When it comes to product innovation and being on the cutting edge of sustainable farming, Chicago-based Bel Brands USA is a force to be reckoned with as the company continues to make a positive impact on the dairy case, and the communities in which it serves.

Regarding category trends and what consumers value most in today’s market, Shannon Maher, chief marketing officer, Bel Brands USA, said there has been a real trend toward a greater interest in immunity and holistic wellness. More specifically, products with probiotic and prebiotic claims.

“The pandemic boosted this functional trend even further as family snack habits shifted. Indulgent products were high in the early months of the stay-at-home orders, but led to an emphasis on health and wellness in 2021,” she said. “Bel met this trend with the launch of Babybel plus+ Probiotic and Vitamins.”

The category has also seen a huge opportunity when it comes to plant-based offerings, Maher said.

“In 2020, plant-based product sales grew faster than overall food sales, and more than half of Americans were incorporating more plant-based products into their daily lives. Given Bel’s background and product portfolio, this is a shift the company has been closely tracking for years,” Maher said. “One of the driving factors Bel has identified behind this trend is consumers’ demand for more inclusive offerings, not only to cater to all diets and restrictions, but to also offer a flexitarian approach. We are proud to lead the charge as one of the first cheese companies to offer a selection of quality, plant-based cheese offerings.”

Moreover, Bel Brands USA is committed to championing healthier and more responsible food for all, which includes those who cannot (or choose not to) eat traditional dairy products.

Maher said consumers expect companies to lead the way when it comes to sustainability.

“We have seen that Americans expect companies to invest in sustainability and should be more efficient with the use of natural resources,” she said. “Since 2003, Bel has been improving its practices in efforts to be a better steward of the environment, and a positive force in the communities we serve. We’ve taken measures to reduce our environmental footprint at our production plants and have upped our efforts in local communities.”

At a global level, sustainability ratings provider EcoVadis recently awarded parent company Bel Group with its Platinum Medal rating for its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) performance.

“This is the highest level of recognition from EcoVadis, and places Bel in the top one percent of the highest-rated companies in the world across our business sector,” Maher said.


Product innovation

Throughout the past year, Bel Brands USA has continued to unveil new products across its portfolio of brands — leading the category through innovation by delivering on evolving consumer demands and taste preferences.

In early 2021, Babybel introduced its first functional dairy snacks, Babybel plus+ Probiotic and Vitamins. Both variants provide a good source of calcium and protein, and like all Babybel products, Babybel plus+ contains no artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors.

Additionally, the company launched The Laughing Cow Blends, a new better-for-you snacking option that blends creamy Laughing Cow cheese with legumes in a spreadable pre-portioned wedge.

“The Laughing Cow Blends bring a new taste and texture experience, seeking to reach millennial flexitarian consumers’ snacking preferences,” Maher said.

Also, The Laughing Cow & Go snack cups were made available nationally in early 2021, following new branding and product reformulation in 2020.

“They are designed for the consumer on-the-go, fitting perfectly into cup holders (and hands) as an ideal companion for commuting, road trips, or a quick errand,” Maher said. “The Laughing Cow & Go pairs the brand’s creamy dippable cheese with crunchy breadsticks, providing five grams of protein and a good source of calcium, at only 140 calories.”

Bel’s leading entertaining cheese brand, Boursin, expanded its product line to include Boursin Dairy-Free Cheese Spread Alternative Garlic & Herbs — created to meet flexitarian food trends and evolving consumer demands.

In 2021, the company also introduced its first completely plant-based cheese brand, Nurishh — placing Bel Brands USA among the first traditional cheese companies to add plant-based cheeses to its product portfolio.

“Guided by Bel’s French cheesemaking expertise, Nurishh strikes the balance of genuine cheesy taste, meltability, and comfort, with plant-based benefits. The product is available in slices and shreds in six varieties,” Maher said.


The future of cheese

Maher said Bel Brands USA has the ability to set the tone for the future of the cheese industry by way of a consumer- and customer-centric approach to innovation that focuses on products that meet evolving demands, even as those demands continue to shift.

“For example, during the pandemic, we quickly pivoted development plans to bring the first functional snack to market — Babybel plus+ Probiotic and Babybel plus+ Vitamins — on an accelerated timeline, following insights that consumers were craving snacking options that delivered on functional needs,” she said. “Furthermore, we’re always tracking the latest trends to inform both new offerings and innovative flavors as part of a diverse portfolio of products, and have the ability to move quickly when needed to bring these trends to life.”

