Clare Nuttall in Bucharest -
Forced to shut down amid falling dairy product consumption and stiff competition from other EU countries, one traditional Romanian cheese factory has gained a reprieve. After a year’s suspension, production of Nasal “cave cheese” is due to restart soon, with a local company taking over from the plant’s Dutch owner FrieslandCampina.
Ripened in a natural cave in the Transylvanian mountains, the conditions that produce Nasal, a sweet cows' milk cheese with a reddish rind, are unique. Legend has it that in the middle ages peasants took the curd cheese traditionally reserved for Hungarian count Grof Taga and hid it in the cave near the village of Nasal. Returning several weeks later, they discovered that the curd had developed a red rind and a distinctive taste.
A village industry grew out of this discovery, and there have been attempts to industrialise production; the Taga factory was built at the entrance to the cave in 1950s. However, the size of the cave limits the amount of cheese that can be matured, and efforts to reproduce the effect of the bacteria elsewhere have failed.
Despite these limitations, FrieslandCampina, one of the world’s five largest dairy companies, invested into the Taga factory after taking over its owner Romanian dairy producer Napolact in 2004. However, in 2013 FrieslandCampina announced that it was shutting down the factory, citing a “continuous decrease in sales and therefore production.” This caused an outcry among both the local population – which saw the 12 workers at the small factory laid off – and Romanian gourmets concerned about the loss of a unique local product.
Some 14 months later, in August the AgroTransilvania Cluster, founded by the county council in Cluj, Transylvania to support agro-industry in the region, said that the factory would reopen. Production is due to resume within the next few months under the management of Fabrica de Branzeturi Transilvania, which is jointly controlled by the cluster and the Somes-Aries Cooperative.
FrieslandCampina Romania’s sales director, Cornel Caramizaru, says that popular pressure had contributed to the decision. “When we announced last year to put Taga under conservation, we received numerous messages of consumers and members of the local communities expressing their regret not to be able anymore to buy Nssal,” Caramizaru tells bne.
The news comes as FrieslandCampina reported a fall in dairy product consumption of over 6% per year in the five years to 2014. As a result, all the company’s plants have been operating under capacity. In response to this squeeze, the company announced in May that it would consolidate cheese production at a single Romanian location. Its operations in Carei and Targu Mures are due to be relocated to Baciu by January 2015. The company cited “tough market conditions, particularly the lack of consumer spending,” with its managing director for Romania, Jan Willem Kivits, admitting that “our current production footprint is no longer sustainable.”
While cheese is popular in Romania, an October 2013 Euromonitor report points out that when incomes are pressed, Romanians stop buying packaged cheese sold at supermarkets, turning instead to cheaper domestic cottage cheese, and buying from markets or directly from producers. Romania’s re-entry to recession in the second quarter of 2014 does not bode well for the sector.
Competition in the sector has also increased, with consolidation among local players forced to compete with major European companies. Germany’s Hochland is now the dominant seller of most types of cheese, while discount retailers sell Camemberts, Goudas and other foreign cheeses at prices that are now competitive with Romanian telemea and cascaval.
Getting traditional local products onto the shelves is a priority in Transylvania and other agricultural regions where organisations like the AgroTransilvania Cluster are fighting back. “I am convinced that we can build together a strategy to ensure the market for products made in the county or the region, while decreasing imports,” Cluj council vice president Ioan Oleleu said on announcing the news about the Taga factory reopening.
However, this is still an uphill struggle. Romania emerged from communism with a highly fragmented dairy sector, and despite efforts at modernisation, some two decades later the average specialist dairy farm had just three cows compared with an EU average of 28, according to Eurostat. Further ground has been lost since EU accession. Romania is increasingly an importer of dairy products from other member states, while the number of dairy cows in the country has dropped by around a third since 2007.
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