So far, the nation’s fight over labeling food products that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has mostly been contained to supermarket snack and cereal aisles, but brace yourselves: What may be the most polarizing debate in food is about to reach the cheese counter.
Whole Foods Market, the largest specialty cheese retailer in the nation, has publicly committed to labeling all products made with GMO ingredients by 2018. The looming deadline has cheesemakers – especially those who nurture scrumptious aged cheeses that require extra time to reach market – scrambling to find alternative sources of feed or to change their cheesemaking process.
Of course, cows, sheep, and goats aren’t genetically modified themselves (yet!), but even pasture-raised livestock often rely on supplemental feed over the course of a year. Most farmers turn to corn and soybeans, more than 90 percent of which are now genetically engineered in the United States. For cheesemakers clamoring for shelf space at Whole Foods in 2018 and beyond, milk from livestock that munched on those GMO grains, and any cheese made with it, will be required to carry a label that notifies customers as such.
For many cheesemakers, the solution isn’t simple. Angela Miller of Consider Bardwell Farm in Vermont relies on pasture to feed her cows and goats from May until late October, and she supplements with corn when needed. When the price of organic corn skyrocketed to nearly double the cost of conventional corn, she started using conventional. Miller’s goat cheese retails for $26 a pound, and passing along the costs of going GMO-free to her customers is tricky. Staying with conventional corn, however, would mean her well-known cheeses like Pawlet, Manchester, and Rupert will need to carry a “made with GMO”-type label if she wants to remain at Whole Foods.
Miller is making the switch, reluctantly, to avoid that scenario. “I do think that the consumer has the right to know what is in her food, but I wish we had more information on whether it’s as horrific as some folks, but not the scientists, think,” she says. “But I’m also a businessperson and don’t want people to have excuses to not buy our first-class cheeses.” Whole Foods president and chief operating officer A.C. Gallo tells culture that cheese made from animals fed GMO grain won’t automatically be removed from store shelves, but the ultimate goal is GMO transparency.
“We believe that our customers will tend to prefer cheeses made from animals that are not fed GMO grain,” Gallo says. “So there’s a good chance that over time the sales of cheeses produced from GMO-fed animals could decline to the point where it no longer makes sense to stock them.”
Cheesemaker Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm and the Cellars at Jasper Hill, best known for his gooey washed-rind Winnimere, bark-wrapped Harbison, and the dense and creamy Bayley Hazen Blue, says he’s concerned that customers may not be willing to pay more for already-expensive cheese simply because it’s verified as non-GMO. But like Miller, Vermont-based Kehler doesn’t want to lose valuable shelf space at Whole Foods, so he is developing plans to source enough non-GMO feed for his herds. Kehler is even considering building his own feed mill to ensure supply – a pricey solution.
Cheesemakers who rely on rennet known as FPC (fermentation-produced chymosin) may also need to adjust; chymosin is produced using genetic engineering. Cheesemakers choose FPC for its consistency and affordable price, but they may need to turn to animal or vegetable rennet or else risk a GMO label.
While Whole Foods’ labeling mandate is driving the conversation among cheesemakers, it’s not the only source of pressure. Both Miller and Kehler make cheese in Vermont, the first state in the nation to pass its own GMO labeling law. Dairy is exempt under the current law, but that may be temporary. Vermont State Attorney General William Sorrell is tasked with producing a report by January 2015 to determine if the exemption for milk and products like cheese should stand. In the meantime, the law itself is the focus of a lawsuit filed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and three other industry groups.