Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories on the increased importance of dairy exports.

Xiaoming Liu recalls the first time she saw cheese and crackers being served at a party. It was back in 2001, while she was working on her Ph.D degree in food science at WashingtonStateUniversity. None of her classes prepared her for the little bite-sized pieces of cheese that she saw that day. “What are those?” she wondered.

Sure, some pizza was served in her native China, along with hamburgers that had melted cheese. But Liu had never seen cheese by itself.

Today, you can go into modern grocery stores in Shanghai and Beijing and find cheese. Still, “we need more people who know dairy,” says Liu, now an associate professor in the school of food science and technology at JiangnanUniversity in China.

The recent Olympic Games in China, along with the increased presence of cheese in grocery stores and American-style pizza restaurants, suggest that cheese consumption could take off in that country.

Price still a hurdle

The recent scandal in China involving melamine contamination of milk products could dampen demand for dairy products in the short-term. But cheese may not be affected as much as other products. Almost all of the cheese in China is imported; there is virtually no domestic production. Imported dairy products should have more credibility with Chinese consumers over the next few years than domestic products.

Prior to the melamine scandal, dairy officials pointed to price as the main barrier to cheese consumption. 

“The major factor that hinders cheese consumption is price, not flavor or something else,” said Song Lun Gang, chairman of the China Dairy Industry Association.

At a Beijing version of Wal-Mart in mid-September, a package of eight wrapped slices of American cheese from a leading U.S. manufacturer cost $18.70 in Chinese currency (or $2.75 U.S.) and 16 slices cost $34.30 (or $5.04 U.S.).

That 16-slice package is at least $2 higher than it would be in many U.S. supermarkets.

Despite these concerns, cheese consumption should go up over the next few years — it has to, considering the fact the Chinese are pretty much starting from stratch. In 2004, per-capita cheese consumption in China was a mere 0.02 pounds, according to the U.S. Dairy Export Council. That compared to 31.2 pounds in the U.S. the same year.

Olympic boost

Cheese consumption in China will grow because of the recent Olympic Games, predicts Daniel Chan, a Shanghai-based representative for the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

As foreigners converged on Beijing this summer for the Olympics, the Chinese catered to the eating habits of people from around the world. And, as Chan points out, the Chinese were quite interested in how their athletes stacked up — were they able to run as fast or jump as high as the athletes from other countries? Did nutrition play a role? 

Often, the host country pays greater attention to these things than the other participating countries.

Cheese consumption increased dramatically in Japan after it hosted the Summer Olympics in 1964, Chan says. And, the same thing happened in South Korea after hosting the summer games in 1988.