Irish butter has spread on to Coles’ and Woolworths’ supermarket shelves, US cheese is topping Aussie pizzas and Kiwi milk powders are pouring into Australian food processors’ plants.
The latest Dairy Australia trade analysis shows Australia now imports $2 of dairy products for every $3 worth of dairy sent overseas.
A decade ago Australia was importing $632 million of dairy products, by 2013 it had reached $1 billion. Now imports have surged from $1.67 billion in 2016 to $2 billion in 2017 — a 20 per cent jump in just 12 months.
In contrast Australia’s dairy exports have remained relatively stagnant, at $3.2 billion in 2001, reaching $3.3 billion for the full year 2017.
Butter imports — in pure form, as spreads, oil and powders — surged 70 per cent last year, to hit $244 million. In contrast Australian butter exports fell 26 per cent to $108 million.
But by far the greatest import growth has been in the cheese trade.
Ships docking in Australian ports unloaded $754 million of cheese on to local docks last year — $321 million from NZ, $255 million from Europe and $165 million from the US.
While NZ and EU cheese imports are growing steadily, US cheese imports have risen from $23 million in 2010 to more than $165 million last year.
The US surge is set to increase on the back of the US Dairy Export Council’s commitment to put an extra 200,000 tonnes of cheese on to global markets within the next three to five years.
And the situation is likely to get worse as US dairy farmers turn a local grain glut into more milk.
DA senior industry analyst John Droppert said the US was competing heavily on price, rapidly pumping milk into plants that pushed out cheap cheese for the food service industry.
He said falling local milk production had prompted Australian processors to try to squeeze as much as they could out of export markets. Meanwhile, local supermarkets had responded to local butter price hikes by tapping into imports.
“Last year our milk production dropped 7 per cent and export volumes fell by 3 per cent, yet processors still managed to earn 9 per cent more on export markets,” Mr Droppert said.
But much of that extra export revenue has come from a huge jump in infant formula exports, which are derived from local and imported milk powders.
Last year, Australia exported $484 million of infant formula, compared with $55 million in 2014.
Yet over the same period infant formula imports, mainly from New Zealand, skyrocketed from $173 million to $404 million last year.
Mr Droppert said the overall picture for the dairy trade was complex.
One of those complicating factors is that Australians are eating more dairy produce, which is helping absorb a small but significant volume of imports and local dairy products.
Mr Droppert said per capita annual consumption of butter had grown from 3.7kg in 2013 to 4.8kg in last year, while cheese consumption rose from 12.5kg a year to 13.4kg.