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A vegan cheese beat dairy in a big competition. Then the plot curdled

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A plant-based blue cheese was set to be announced as a winner for the prestigious Good Food awards, which caused a stir among traditionalists. However, its status was later revoked.

Vegan blue cheese from Climax Foods. Picture: Climax Foods

By Emily Heil

IN THE wine world, the 1976 Judgment of Paris — a blind taste test in which California chardonnays and Bordeauxs beat out their French counterparts — is remembered as the shocking upending of long-standing order.

A similar moment looked like it was coming to the demimonde of artisanal cheese. On Monday, the winners were set to be announced for the Good Food awards, a prestigious honour that considers both the quality of the products and the environmental and social consciousness of the companies that produce them.

When the California-based foundation that doles them out announced the finalists in January, among the candidates was a blue cheese from Climax Foods from Berkeley, California. The difference between that entrant and its competitors wasn’t a silky mouthfeel or buttery flavour, but rather the fact that the Climax Blue — which is served in restaurants including Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park in New York — wasn’t made from the milk of cows or goats, but rather a blend of ingredients including pumpkin seeds, lima beans, hemp seeds, coconut fat and cocoa butter.

A plant-based “cheese” held up as an exemplar, in a blind tasting, among true dairy products? Traditional cheesemakers were shocked. As word spread about the interloper, mostly through food writer Janet Fletcher’s Planet Cheese newsletter, the controversy fomented.

The Good Food Foundation that oversees the awards at first offered a compromise solution: If, in fact, the Climax cheese was a winner, it announced, the foundation would name a co-winner. Then the foundation would re-evaluate for next year, perhaps creating a new category or moving them into the broader snacks cohort.

But behind the scenes, things were getting messy.

Last week, the foundation quietly removed the Climax Blue from the list of finalists on its website but didn’t make public what had disqualified the cheese. It wasn’t the fact that it is plant-based, since those products are explicitly allowed. But it had never been an issue since a vegan cheese had never impressed the judges enough to be named a finalist.

When asked by The Washington Post about its reasoning, Good Food Foundation Executive Director Sarah Weiner at first declined to say, but she said something similar had happened only three times in the awards’ 14-year history. Someone — another entrant, perhaps, or someone else in the community — can alert the foundation that a contestant might not meet the requirements they attested to, which include such things as meeting animal-husbandry guidelines where applicable and offering employees fair wages and diversity training. Weiner also wouldn’t say who tipped off the foundation about Climax.

“I think there were a lot more eyes on this particular entrant than there would be on one of the hundreds of other finalists,” she said. “Which made it more likely that someone with expertise would reach out.”

Climax CEO Oliver Zahn accused the foundation of caving to pressure from dairy cheesemakers in revoking the award. And then he spilled the curds: Climax, it turns out, wasn’t just a finalist — it was set to win the award, a fact that all parties are asked to keep confidential until the official ceremony in Portland, Ore., but was revealed in an e-mail the foundation sent to Climax in January. Based on that information, Zahn and several of his colleagues had planned to attend, booking hotel rooms and making travel plans, until, he says, learning from this reporter that his cheese was no longer in the running.

And in the days leading up to the big event, Climax and the Good Food Foundation offered differing versions of the circumstances around the rare award revocation.

Zahn says the foundation made no attempt to reach the company to address potential questions, citing company email records. Weiner says they emailed and called the person who had submitted the application — who they learned no longer works for Climax — and then e-mailed another employee with no response.

Zahn says he suspects that the person who lodged the complaint is an “informant” from the dairy cheese world who has been particularly outspoken. The substance of the complaint appeared to rest on the ingredient kokum butter — which is derived from the seeds of a kokum tree’s fruit — that Climax used in an earlier version of its cheese. Kokum butter has not been designated as GRAS (generally regarded as safe) by the US Food and Drug Administration. Not all ingredients need a GRAS certification: The FDA grandfathers those that have common use in food.

When Climax and the other competitors submitted their products, the Good Food Awards didn’t explicitly require GRAS certification for all ingredients. Since then, though, the foundation added GRAS certification to its rules — a move Zahn says was a belated and clumsy attempt to disqualify him. It isn’t clear when the foundation added the language, but an internet archive search showed that the new wording wasn’t there in January, after the finalists had been announced. Weiner said the awards exist to promote good foods, and that food safety is part of that definition. The addition of the language was “a clarification of our principles and standards … rather than a new rule,” she said in an e-mail.

Zahn says the kokum butter shouldn’t be an issue anyway: The company has replaced it with cocoa butter, which does have GRAS certification, and that’s the version he says the version he submitted for the awards. (Weiner contends that Climax submitted an ingredient list that included kokum.) Zahn says they could have worked the confusion out if they’d only known about the complaint sooner, but Weiner said the company missed a deadline to respond. “This is something we would have been happy to take a look at if they had gotten back to us in time,” she said in an e-mail.

Another dispute between the two sides? Weiner said the Climax cheese violated a requirement that any product submitted for an award be ready for retail sale, but Zahn insists the cheese is retail-ready.

Vegan blue cheese from Climax Foods. Picture: Climax Foods

Weiner called the controversy around Climax and its ultimate disqualification “a big bummer,” but said it showed how much the food community cares about the foundation’s mission. “Our way of making change is to celebrate the good as opposed to call out the bad,” she says. “But other people are good at that.”

