The Cheese Challenge

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“Ethical” Cheese Is Hard to Come By
Vegetarianism is on the rise. Ac-cording to a 2008 survey published by Vegetarian Times magazine, 3.2% of American adults follow a vegetarian diet and another 10% follow a vegetarian-inclined diet, most of them for concerns about animal welfare. Yet many of them eat cheese.

It turns out that suffering-free cheese is nearly impossible to come by. The devil is in the details. Cheese is the product of coagulating (curdling) the milk protein casein. The milk is first acidified by adding vinegar, or more often bacteria, to convert the sugars into the lactic acid needed to form the softer curds characteristic of fresh cheeses like cottage or cream cheese. More rubbery, lower-moisture, aged cheeses, like Swiss or cheddar, require the addition of enzymes to achieve the desired taste and texture.

The Matter of Milk

The problem for sympathetic vegetarians begins with the sourcing of milk. In factory farming dairies, milk cows are typically dosed with bovine growth hormone (BGH) to push milk production to 70 pounds per day or more. BGH promotes mastitis, a painful inflammation of the udder. Then there’s routine dosing with antibiotics to compensate for the spread of diseases on giant, crowded feedlots.

According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the natural life span of dairy cows is 20-25 years but they are slaughtered at four or five years because they are lame from confinement or otherwise “used up.” The day-to-day treatment of cows would appear at first glance better in organic dairy operations, in part because BGH and antibiotics are prohibited (suggesting conditions don’t require them). And new organic standards dictate that, weather permitting, ruminants have access to pasture at least a third of the year and derive, at minimum, 30% of their sustenance from grazing.

Kayla Koenings, spokesperson for Organic Valley, the nation’s largest producer of organic milk, says their milk cows are generally allowed to live a few years longer than those on factory farms but are still slaughtered for beef well before the end of their natural lives. A spokesperson for Horizon Organic, another major producer of organic dairy products, confirmed the same.

And there is still the issue of what happens to male calves. Milk cows have to be re-impregnated about once a year to maintain milk production, and only the female calves have value as replacement milk cows. In factory farms, male calves are slated for veal production or castrated without painkillers, fattened to maturity and slaughtered.

Within an organic dairy cooperative like Organic Valley, the preference is to rear the male calves within the cooperative of organic farms until they are mature and ready for slaughter, but Koenings admitted there is no guarantee that male calves are not sold for veal. The same holds true for Horizon Organic farms.

As awareness of the treatment of veal calves has spread among the American public, per capita veal consumption has dropped over 90% from a peak of 3.5 pounds in 1975 to 0.3 pounds in 2008, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. Cheese consumption, by contrast, more than doubled over this same period, exceeding 30 pounds per capita in 2008. PETA’s take on organic diary farms is that cows are sometimes subject to even more cruelty than on conventional farms. Bruce Friedrich, a PETA spokesperson, points out that antibiotic prohibition creates pressure to withhold medication which would ease the pain of mastitis and other infections. He also claims that the tighter profit margin under which organic farms often operate means animals that are sick or in pain are sometimes left to suffer longer than on conventional farms.

Friedrich also emphasizes that organic dairy cows endure the same stresses of forced yearly re-impregnations and having their calves taken away as do their non-organic counterparts. As to the connection between milk products and veal, he states, “Every veal calf had a dairy cow mother, so there is a hunk of veal in every glass of milk.”

Enzyme Ethics

Cheesemaking is thought to predate recorded history, and by Roman times cheeses were a dietary staple in some parts of the world. Until the 1980s, the enzymes used in aged cheeses were derived entirely from the stomach linings of very young calves. While still milk-fed, their stomachs produce ample amounts of the enzyme chymosin (or rennin), a reliable cheese-ager. In the U.S., only 3% of cheese produced is still made with calf rennet, according to Mark Johnson, Ph.D., a cheese expert from the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research. Europe’s percentage is higher, thanks to its abundance of artisan cheeses. All of the animal welfare issues that have come to light with respect to veal production apply to cheeses made with calf rennet because rennet and veal are two sides of the same industry.

For the other 97% of U.S. cheeses, milk coagulation is accomplished with enzymes from one of two microbial sources, one of which is genetically modified and responsible for the vast majority of cheeses at the local grocery store. Many of these cheeses still contain animal derivatives in their fermentation process, except those that have been kosher-certified.

Label Limits

Cheese label ingredients will list “enzymes,” but it is rare that they will identify the enzyme’s source as animal or microbial. And they will almost certainly not specify when the microbial organism was genetically modified.

So what do cheese labels tell us? If it’s labeled “kosher” and made in the U.S., the cheese was fermented without animal enzymes, though it may still contain milk from factory-farmed cows. Otherwise, only cheese labeled “vegan” has no animal ingredients. For greater insight, check the manufacturer’s website or call the company. Or consider the merits of faux cheese made from soy, almonds or rice, though you’ll still need to check to make sure it is casein (dairy)-free. After melting and taste-testing four top brands, the site veganbaking.net concluded that vegan cheddar and mozzarella shreds made primarily from tapioca or arrowroot flour combined with various oils from Daiya had both the flavor and melt-ability to stand up to their dairy counterparts.

SARAH S. MOSKO is a licensed psychologist and sleep disorder specialist living in Southern California. She blogs at

boogiegreen.com.