Animal Rennet 04/06/11
Are you eating the stomach of an unweaned calf? Laura Cooke finds out more about South African cheese.
As a vegetarian, it can be quite tricky to always know what to look for when food shopping. I only recently discovered the animal by-products used in the wine-making process and I am sure that there are many other products that don’t declare all the items that are used in their production.
So, I thought it would be worth taking a look at another food item that most vegetarians still enjoy: cheese. While many cheese makers do label their cheese as vegetarian or that it is made with non-animal rennet, I particularly wanted to find out more about the state of South African cheese.
Who better to ask than Kobus Mulder, the Manager of Dairy at Agri-Expo, who kindly answered some questions for Veggie Buntch.
Veggie Buntch: What’s the difference between animal and non-animal rennet?
Kobus Mulder: Animal rennet is an enzyme, rennin, secreted in the fourth stomach of calves, lambs, and goats. It is mostly obtained by drying and extracting it from the stomachs of unweaned calves. Non-animal or microbial rennet, is artificially secreted from genetically modified bacteria,Mucor miehei.
VB: What is the purpose of rennet in the cheese-making process?
KM: Firstly it coagulates the milk proteins into a gel in order for the cheese maker to cut the coagulum – this is to facilitate curds and whey. Secondly, it degrades lactose, proteins and fat during ripening to produce cheese flavour.
VB: Do lots of cheese makers still use animal rennet?
KM: Very few in South Africa, maybe 5%. Countries like France, Italy, Spain, Japan only use animal rennet. [Ed’s note: Good to know when next at the store!]
VB: Do you have any idea where cheese makers source animal rennet?
KM: It is obtainable from international supply companies who have agents in SA. It is no longer made in SA due to the low demand.
VB: Are South African cheeses makers obliged to label their cheeses as including animal rennet?
VB: Where can consumers source information on the cheeses that do or don’t use animal rennet?
KM: From the maker of the cheese.
VB: Have you noticed a growing awareness among consumers about this issue?
KB: No. Ordinary cheese consumers are not concerned with it as it is not a health or taste issue. Halaal and Kosher cheeses have always been made with plant or microbial rennet due to their religion and vegetarians have slowly been asking for it since the mid-nineties.
The good news is that South Africa doesn’t produce animal rennet at all, due to the lack of demand, and the majority of our cheese is safe for vegetarians. The bad news however, is that cheese makers are under no obligation to state that they do use animal rennet.
So it’s probably best to contact a farm directly if you want to be 100% sure. And, stick to local. No more Italian or French cheese on my platters!