By: Clare Leschin-Hoa
Walking with the tousled-haired Mateo Kehler is a practice in patience. It’s rare for him to travel two steps before he’s greeted by name, his hands are clasped, and he’s embraced by fellow cheesemakers, cheesemongers and buyers of his award-winning Jasper Hill cheeses.
Among the nearly 1,000 attendees at the American Cheese Society’s annual conference in Sacramento last week, the name “Mateo” required no last name, no qualifier. In this world, he’s a mononymous superstar, a Bono or Beyonce.
Kehler isn’t merely a leader in the American artisan cheese renaissance; he’s also knee-deep in the nation’s curdling fight over GMO labeling. He’s based in Vermont, the first state in the nation to pass a GMO labeling law. For now, the law excludes dairy products, pending a report by Attorney General Bill Sorrell due in January 2015.
The dairy cows that Kehler depends upon to make cheeses like his bark-wrapped Harbison, buttery Alpha Tolman and gooey washed-rind Winnamere are not genetically modified. However, a small part of their feed comes from genetically engineered corn. For the moment, that’s not an issue in Kehler’s home state, but he says it’s a looming worry.
The reason? Whole Foods, which last year became the first national chain to set a deadline – of 2018 – for full GMO transparency: “We heard our customers loud and clear asking us for GMO labeling and we are responding where we have control: in our own stores,” writes Walter Robb, co-CEO, in the company’s initial announcement.
But the company is going beyond transparency and, in some categories, expressing a clear preference for GMO-free products. President and COO AC Gallo writes, “We are going beyond finished packaged products with a focus on meat, dairy, eggs and fish. To be labeled as non-GMO or organic, animals providing these products must be fed non-GMO or organic feed.”
This focus on ingredients extends all the way up the supply chain. As Gallo explains, “Beer, wine and cheese will also need special consideration, since the use of genetically modified enzymes is fairly common when making these products.”
As the largest specialty cheese retailer in the nation, Whole Foods’ decision casts a long shadow across the industry. For producers who want to continue selling their products there, the scramble to source non-GMO ingredients is heating up. The company’s standards are still developing, but by 2018, its producers will have to label products made from GMO ingredients – including dairy and meat products derived from livestock fed with genetically engineered crops.
Kehler explains that this could be an insurmountable supply-chain problem. “There isn’t a large supply of non-GMO grain,” he says. “In Vermont, there’s one mill that supplies it and they’re not taking customers. We’re on a waiting list,” he says.
A shrinking timeline
For cheesemakers, whose products often require a year or more of careful aging, that timeline is becoming even more pressing.
“You have to be verified [non-GMO] for 12 months by an independent third party,” Kehler explains. “If you’re making a cheese that’s aged a year, like Cabot clothbound cheddar, you need to start in March 2017, which means we have from now until March 2016 to figure this out.”
Kehler is so concerned about making the deadline that he’s considering building his own feed mill and supplying it with non-GMO feed that he hopes to source himself. But that’s a pricey solution. “Hopefully it will be under a half a million dollars,” he says. “I’d rather a grain company do it.”
The GMO problem extends far beyond Kehler’s industry. “Cheesemakers are just a tiny part of this,” he says. “It will also mean that other [Northeast-based] companies, like Chobani, Fage and Ben and Jerry’s, Applegate meats and the big dairy cooperatives, will all need to start shifting,” he says.
Kehler is not the only one who’s worried about the issue. Almost 200 industry professionals attended a heated “Do You Know GMO” panel at the ACS show, and the topic of labeling was frequently mentioned in many other sessions. A buyer for a large southern grocery chain – who declined to be quoted for this story – admitted that GMO labeling is his number one concern.
An unattainable ideal?
Vermont-based cheesemaker Angela Miller of Consider Bardwell Farm is almost an ideal example of a sustainable producer. She uses organic hay, and her livestock – which includes cows and goats – are Animal Welfare Approved. In 2010, her 300-acre farm became the firstgrassland reserve permanent easement in Vermont.
But even Miller finds it hard to meet the Whole Foods standard. “We do add corn feed, and for a long time, we fed organic feed, and then it was too expensive for us – it’s double the cost,” she says. “We went to conventional feed, which I’m sure is GMO, so we’ll have to label.”
Miller worries that the GMO controversy is going to cost her more than a label. “I don’t want to take steps that will cost us more to pass along to the consumer,” she says. “Our goat cheese is already $26 a pound, and we already have the thinnest profit margin you’ve ever seen.”
Another issue is rennet, the enzyme used to coagulate milk – an important step in the cheesemaking process. Traditional rennets come from the stomach of a baby calf, and vegetarian-based rennets are also available. However, another rennet, known as FPC (fermentation-produced chymosin), is produced through genetic engineering. It is used in an estimated 90% of the cheeses made in the US.
“I’ve asked our supplier if they could send an affidavit that it’s non-GMO,” Miller says, noting that she faces pressure from consumers. “We’re in seven New York City farmers’ markets and Vermont farmers’ markets. Our customers face us every day and hit us with these questions. I don’t want to say our cheese is non-GMO if I can’t prove it.”
Up and down the supply chain
Cathy Strange, global cheese buyer for Whole Foods, says she works closely with the hundreds of cheese makers and farmers who are scrambling to meet Whole Foods guidelines. Unlike the retailer’s aquaculture standards, which are already in place and openly displayedon the company’s website, the standards for cheese and dairy products are still in the works.
“We’re clearer on them than when we first announced this in March 2013,” she says, but the standards are still being reviewed.
The main criteria for GMO labeling, Strange says, is feed. The issue has become so important that Whole Foods has stepped in on the sourcing end. It has hired a person from the feed industry to work for its global commodities team sourcing non-GMO crops for everything from feed for livestock to ingredients for the crackers that end up on the store’s shelves.
Strange says that cheesemakers that haven’t made the conversion to non-GMO feed for milk-producing livestock by the 2018 deadline won’t immediately lose a place on the shelf. However, they will have to label their products accordingly.
“The first iteration is transparency around labeling, and then to move them into a situation where they are GMO-free,” Strange explains. “In essence, that’s our goal and we want them to come along with our goal, and will provide the help.” As for cheesemakers who don’t convert to non-GMO feed, “Eventually, they would be at risk of losing a spot.”
For some producers, this could be devastating. Cheesemaker David Gremmels, known for his creamy Rogue River Blue cheese – and his signature blue shoes – says that Whole Foods is a crucial retail partner for his company.
“Our cheese is present in every one of their cheese counters in the Americas and the UK,” he says.
Jackson County, Oregon, where Gremmels’s company is based, is the nation’s hot-spot on the issue. It voted to ban GMO crops in May. But Gremmels says that his company, Rogue Creamery, made the conscious decision to move towards non-GMO products back in 2007, long before the Whole Foods mandate.
Maintaining that commitment isn’t always easy. Gremmels is launching a new dairy facility this year, featuring a state-of-the-art milking system that allows cows to decide when to be milked. When cows volunteer to be milked by walking up to the milking station, they’ll get a food reward of grain.
Whole Foods is helping Gremmels source non-GMO feed. “We want to have full transparency to the feed,” says Strange. “Ten years ago, we’d be having the same conversation around how do your partners feel about rBST-free milk. I feel confident that our partners understand and embrace getting to a product they feel comfortable isn’t a modified product.”
Originally Published: The Guardian