With a dizzying array of new offerings coming to supermarket shelves and food service distribution centers each year, keeping tabs on what’s hot and what’s not in the dairy products industry can be daunting. Scoping out results in the World Dairy Expo (WDE) Championship Dairy Product Contest, can give you insight to the latest dairy food trends.
The brainchild of Brad Legreid, executive director of the Wisconsin Dairy Products Association (WDPA), the contest has witnessed explosive growth since its launch in 2003. That year, there were 100 entries in just six categories. Last year, the contest attracted 1,489 entries in 79 categories, with products ranging from fl uid milk, butter and cheese to sour cream, yogurt, whey and ice cream. “It’s been phenomenal,” Legreid says. “And we’re not done growing yet. There are still companies out there that haven’t been involved. They’re just learning about the contest.”
For individual product categories, ice cream stands out as a major up-and-comer. “When we first started, we only had two ice cream classes: one for chocolate and one for vanilla,” Legreid notes. “Now, we have 16 classes for products like ice cream sandwiches, gelato, ice cream made with caramel and nuts and more. Some of the new flavors we saw this past year were strawberry rhubarb cobbler, black raspberry chocolate crunch, banana saucer, black licorice with beer and goat cheese diamond honey.”
“Grade-A is another growth category. Sour cream, dips, yogurt and food drinks like smoothies are becoming more popular,” he says. “And we’ve seen a bump in whey products as it becomes a more popular ingredient in sports nutrition drinks.”
More traditional categories haven’t been left behind. Where product lines in fluid milk were once limited to primarily white and chocolate products, the contest now has 15 categories. “We have cappuccino, chocolate and peanut butter milk, root beer milk, banana milk and salted caramel milk,” Legreid says. “With cheeses, we’re seeing products like Transylvania cow cheese with red wine, spicy pimento cheese and blended cheese with apricots. There are some really unique fl avors out there.”
For participating companies, the opportunity to have newer products evaluated by a pool of 50 top-fl ight judges from throughout the U.S. is a major reason for entering the contest. “There’s a $50 registration fee for each product entered,” Legreid explains.
“In return, the company gets comments and scoring about their products from some of the best sensory evaluators in the country. It helps them determine whether or not they want to take a product to market. It’s a way to conduct research and development.”
Debbie Crave, vice-president of Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese in Waterloo, Wis., agrees with Legreid’s assessment. Her company, a companion enterprise to her family’s 2,000-cow dairy, has been entering the contest since it fi rst started, capturing numerous awards. “Judges’ comments help us know that a new product like our Chocolate Mascarpone pie filling (which captured a second-place award in the 2017 contest) is really good,” she says. “We’ve served this product as a chocolate pie recipe on many of our buyer tours and they always say they love it. But it’s really good to know what the technical people (contest judges) have to say.”
Companies can also leverage doing well in the contest in their advertising/marketing programs. Along with taking first- and second- place awards for fresh mozzarella products in last year’s WDE contest, Crave Brothers also captured honors in several other high-profile, national award programs. “We did an advertising campaign to promote our winnings in some retail cheese publications,” Crave says. “It’s a testimony to our quality and our craftsmanship. It also gives us a better idea of how we stack up against our competition.”
Like Crave Brothers, Pine River Pre-Pack Inc., a family-owned manufacturer of gourmet cold packs and cheese spreads located in Newton, Wis., has a long track-record of participating in the contest, racking up numerous awards for a variety of products. The company’s Swiss and Almond, a blend of Wisconsin Grade A, aged cheddar and swiss cheese and sliced almonds, has won six blue ribbons in the contest since 2006.
“It’s always nice to have a judge give us feedback about our spreads and see how they rank against our competitors,” says Mary Lindemann, who co-owns the company along with her husband, Phil. “We also get a chance to network at the contest awards banquet and auction (held on Tuesday night of Expo).”
Contest wins make for good postings on social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. “We can reach so many people, and they can comment back,” Lindemann says. “It’s always gratifying to see the ‘congratulations’ or ‘thumbs up symbol’ or to read comments like ‘We agree with the judges. Pine River’s spreads are the best.’
Sometimes when we announce the wins on our online store, customers will buy the winner, even if they’ve never ordered it before. We also send a press release to distributors letting them know about the awards, so they can run promos or put up signage.”
WDPA’s Legreid expects the contest to continue growing, paralleling growth in the dairy products industry. “Up to this point, most of the entries have been from companies in North America,” he says. “Now, we’re starting to see interest from international companies as well. We’ve had cheese from Scotland and Ireland and butter from Australia. Who knows where it will lead.”
As a trend likely to shape the contest moving forward, Legreid points to a change in consumer perception about the role fat plays in human nutrition. “Now things are changing. There’s more and more research, based on 20, 30 and 40 years of studies, showing that not only is fat okay, it’s actually good for you,” he says. “That’s going to lead to more whole-fat dairy products on the supermarket shelves and more entries for those products in the contest.”