Zahn, though, was left frustrated. For his fledgling company, a Good Food Award would have attracted potential buyers for retail stores and impressed would-be investors. Instead, he was soured by the experience — and pretty sure he won’t submit entrants in future years. “Changing the rules six months after submission, and then not even trying to reach the company to try to fix a fixable situation? If that happened in my company, I would step down as CEO,” he says. “Seriously, I would step down because that would be so embarrassing to me that there was no way I could justify continuing to run the company. And I would fire anybody who was involved.”

The to-do wasn’t just a tempest in a cheese pot, the kind of infighting you might find in any industry. Writ large, a plant-based cheese’s ascension to the top of a prestigious heap might be a bellwether moment, an inflection point in the evolution of vegan cheese from rubbery-textured punchline to a product worthy of sitting alongside some of the country’s top cheddars and tommes. And the pushback might offer a preview of the battle that could play out over supermarket shelf space and even the word “cheese” itself.

To Zahn, the method he’s using isn’t all that different from the one used for centuries. When it comes down to it, he notes, plants fuel the animals that produce milk — and so in concocting a milk made out of plants, Zahn says he’s just cutting out the middleman (or middle-bovine). In his analysis of traditional cheesemaking, a cow is essentially a processing machine — and not a very efficient one at that.

“There’s a lot of energy being used to turn something from one thing to another, and in the case of a cow, 90 percent of the inputs go to just processing,” he says. “There is no factory you could potentially devise that would come with that much processing.”

But traditional cheesemakers see the companies making vegan products as simply operating in another business entirely.

“These are engineered products. And they’re part of a financialised food system that’s fueled by venture capital and disconnected from nature,” says Mateo Kehler, co-owner of the family-run Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont. Kehler’s cheese has previously won Good Food awards, and his bark-wrapped, bloomy-rind Harbison cheese is a finalist this year. “You have these technological products, but they rely on adjacency to the value proposition that we have created — through labour and through creating products that are truly connected to a landscape, to a farming system, and to our collective human history.”

“One could make the argument that this is like a fraudulent cheese,” Kehler said. “As a cheesemaker, it’s a fraud. It looks like a cheese. It might taste like a cheese. But it’s not. It’s not connected to our historical understanding of what cheeses are.”

Kehler appreciates that consumers might want to buy foods that take less of a toll on the environment. But, he says, his farm and ones like it have a much smaller environmental footprint than many of the crops, such as almonds, that are used to create many vegan products. “The people are compelling,” he says of the vegan cheese companies. “The foundational principles and the big ideas are really compelling — like the idea of fully disrupting industrial agriculture. But that’s not what’s happening.”

From a taste perspective, Zahn understands the bad rap that vegan cheese has gotten, or at least what he describes as the “first generation” of the products that rely on artificial flavourings, gums, starches and oils with results that are often bouncy and gummy. But the category is evolving, with companies making high-end products that more closely mimic the real thing, often using culturing and ageing processes similar to the traditional methods. Vegan cheese shops have opened from Los Angeles to Atlanta. Big food companies are delving in.

For the Good Food awards, a panel of judges taste entrants without knowing their brands. In the cheese category, judges may learn whether the samples are from cow or goat’s milk — or in the case of Climax, from plants. Weiner indicated that the judges were aware that they were trying a vegan entrant. “Very impressive for being vegan but obviously plant-based,” was one judge’s written comment, she relayed.

“The fact that they selected us to make it this far is exciting, and a testament to the fact that we don’t need cows,” Zahn says.

Janet Fletcher, the newsletter author who has been following the controversy, says it has stoked an unusual level of drama in a typically collegial industry. “For some farmers, it feels almost like an insult to say that their product could be compared to something created in the lab,” she says.

The Good Food awards matter, she says. They might not be something the average consumer is aware of, but retailers often look for the imprimatur when seeking out high-quality, ethically sourced goods.

Got Wood Milk? Actress Aubrey Plaza in an advertisement for a fake company called Wood Milk, on behalf of the Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP). Picture: MilkPEP

The incident also brings up the question of semantics. Can you call something “cheese” that has nothing to do with animals? We’ve been here with milk: When alternatives, starting with soy, began making inroads, the dairy industry pushed back. They ultimately lost, with the Food and Drug Administration releasing guidelines allowing plant-based products to be labelled and marketed as milk, but the battle has continued: Last year, the Milk Processor Education Program brought back its iconic milk-mustache motif in a faux advertisement in which actress Aubrey Plaza plays the CEO of a company that makes an unappealing “wood milk,” a clear jab at the alt-milk industry.

Miquela Hanselman, director of regulatory affairs for the National Milk Producers Federation, says vegan products don’t meet the federally prescribed standards of identity for cheese, either. “Our stance is basically the same — if you’re going to use the word cheese on your package, and you’re not going to qualify it with ‘substitute’ or ‘alternative’ that is pretty boldly out there and explain the differences, then it shouldn’t be on the label.”

Marjorie Mulhall, senior director of policy for the Plant Based Food Association, says labelling is just a matter of making things easier for shoppers. “Using cheese terminology helps consumers locate plant-based foods to meet their needs,” she said in an email.

Zahn insists he isn’t hung up on terminology, and would defer to consumers on the matter. And while he says he doesn’t want to offend traditional cheesemakers and instead hopes they can coexist, he challenges his sceptics to have an open mind. “Maybe there is a fear about us infringing or replacing them, but I don’t see it that way — I just want us all to work together towards the better,” he says. “The other thing I would tell them is to taste it themselves. Do they like it?”

– THE WASHINGTON POST

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