oregon, Utah and Arizona, along with government officials and other industry experts, traveled to the three countries from April 22 to May 4.

“The trade missions are part of a bigger picture. The bigger picture is allowing small- and medium-sized firms to enter the export market,” said Pete Kent, executive director of the Oregon Dairy and Nutrition Council.

The council has organized several trade missions to the region in recent years — joining with representatives from nearby states — to meet with food distributors and create a critical mass of demand for Western dairy products.

“We realized Oregon alone is not going to have the volume, particularly in artisan cheese, to build the market,” said Kent.

Cheesemakers and other dairy processors in Oregon already export goods to Asia, but these opportunities often occur in isolation, he said.

The council is trying to create an ongoing, reliable connection between Oregon dairy producers and consumers in Southeast Asia, an area with a newly burgeoning middle class and demand for protein-rich foods.

“Here were are, 12 hours away from that,” Kent said.

Reducing the cost of shipping U.S. dairy products would make them more affordable in the region, improving their marketability, he said.

Air freight is expensive, so consolidating pallet loads of dairy products from several companies would be more cost-effective, Kent said.

Eventually, given enough demand, transporting dairy products on ocean container ships could further bring down the cost, particularly for hard cheeses with a longer shelf life, he said.

“By combining our efforts, we can bring several cheesemakers together,” Kent said.

Cheese isn’t a traditional component of Southeast Asian diets, so expatriates from the U.S., Europe and elsewhere would likely be the initial target demographic for artisan cheeses, he said.

However, the region has experience with incorporating foreign foods into domestic cuisine. For example, Vietnam’s colonial past introduced the country to French baguettes and other breads.

Aside from cheese, the council is also trying to export U.S. ice cream and dairy ingredients such as lactose and whey.

There also may be an opportunity to manufacture novel products, such as flavored butters and drinkable yogurts, that are proving popular in Southeast Asia, said Kent.

“What can we learn over there that we can bring back here?” he said.

Singapore is a particularly attractive destination for Oregon dairy products, given its low barriers to trade and small land base, which forces the nation to rely on food imports, Kent said.

Vietnam and Malaysia have higher import hurdles and their cooling and distribution infrastructure aren’t as developed, he said.

The two countries are nonetheless appealing export markets since their humid climates aren’t conducive to sustaining large domestic dairy industries, he said.

As a follow-up to the trade mission, the council hopes to have dairy processors send four to six sample shipments of their products to the three Southeast Asian countries.

Such samples could help determine which goods are popular among consumers there and how they could best be promoted, Kent said.

The council also wants to hire a consultant — possibly using a USDA grant — to coordinate shipments to Southeast Asian distributors from U.S. dairy companies, easing the export process, he said.

“Being mostly family operations, they’re doing two, three, four jobs each,” Kent said.

Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter

Recommended for you