Ranked: World’s Top Cheese-producing Countries per Capita
What country immediately comes to mind when you think of cheese? Is it France or perhaps Italy, given that they use enormous quantities of cheese for all that delicious pasta and pizza? Or is it the Netherlands? What about the United States?
The United States is the world’s largest producer of cheese, followed by Germany, France, and Italy. But when it comes to the highest cheese production per capita, do these four nations still top the charts?
We did the research and the math to see what comes up. You might be surprised by some of the results.
And because the US is in a league of its own when it comes to cheese production, we thought we’d also look at US states as if they were separate countries, and ran the numbers again, with surprising results. Keep reading to learn about all of these findings, and more!
Denmark, New Zealand, and Ireland are the world’s top cheese producers per capita
We first looked at each country’s total yearly cheese production and correlated that with the size of each country’s population to see how much cheese is produced per person. With just a couple of exceptions, the cheese production volumes are for the year of 2021.
Ranking all the countries on our list in terms of total yearly cheese production per capita, we end up with an interesting list, led by Denmark, which produces a total of 455 thousand metric tones of cheese per year. That’s quite impressive, and the equivalent of 78 kilograms or 171.9 pounds of cheese per person, which places it at the very top of our ranking.
Given that roughly 61% of Denmark is agricultural land, it’s not surprising to learn that the Danes export 75% of the food they produce, including cheese. The country is one of the top milk producers in Europe, and half of that milk is used to make cheese, which is then in large part exported to around 150 countries.
Denmark is also the sole producer of Danablu (or Danish Blue Cheese), Danbo cheese, and Esrom cheese – these varieties have been PGI-marked by the EU, which means they’ve been granted protected geographical status and can’t be produced anywhere else.
New Zealand is the world’s second producer of cheese per capita, with 390 thousand metric tones of cheese produced every year – the equivalent of 76.1 kilograms per person (167.9 pounds per person).
There is ever-increasing demand for New Zealand cheeses such as Mahoe Farmhouse, Mercer, Karikaas, and Meyer. And it’s all in the quality. New Zealand is renowned for its pasture-based dairies and the fresh, clean flavor of its cheese. Production and exports of cheese rose sharply in the 90s, as well as the first part of the 2010s, though it slowed down a bit in the past few years from its 2017 peak.
Coming in at number three on the list is surprisingly Ireland, which produces 287 thousand metric tones of cheese every year and has a population of roughly 5 million. That amounts to 56.7 kilograms of cheese produced per capita or roughly 125 pounds per person.
Cheese production in Ireland has increased at a staggering rate in recent years. For the past five years, Ireland has recorded the second highest cheese production growth rate in the European Union, up 39%, only second to Cyprus. This is almost 5 times higher than the growth rate for the EU as a whole.
Following at number four is the Netherlands, producing 54.2 kilograms of cheese per person. The Netherlands is renowned for many things, and its cheese is certainly one of them. Just about every town or village has at least one farm that produces one or more kinds of cheese.
Home to the delicious and famous Halloumi, the island nation of Cyprus has seen its cheese production skyrocket over the past few years. In the last five, it rose by 41%, the highest increase recorded among European Union countries. Cyprus ranks 5th worldwide with 42 kilograms of cheese produced per person.
Ranking 6th in the world with 38.4 kilograms per person, Belarus’ ranking might seem surprising. But the country produces the most milk per capita in the world and it’s one of the world’s leading cheese exporters (most goes to neighboring Russia).
While Estonia doesn’t have such a long cheese-making tradition, this small Baltic country has made up lost ground and is now among the top nations for cheese production per capita. Over the past 10 years (2021-2021), cheese production in Estonia increased by 16.5%, according to Eurostat data.
Lithuania, which ranks 8th worldwide for cheese production per capita, has a very strong cheese production tradition. Farmers in Lithuania have been fermenting hard cheese since the 16th century in the Samogitia region. The cheese was named Lithuanian cheese, and it became popular throughout the region, with production spreading to nearby regions and countries (e.g. Belarus).
While its cheeses don’t have the international recognition of France or Italy, Germany is hands-down Europe’s largest producer of cheese and ranks second worldwide, behind the United States. It ranks 9th in the per capita rankings with 28.4 kilograms per capita of cheese produced each year.
The gap between Germany and France, Europe’s second largest cheese-producing country, has grown in the past decade. While in 2010, Germany’s cheese production was only by 8.8% larger than France’s, in 2021 it grew to over a quarter, 27.2% to be more precise. France, one of the biggest producers, and consumers, of cheese in the world, comes in at number 11 with 27.4 kilograms of cheese produced per capita.
Latvia, another Baltic country that ranks in the top 10, produces 27.7 kilograms of cheese per person, more than countries with a very strong cheese making tradition such as France, Switzerland and Austria.
Poland, ranking 12th worldwide, deserves a special recognition as cheese production in the country has skyrocketed over the last decade. In absolute terms over the past ten years, Poland recorded the second fastest cheese production growth in the European Union, slightly behind Germany.
According to Eurostat data, Poland produced 675 thousand of metric tones of cheese in 2011, while in 2021 it produced over 919 thousand of metric tones. That’s an increase of 244 thousand of metric tones. Compare that to 249 (1000s) of metric tones for Germany, which ranked first and 241 (1000s) of metric tones for Spain, which ranked third. Other countries such as France recorded a decrease in cheese production over the same period of time.
