Vegan Cheese Producers in Canada Are Told to Remove the Word 'Cheese'

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Public Domain. MaxPixel – Vegan cheese balls on a tray

It's part of a global backlash against plant-based alternatives, led by the dairy and meat industries.

On January 21 Vancouver-based vegan cheese company Blue Heron received an email from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), saying that it had to remove the word 'cheese' from its products because "they are allegedly not."

According to the Globe and Mail, "The company was also told that it could not use hyphenated modifers (i.e. plant-based, dairy-free vegan cheese) – even though many small businesses across Canada use similar product descriptions, some with approval from the CFIA."

Even the word 'cheeze', which some vegan dairy producers have embraced to appease the dairy sector, wasn't going to fly this time – and yet, Blue Heron's founder Kathy McAthy said the CFIA was being frustratingly vague as to what the products can be called.

This comes at a time when dairy farmers are feeling increasingly threatened by society's evolving tastes and growing interest in veganism, trade deals that have increased the amount of dairy products entering Canada duty-free, and the new food guide that urges people to eat fewer animal products.

The industry is fighting back, in Canada and in other countries. American states are beginning to regulate the use of the word 'meat', insisting that there is no such thing as vegan meat. Missouri was the first state to regulate the term on product labels and Nebraska is poised to be next. In France, a law passed last May that bans the use of any meat- or dairy-related terminology for plant-based products, and failure to comply will result in a €300,000 fine. This is justified as a way to protect consumers from misleading labels.

In Canada, the CFIA says the number of complaints about dairy products increased from 294 in 2013-14 to 415 in 2017-18, and when those complaints come in, the CFIA follows up. Fraudulent labeling charges can result in fines ranging from CAD$50,000 to $250,000. The Globe and Mail writes,

"Lawyers say that although outdated, the regulations are clear: Cheese is a common name defined by its standard of composition; it must be made from milk and/or milk products; and milk comes [from] the normal lacteal secretions obtained from the mammary glands of animals."

Frustrating to vegan cheese producers, however, is CFIA's vagueness and inconsistency on what they should call their products. The agency seems unable to give a clear answer when asked by McAthy how she should proceed with labelling.

Another business owner, Lynda Turner of the Fauxmagerie Zengarry in Alexandria, ON, said she submitted three possible descriptions to the CFIA and was told, without any further explanation, to use "100% dairy-free cashew cheese." Turner fears they could reverse their decision, at a high cost to small business owners.

The CFIA, when approached by the Globe and Mail, said it had no plans for a review and that companies are expected to label their products truthfully, in a way that's compliant with regulations. Meanwhile, Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, blames the dairy industry for creating a problem.

“The marketing boards have this huge sense of entitlement. They believe they own the term ‘cheese.’ And they are often quite vicious against small and medium-sized businesses that are trying to move into the market."