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No consensus to whether cheese is a GMO product

Experts and cheese-makers don't agree if lab-grown enzyme is GMO.

Andrew Benton, co-owner of Benton Brothers Fine Cheese, sells cheese at the Kerrisdale location last Sunday afternoon. The Benton Brothers offer a variety of cheeses that identify what types of rennet are used. Photo: Myra Dionne.
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Reported by Myra Dionne

Cheesemakers and scientists disagree about whether or not cheese should be labelled GMO.

According to the Dairy Research Institute, over 90 per cent of cheese in the U.S. is made with a modified version of rennet, which is needed to turn milk into cheese. Traditionally cow rennet is used, which is taken from the stomach of a calf. It is now made with a lab grown duplicate of animal rennet without sacrificing the animal, according to Gabriel Potvin, a UBC expert in chemical and biological engineering.

Should it be considered GMO

“[Scientists] isolated that information and transferred it to microorganisms like yeast or bacteria or fungi,” Potvin said. “This is a process called fermentation. We grow microorganisms and those microorganisms use the information that do come from a cow first to assemble those amino acid blocks into proteins that have that effect.”

Potvin does not feel that this is a genetic modification of cheese, because the enzyme has not changed.

David Asher, founder of The Black Sheep School of Cheesemaking, said he considers commercial cheese a GMO product, because any cheese using this method can’t be labelled as organic.

“To me it’s incredibly frustrating because there’s no question of it being a product of genetic modification,” Asher said. “The use of that technology of genetically modified rennet [in organic cheese] is forbidden because it is believed to be genetically modified but according to the food industry this is not considered a GMO.”

Emma Davison, a local cheesemaker and co-founder of Golden Ears Cheesecrafters, said cheese is a matter of personal preference and the best way to know what’s in it is to talk to a cheesemaker directly.

“We do several farmer’s markets downtown. We’re always welcoming people to come and ask questions,” Davison said.

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