Is Cheese Vegetarian?

Serious Cheese

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20071218brebislacaune.jpgA couple weeks back, on a blustery morning at the Union Square Greenmarket, I had a very interesting conversation with Karen Weinberg of 3-Corner Field Farm. A small dairy sheep farm on New York's border with Vermont, 3-Corner Field produces outstanding farmstead sheep's milk cheeses and yogurts. If you can get your hands on their luscious, showstopping bloomy-rind cheese called Shushan Snow, you will not be disappointed.

On this particular Wednesday, Weinberg was also selling a couple of aged Pyrénées-style cheeses, one of which was perfectly smoked by the Monks of New Skete. As we stood teeth-chattering among her hanging sheepskins, the topic of vegetarian cheese came up, and I discovered that Weinberg has some really interesting, if contrarian, ideas about the subject.

The term vegetarian cheese might sound redundant to you; after all, cheese is made with milk, which clearly can be obtained without killing an animal. What most people mean when they use the term vegetarian cheese is that the cheese was made with vegetarian rennet. (See below for a primer on vegetarian vs. animal rennets.) Some vegetarians are OK eating cheeses made with animal rennet, but many will seek out ones made with vegetarian rennet, especially since the latter are quite prevalent nowadays. But is vegetarian cheese really vegetarian? Weinberg doesn't think so, and after talking to her I have my doubts as well.

Granted, making cheese doesn't involve any direct slaughter, but what if we take a look at things from a higher vantage point? A dairy farm is part of a larger agricultural system, one that is often complicated by industrial agriculture, but one that is plain to see at the scale of a small farm like 3-Corner Field. Many people don't make this seemingly obvious connection, but in order for a sheep (or any mammal) to lactate, she has to give birth first. From this new generation, only half, at most, will be milkers (the ewes). What happens to all the little ram lambs? Well, sure, some of them can go on to satisfying careers as professional studs, but most will just end up on the plate. In addition, even many of the milkers end up as food, not so much in this country but in others where mutton is more readily consumed.

What's the alternative? For farmers to keep these animals as pets? Even in a small operation, this would be untenable. The point is that if you look at dairy farming with a wide-angle lens, all of a sudden what comes into focus is a whole lot of meat production. So, in a sense, cheese can never be vegetarian because it leads to the indirect slaughter of animals for their meat. Small-scale farmers like Weinberg, after all, need to exploit all available profit centers if they want to stay in business; if she didn't sell her lamb meat (or her sheepskins), she wouldn't be able to make ends meet with her wonderful cheeses alone.

This is a potentially controversial viewpoint, and I'm curious to hear your thoughts about it. Is it right to draw a distinction between foods that come directly from animal slaughter and those indirectly associated with it?

Rennet, the coagulant used to make many cheeses, is a combination of many different enzymes, and occurs naturally in the abomasum, or fourth stomach, of young ruminant animals (calves, lambs, kids, for example). True animal rennet can only be harvested by killing the animal and processing the stomach to extract the enzymes. Vegetarian rennet on the other hand can be made in a few different ways, but never involves killing an animal directly. There are vegetarian rennets derived from fungi, plants, as well as lab-created genetically engineered rennet that otherwise mimics the real thing.