Facing decades-high cheese prices, cheddar-loving New Zealanders are being forced to chase specials, downgrade their flavour expectations, or abandon the blocks entirely in favour of grated substitutes.
A mixture of inflation, Covid-19 supply pressures and high milk prices was sending prices for hunks of cheddar through the roof, with blocks ranging from $11 to over $20 a block.
In online budgeting and community groups, New Zealanders were brainstorming how to overcome the price hikes, and eke out their cheese a little longer. “We started using the really small side on the grater – it’s amazing how far it goes now,” one user said. Others had abandoned hope of buying the blocks entirely. “Blardy [sic] disgusting. Have resorted to buying grated cheese,” one commenter wrote. Another speculated that consumers could create their own “Tasty” cheese – referring to the sharp aged cheddar that costs more – by simply keeping it longer. “Just wondering in view of the fact that Tasty becomes Tasty by ageing, would mild or Colby become Tasty if I just stored it for 18 months?” they asked.
“Go nice and mouldy,” came a response.
On one community social media page, users alerted one other to cheese discounts at the local supermarkets. Others called for a brief boycott to try to force prices down. One Maungaturoto business used the headlines to tout their own cheesemaking classes: “What better time now to come and learn to make your own cheddar – this is just getting completely ridiculous.”
A block at the high end of the cheddar range – the much-beloved “Tasty” brand of aged cheddar – had been selling in recent months for more than $20 a kilogram. At the lower end, a kilogram of mild – the cheapest and least flavoursome of the cheddars – was selling for an average of over $11, its highest point in a decade, according to Stats NZ data published by the Herald.
“We’re not talking about fine imported French brie here – we’re talking about stock standard kiwi edam, colby and tasty. If that’s been priced out of the reach of a significant sector of society, then we have a real problem,” says Jon Duffy, chief executive of Consumer NZ, an independent nonprofit which researches and advocates for consumers.
“Supermarkets bear some responsibility for that,” Duffy says, “but the general cost of living and the income gap between not even wealthy, but middle class New Zealanders and those in precarity or hardship is something we should be really concerned about at a societal level – it’s really visible through the lens of what used to be a common staple, a block of cheese.”
Just why cheese prices have risen so high is a complex question, Duffy says. Inflation has helped drive up food prices across the board. Most of New Zealand’s milk is exported, and the international milk price is now high – that means prices also go up domestically. Those factors are exacerbated, he says, by the country’s lack of competition among supermarkets. New Zealand’s grocery market is dominated by two huge supermarket conglomerates, Foodstuffs and Woolworths, which control about 85% of the total market. In July, the government announced it would consider breaking up the effective duopoly, or create third competitor. Consumer affairs minister David Clark said at the time that the businesses were making “extraordinary profits”.
Emma Wooster, corporate affairs manager for Foodstuffs New Zealand, said a lack of competition was not affecting prices. “Any suggestion that a lack of competition results in high prices is simply wrong,” she said.
Wooster blamed the price rise partly on Covid. “The impact of Covid-19 has added complexities to food prices, which are largely responsible for the continued rise over the past six months,” she said in a written statement. “Covid-19 knock on effects include an exponential rise in commodity prices, global demand, fuel and power prices worldwide, an international shipping crisis and a skills shortage in New Zealand … We expect the knock-on effects of Covid-19 to continue for some time and, like other commodities, we can anticipate the price of cheese to be impacted too.”
“The international cheese market is booming,” Wooster said, “and we are competing for the same in-demand stock.”
A spokesperson for Countdown, the chain owned by Woolworths, said in a written statement: “We have not increased cheese prices because of lockdown, but there are a number of factors putting additional pressure on the price of cheese here in New Zealand including global milk supply, rising labour costs and high farmgate milk prices.”
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