The dairy industry was slow to develop in New Zealand, despite the introduction of dairy cattle by the missionary Samuel Marsden as early as 1814. Milking cows, usually very expensive, were found mainly in coastal areas. Before the first major growth spurt of the dairy industry in the late 19th century, much fresh milk was bartered with storekeepers for other household necessities. Until the advent of refrigeration in 1882 most dairy products were locally consumed; by the early 2000s 95% was exported.
New Zealanders have long been among the world’s highest consumers of dairy products, particularly butter. Butter consumption rose steadily in the 20th century, from a pre-1920 estimate of 9–10 kilograms per person per year to a peak of 19.5 kilograms in the late 1960s. Since then it has fallen dramatically, to 13 kilograms in 1980 and a little under 6 kilograms in the early 2000s. The availability of table margarine from 1972 has affected butter consumption.
Before 1920 there was a low consumption of milk. Milk drinking reached a peak of almost 190 litres per person each year from 1940 until the 1960s. This was associated with the change to pasteurised (heat-treated) milk in the 1940s, which made milk safer to drink. Annual consumption declined to 155 litres per person in the early 1980s.
Early 19th-century Pākehā settlers without a dairy cow had to look for alternatives. Some collected the milky liquid that was exuded from the tūrepo, which also came to be known as the milk tree.
Before 1930 each New Zealander ate less than 2 kilograms of cheese each year. Consumption rose after the Second World War to reach around 5 kilograms by the mid-1970s and 10 kilograms in the late 1980s. Consumption then steadily dropped to hover around 3.5 kilograms in the early 2000s.
Until the 1950s cheddar was virtually the only cheese produced in New Zealand, and while some soft cheeses were introduced in the early 1900s, demand for these was small. When the New Zealand Co-Operative Rennet Company in Taranaki began pilot production of new cheeses, the range expanded. Blue vein was the first in 1951, and was followed by gruyere and danbo in 1960, feta in 1961, romano in 1964, parmesan in 1965, gouda in 1966 and edam in 1976.
Much of the increased interest in and consumption of cheese in the 1980s accompanied the rise of independent craft cheese makers. The pioneers were Kapiti, Evansdale Cheese, Karikaas, Meyer Gouda Cheese and Mahoe Farmhouse Cheese.
Ice cream and yogurt
Ice cream was eaten in the 19th century but grew in popularity in the 1940s. This was due to demand from American servicemen stationed in New Zealand between 1942 and 1944, and the increasing presence of freezers in homes. By the 1970s New Zealanders ate 18 litres of ice cream per person each year and this increased to 22 litres in the early 2000s. Government regulations for yogurt production were first issued in 1951, but it was not much eaten until around the 1970s.