For Bel Brands USA, Maher said the biggest driver for innovation will always be the consumer.

“Our ongoing priority is to deliver quality products that meet consumer needs,” Maher said.

Over the past year, Bel Brands USA has introduced new hybrid and plant-based cheese offerings to meet rising consumer demands. By expanding its product offering beyond cheese products, Bel is furthering its mission to become a major player in the healthy snack market — diversifying through growth in dairy, and fruit and plant-based products.

“We feel we are uniquely positioned to continue to expand through innovation because of the company’s 150-plus years of experience in the dairy industry and deep understanding of the complexity and fine craft of cheesemaking,” Maher said. “We have an exciting innovation pipeline across all brands that will continue to meet growing consumer demands, expanding taste profiles and dietary considerations, while also seeking to make a positive impact on communities and the environment.”

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People and principles

Bel Brands USA is committed to providing healthier and more responsible food for all.

“Our mission is to champion healthier and more responsible food for all — fueling our people and planet,” said Simone Esubi, senior manager — corporate communications and external affairs, Bel Brands USA. “We do this through healthier food, sustainable farming practices, and positive community impact. We strive to foster a company culture of belonging that reflects what we want to see in the world. Our values of dare, commit and care, are at the very heart of our business strategy, and we constantly strive to encourage growth while still respecting Bel’s core values and unique spirit.”

Esubi said Bel Brands USA is a proud family business with an established history of expertise and trust that allows the company to truly put its employees, communities and consumers first.

“We are always listening to consumers’ changing needs – both for the short- and long-term —responding with innovations that meet the ever-evolving demands for more nutritious products,” she said.

“A Place to Grow and Shine” is a statement that Bel Brands USA uses to describe the company to current and prospective employees.

“It embodies what employees can expect from Bel, as well as what employees can contribute as part of the Bel family,” Esubi said. “All of our employees are encouraged to challenge themselves and to share ideas on how they can make products and processes better. Further, it’s not only what you’re doing today that is important, but what you’ll do in the future. Bel is committed to paving the way for employees of all ambitions.”

Esubi said Bel Brands USA truly believes that its people make all the difference — it’s what sets the company apart from the pack.

“Each member of the Bel family isn’t simply another employee — they’re a name, a face, and a personality,” she said. “High employee engagement is key, and we make sure that each and every person feels valued, encouraged, and supported.”


Sustainable measures

Since 2003, Bel Brands USA has been improving its practices in efforts to be a better steward of the environment, and a positive force in the communities in which it serves.

“We believe that our corporate responsibility goes beyond the doorstep of our plants, and that we actively impact the environment and our local communities — so we’re committed to conducting business in a respectful and caring way,” said Jean-Michel Dos Remedios, sourcing and supplier development senior director, Bel Brands USA. “While agriculture is often presented as the problem, we are convinced that it can be part of the solution.”

Bel Brands USA actively promotes sustainable farming, including responsible dairy production, to help drive a sustainable and regenerative agriculture industry.

“We empower US dairy farmers to continue their environmental stewardship legacy by not just giving them access to responsible practices, but also giving them the opportunity to help shape on-farm practices, including through our partnerships with Dairy Farmers of America and Land O’Lakes,” Dos Remedios said.

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Accordingly, Bel Brands USA is a long-standing member of the national Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (F.A.R.M.) program.

“The program provides assurance that U.S. dairy farmers are doing what’s right,” Dos Remedios added. “They ensure the highest ethical standards for their dairy producer members including best practices on how dairy is produced on the farm, its safety and wholesomeness, who’s producing it, how animals are treated and the impact on our environment.”

Bel Brands USA believes in and encourages sustainable farming to ensure the quality, quantity, and availability of resources is beneficial to the whole ecosystem.

To that end, the company announced its partnership with Land O’Lakes, Arden Hills, Minn., in March 2021 to implement and measure sustainable agriculture practices that promote soil health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions on one of its supplying dairy farms.

“Land O’Lakes is a valued partner of Bel Brands USA, and Land O’Lakes member-owners provide milk to Bel Brands’ facilities to produce milk and cheese,” Dos Remedios said. “With Bel and Land O’Lakes’ shared ambitions to improve sustainable farming practices and reduce both companies’ overall environmental footprint, the pilot supports these ongoing and important efforts.”

