The blocks of cheese on supermarket shelves are made from the same ingredients, so why are shoppers paying different prices at checkouts?
A 1kg block of Countdown edam cheese was made from pasteurized cow’s milk, salt, lactic acid bacteria and non-animal rennet.
So was an edam block made by Mainland, Pam’s, Alpine, and Rolling Meadow.
The Countdown block of cheese was $13.50, Mainland was $18.90 at Countdown and $15.99 at New World, Pam’s was $9.99, and Rolling Meadow was $11.19 at New World.
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A 1kg block of Mainland Colby cheese cost $18.90 from Countdown and contained milk, salt, cultures and enzymes (non-animal rennet). The same block made by Countdown, with the same ingredients, cost $13.50.
At New World, a 1kg block of Pam’s Colby costs $9.99.
Aaron Beck, a senior Stats NZ manager for prices, social and demographic information, explains the food price index.
Kate Hughes, managing director of cheese and spreads marketing at Fonterra Brands NZ, said her cheese brands are Mainland, Mainland Special Reserve, Kāpiti, Perfect Italiano, Galaxy and Valumetric.
She said brands target different consumers and uses.
Mainland was a “premium everyday cheese,” she said.
“Most cheeses are made with milk, salt, cultures and enzymes, and all flavors. Although simple on the surface, there are many different options for each of these ingredients and the amounts and quality of each will vary depending on the unique cheese recipe,” Hughes said.
One example was Mainland Tasty, which used unique cultures and enzymes to provide the taste, while Kāpiti Blue cheeses used a strain of mold over 70 years old.
Over The Moon cheese owner Sue Arthur said that in New Zealand, cheese makers must list all ingredients on the label.
“So you just have to check the label to see what’s in the product,” Arthur said.
“Typically, our cheeses are made from milk, rennet, bacterial culture and salt. Then all the other things like the cranberry flavor,” she said.
A Countdown spokesperson said its house-brand cheese blocks were made in New Zealand, but did not say who produced it or where because “these arrangements are commercially sensitive”.
A Foodstuffs spokesperson said all Pams block cheeses like Tasty, Colby, Edam were made in New Zealand by “reputable New Zealand cheese makers”. In the past, some of Pams specialty cheeses like brie had been imported from Australia, but now they were all made locally.
“Different types of cheese usually have the same or similar ingredients, but the composition varies by brand or manufacturer.
“The price we pay at the case depends on a number of factors, including the volume made, the cost of ingredients, the packaging and the time it takes to make and ripen the cheese,” the spokesperson said.
Dr Sally Mackay, a registered nutritionist and senior lecturer at the University of Auckland, said it’s interesting that supermarkets don’t disclose who makes their cheese.
“[It is] not very transparent, and as a consumer I would like to know who made a product that I purchased,” Mackay said.
“Some consumers are concerned about various ethical aspects of companies, such as labor, durability issues and cannot verify this if they do not know the manufacturer.”
Mackay said the price of cheese is notoriously volatile. There was almost always a block of cheese on special by a different brand each week.
“With Edam cheese, the ingredients are the same, as is the flavor. With Tasty cheese there can be variations in flavor as well as price – sometimes the cheaper cheeses have not been aged as long and therefore have a milder flavor.
“I think this price variation is more common with large blocks of cheese than other dairy products.”
Kiwifruit buyers also paid more for a block of cheese than Australians.
A 1kg block of Countdown brand Tasty Cheese sold for $18.50 in New Zealand in May. In Australia, the same block was sold by parent company Countdown Woolworths for 9.90 Australian dollars (10.88 New Zealand dollars).
A 500g block of continental cheese, a Fonterra brand, cost $14 in New Zealand in May and $8.25 in Australia.
Countdown said at the time that the cheeses had the same name, savory cheese in Australia was different from savory cheese in New Zealand, and therefore had different costs associated, but the main price difference factor was the amount paid to suppliers.