Wednesday marked the grand opening of the long-awaited state-of-the-art cheese- and dairy-products plant in Tulare, Calif.

The $150 million Cheese & Protein International plant is a joint venture between a top Japanese trading company, Mitsui & Co., Ltd., and Land O’Lakes, a farmer-owned dairy cooperative based in Minnesota that sells products worldwide.

The 450,000 square-foot plant currently employs 120 people and has been operational for two months. During this first phase it produces about 120 million pounds of mozzarella cheese and 75 million pounds of whey solids.

Phase two should come online in 2004. With its completion, both cheese and whey production will double — 240 million pounds and 150 million pounds respectively.

Mitsui is a major player in international trade. Its transactions total about $100 billion annually. The Tulare plant will provide them a long-term source of high-quality cheese and whey products on the West Coast.

Masa Suzuki, a former Mitsui official and now executive vice president at the new cheese plant, said told the Fresno Bee that one of the Japanese company's goals is to open new markets in China and Southeast Asia, where consumption is expected to increase.

Worldwide, U.S. cheese exports have grown by 20 percent in the past two years. Domestically, cheese consumption is expected to increase by 25 percent by 2005.

Fresno Bee