The deli doctor
Q: The label on one of our brie-style cheeses does not clearly state that it is made with vegetarian rennet. The wholesaler tells me it is ‘Suitable for Ovo-Lacto Vegetarians’ – but does that mean it doesn’t contain animal rennet?
A: There are four main types of rennet that can be used to make cheese. Of these, only animal rennet is unsuitable for vegetarians, as it is derived from the abomasum, or ‘fourth stomach’ of the calf, kid or lamb. The others, which are suitable for vegetarians, include:
• Microbial rennet (an enzyme made by a fungus)
• Fermentation-derived chymosin (made using a genetically-modified microbe)
• Vegetable rennet such as Cardoon (used in some sheeps’ milk cheeses)
The rennet used to make the product described is most likely to be either microbial, or fermentation-derived chymosin. These cost-effective coagulants are widely used in large-scale creamery cheeses; there aren’t enough animal stomachs in the world to make all the cheese that is produced globally!
EU law does not require cheeses made from fermentation-derived chymosin to be labelled as containing a genetically-modified ingredient, because the quantity makes up less than 0.9% of the final product.
There is no legal definition of ‘vegetarian’ at European level, or in many member states. The European Vegetarian Union has highlighted this as posing an obstacle to providing clear food information to the consumer. In the UK, the Vegetarian Society states that the term excludes the consumption of animal rennet, but that a vegetarian diet can include dairy or eggs.
Highlighting the cheese as being suitable for “ovo-lacto vegetarians” should indicate that animal rennet was not used. While it is likely that vegetarian rennet has been used, uncertainty over the legal definition means that you may wish to ask for further information and Delihelp has contacted the manufacturer on your behalf.
Dairy and food safety specialist Paul Thomas runs the Guild’s e-helpline for retailers with technical or regulatory queries. It can be accessed through the Guild Members’ Hub at gff.co.uk
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