Dos Remedios said the findings of the program will help to inform future best practices for dairy farm sustainability throughout their shared supply chain.

“The three-year pilot effort will be one of the first to use Land O’Lakes’ Truterra Insights Engine to track crop system changes on a dairy farm,” he said. “Further, Bel will provide $100,000 to support the farmer’s implementation and measurement.”

Dos Remedios said Bel continually invests in technologies that will help the company achieve its mission to ‘Champion healthier and more responsible food for all — fueling our people and planet.’”

“One way these technologies come to life is through our partnerships, such as with Land O’Lakes, to improve sustainable farming practices and reduce both companies’ overall environmental footprint,” Dos Remedios said. “At the factory level, we have invested in new tools and technologies to closely track our carbon impact by brand and product to empower greater transparency and inform decision making for processes moving forward.”


Shaping the future

Bel Brands USA is committed to shaping the future beyond its own results.

“That means we must serve as a leader in the industry to address pressing global issues, like the climate challenge,” said Nathalie Dunand-Zaloum, marketing director, CSR and strategic planning, Bel Brands USA. “As part of this, we want to rethink the way we engage in agriculture, how we produce products, and the way we feed people.”

Dunand-Zaloum said agriculture represents 25% of total global CO2 emissions, leading to climate change and loss of biodiversity. “While agriculture is often viewed as a problem, we know that it can also be the solution,” she added. “That is why we are committed to fostering regenerative agriculture to not only limit CO2 emissions, but enable agriculture to be a net positive on the world and serve as a pillar of the zero-carbon race.”

The company is also rethinking the way it transports and packs its products. “This means sourcing our packaging and raw material closer to our factories and our consumers by partnering with other food producers who we do not see as competitors,” Dunand-Zaloum said.

Foremost, Bel Brands USA is accountable to its consumers and what they put on their plates, Dunand-Zaloum said.

“The way we innovate, the way we renovate our portfolio, the way we communicate about what should be put on the plate, and the way we decide to promote what should be put on the plate — all of the decisions we make every day have a massive impact on the way people feed themselves,” she said. “We know that we need to accelerate the consumption of fruits and vegetables, and move from animal protein to plant-based protein (at least for one quarter of the plate). It means we produce goodness made of dairy, veggies, fruits, or a mix of both, in order to accessibly provide the best nutritional profile with less carbon impact.”


Serving the community

Bel Brands USA is uniquely involved in the community in which it serves.

“With our U.S. headquarters based in Chicago, we’re proud to support and engage with our community through a number of efforts and initiatives, especially during COVID-19,” said Simone Esubi, senior manager, corporate communications and external affairs, Bel Brands USA. “While this was a burgeoning time for Bel’s portfolio of products, we used the moment to influence social impact and give back to local communities in need of support.”

To combat the impacts of COVID-19 in Chicago, Bel Brands USA provided monetary and product donations to organizations feeding neighbors in need, including the Greater Chicago Food Depository, GENYOUth’s “For School’s Sake” initiative, MealsOnWheels Chicago and Northern Illinois Food Bank.

“We donated 10,000 cases of our The Laughing Cow round boxes of cheese to healthcare workers at the Northwestern Memorial Hospital, which delivered necessary nourishment to our frontline heroes,” Esubi said.

The company also provided grants through the Boursin Restaurant Support Program to help alleviate the pressures felt by some of Chicago’s favorite restaurants that were closed to indoor dining at the height of the pandemic.

Through the Babybel Boom program, the brand also supported the joy of new babies born in 2020 while giving back to Baby2Baby to help ensure babies and children living in poverty have access to basic essentials.

Bel Brands USA has also donated $50,000 to the Museum of Science and Industry to support its employee salary relief efforts and its “Science at Home” program that offers engaging at-home science experiments for children and families.

In addition, the company has an ongoing community partnership with Gary Comer Youth Center in support of its efforts to provide education, college preparation, career planning and enrichment efforts for underserved youth in Chicago’s South Side.

“Further, we’ve engaged in a partnership since 2019 with Growing Home, an organization whose mission is to provide access to healthy food options, job skills training, job placement, and life planning skills to under-resourced families in Chicago’s Englewood community,” Esubi said.