Switzerland lands at #14 with 23.7 kilograms of cheese per capita, while Italy is #15 on the list, with 23.3 kilograms of cheese produced per person. The US takes 17th place in our ranking, producing 18.7 kilograms of cheese per person or 41.6 pounds per person, while Uruguay ranks 20th in the world and second in the Americas.
But let’s take a different look at this for a moment.
US, Germany, and France lead in terms of total cheese production
While Denmark, New Zealand, and Ireland produce the most cheese per person, looking at absolute numbers, the ranking shifts considerably. If we were to rank countries according to total yearly cheese production, the US lands the top spot, with 6,217 thousand metric tones of cheese produced in a year.
Germany is second, churning out 2,361 thousand metric tones of cheese each year, while France follows in third place, with 1,856 thousand metric tones.
Closing the top five is Italy, which produces 1,374 thousand metric tones of cheese per year. Looking at absolute numbers, Denmark no longer tops the list, but comes 14th, with 455 thousand metric tones of cheese produced each year.
Ranking US states as countries, Wisconsin would top the list
The United States is in a league of its own when it comes to cheese production, but the US is also substantially larger (in both sheer size and population) compared to most other top cheese-producing countries. So, comparing cheese production in the US with small European countries such as Cyprus or Estonia isn’t really fair; it’s like comparing apples to oranges.
So, what if we were to rank individual US states as countries? What would that ranking look like? Well, let’s find out.
If you didn’t already know that Wisconsin is the official cheese capital of the world, well, our numbers confirm it. Wisconsin tops the list – by a landslide. This Midwestern state produces 3,467 million pounds of cheese each year (roughly 1573 thousand of metric tones), which amounts to 588.3 pounds per capita.
Wisconsin has roughly the same population as Denmark (5.8 million), the country that tops that global cheese production per capita chart, but Wisconsin produces more than three times as much cheese. What’s more, Wisconsin ranks fourth in the world in terms of total cheese production.
Wisconsin produces roughly 26% of the country’s cheese, and has close to 1,300 licensed cheesemakers, more than any other US state. It also has the only cheesemaster program outside of Europe, and is the only US state that requires a license to produce cheese. 48% of all the specialty cheese in the US comes from Wisconsin, so it’s safe to say that, if you’re a fan of cheese, or an aspiring cheesemaker, this is the place to be.
Idaho comes at #2 in this ranking, with 526.8 pounds of cheese produced per capita. The state produces roughly one million pounds of cheese every year, and is in high demand for cheddar, mozzarella, cream cheese, cottage cheese, and Colby Jack, among others. It’s also one of the country’s top milk and potato producers, and is home to the largest state-of-the-art yogurt plant in the world.
At number three is New Mexico, which churns out 956 million pounds of cheese each year and 452.4 pounds per capita, followed by Vermont at #4, with 222 pounds of cheese produced yearly per capita.
California, the second-largest cheese producer in the US after Wisconsin, lands between Germany and France in terms of production per capita. The Golden State produces 2.4 million pounds of cheese every year, which makes 62.1 pounds per person.
Trends in cheese production in the European Union
While not a country, the European Union is the largest producer of cheese in the world, even trumping the United States. We wanted to zoom in and see how Europe’s dairy industry has evolved in the past few years. So, we crunched the numbers to see which EU countries recorded the most growth in cheese production from 2016 through 2021, and which countries saw a drop in production.
The results were interesting, to say the least. As it turns out, Cyprus recorded an uptick of 41% in cheese production from 2016 to 2021, putting it at the very top of our list. But what’s so special about Cypriot cheese?
You might already be familiar with Halloumi, a traditional Cypriot semi-hard pasteurized cheese that’s most commonly associated with the Mediterranean country. What you might not know is that, in 2021, Halloumi was granted special status by the EU, which guarantees that only Cypriot-made Halloumi (known as hellim in Turkish) can be marketed abroad under this name.
Ireland’s dairy industry is also booming, recording a 39% growth in cheese production from 2016 to 2021, our analysis shows. Irish farmhouse cheese is incredibly popular, and there are currently 45 farmhouse cheesemakers across the country. Farmhouse cheese is basically produced from the milk produced on the same farm where the cheese is made.
Interestingly, cheese production in France dwindled 3% from 2016 to 2021, going from 1,919 thousand metric tones in 2016 to 1,856 in 2021. France produces more than 400 varieties of cheese, and it’s considered one of the ‘cheese capitals of the world’. However, Eurostat data shows that production has gradually decreased over the years from 2014.
This phenomenon is partly due to the scorching temperatures and drought experienced across the country each summer. In fact, the summer of 2022 marked the first time in history that the production of Salers cheese came to a complete halt due to a severe drought caused by extreme heat waves. Salers is a French semi-hard cheese that’s been produced in the Auvergne region of central France since ancient times.
Cheese production also slowed in Sweden, Albania, and Croatia from 2016 to 2021. On the other end of the spectrum, Latvia, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary recorded significant growth in cheese production of 20% or more.
Our team has relied on the following sources for compiling these stats: Eurostat, USDA, Statista, Index Mundi, Dairy Australia, Clal.it and Dairy Industries Magazine. With the exceptions of Greece (2020) and North Macedonia (2016), all cheese production volumes are for the year of 2021.
For population stats we relied on the latest official figures published by Eurostat, UK’s Office for National Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau and the World Bank database.