By Mordy Hoenders posted August 02, 2016
Consumers often ask whether a particular brand of cheese, usually made with a non-animal rennet, can be investigated. The purpose of this article is to illustrate some challenges at hand.
Cheese is made by curdling milk through 1) rennet addition (Cheddar & Brie), 2) acid addition (Cottage Cheese), or 3) high temperature treatment (Ricotta & Paneer). The curds are cooked, separated from the liquid (whey), shaped and pressed to “expel” moisture. The fresh cheese may also be salted in a brine and aged for further drying and flavour development. Finally, the product is cut and packed for retail sales.
A few cheeses are made from start until packaged product in 8 hours, for example fresh mozzarella. Others require up to a week work (pressing and brining) before the maturing process begins. Cheeses are matured from a week up to 12 or even 24 months, during which infrequent turning or washing are required.
The Mishnah in Avodah Zarah (29b) discusses the Rabbinic Decree against eating cheese made by Gentiles (Gevinas Akum). Chazal did not reveal the reason for the Decree for a year lest there be somebody who might not agree with the reason and would treat the Decree lightly. The above Mishnah presents two reasons which are both rejected, leaving the students puzzled. Subsequently, the Gemora presented several reasons (according to Rashi’s reading):
This Rabbinic decree is observed today. For practical purposes, if the cheese is made by a gentile company using significant amounts of rennet, a Jew must add the Kosher rennet personally to the milk. There are opinions that consider the cheese Gevinas Yisroel, i.e. Jewish cheese, if the cheese company is owned by observant Jews, even when a non-Jewish worker adds the rennet to the milk. Kosher Australia relied upon this latter scenario for the Jindi cheese factory, but required a mashgiach temidi once the company was sold to a French multinational.
Normally, non-Jewish cheese companies schedule a special supervised run for Kosher cheese with Kosher symbol on the label. A Rabbi is present in the factory who will add the rennet to the milk. Boutique and mass produced factories operate differently, but a comparison shows the economic effects of supervision costs.
Supervision of Cheese Production
Large cheese companies usually manufacture 24 hours a day using more than 1,000,000L milk per week. Milk is pasteurised and cooled to the right temperature and fed into the cheese vats (at least 8). The cheese vats for cheddar, mozzarella style and tasty style cheese typically have a capacity of 14,000 litres each. By the time that the eighth vat is full, the first one has been emptied, washed and is ready to fill again. Every time this occurs, the mashgiach would need to add rennet to the milk in each cheese vat in order to make all the cheese Kosher. Curds from the cheese vats are combined and further processed on the continuous line into large blocks of cheese (within hours since the rennet was added to the milk).
Large blocks of cheese are then matured for a couple of months and finally sliced, cut, shredded, packed and labelled, possibly in a different location than the cheese making and/or maturing. It is not uncommon for such a scenario to produce 1000 kg cheese per hour. To make all cheese Kosher in a 24/7 factory, one would require multiple mashgichim and be able to deal with the difficulty regarding the production on Shabbos, as adding rennet to milk is prohibited. A batch production with one mashgiach could result in 8000 kg cheddar cheese within one shift. The cheese would be sealed in plastic wrapping and ready to be matured for 3 months. After maturing, the cheese can then be cut and packed for retail under supervision of a mashgiach. The supervision costs would be the one-person labour costs for two shifts plus travel expenses, so the supervision labour cost per kg cheese made is largely insignificant.
Boutique dairies, on the other hand, operate on a much smaller scale and their production capacity is from 150 kg cheese per day and up. The amount of time to complete production of 150kg cheese or 8000kg cheese is the same, hence the supervision labour costs will be the same as well. However, the supervision labour cost per kg cheese made in a boutique dairy is significant.
The challenge is to find a manufacturer who has enough production capacity and is interested in producing batches of Kosher cheese. Larger companies request significant order volumes in order for them to contemplate batch production, resulting in more (investment) costs for the Jewish distributors. Larger volumes also require a wider distribution so the perishable product can be sold before the end of the use-by-date. Smaller producers will struggle with the minimal production capacity to defray the supervision costs. On top of that, many producers might already be producing at maximum capacity and will not be interested in Kosher cheese production. Furthermore, the cheese company is usually not interested in taking care of marketing and distribution and therefore another party would be required to take care of those tasks. Kosher Australia provides the supervision only.
Some cheeses are produced without a cooking step above Yad Soledes Bo (45C). Other cheeses require heating above Yad Soledes Bo (45C) (Mozzarella, Parmesan, Emmentaler or Gouda cheeses) and the used machinery becomes non-Kosher during the non-Kosher cheese production. Subsequent Kosher cheese production with heating would require kashering of the cheese vats and other equipment, a process with which the manufacturers are not familiar.
Manufacturers are hesitant of allowing any procedure that might impact on daily routines or introduce a safety risk (boiling water is dangerous) in the factory.
Chalav Yisroel cheese production introduces a few more challenges.
To begin with, the milking would need to be supervised by the Rabbi at the farm. Most milk farms are contracted to the large dairy companies and do not sell milk to another party. The large dairy company needs to be convinced to participate in the project. The supervision cost per Litre would depend on the amount of milk sourced, but since the transport would be dedicated to Chalav Yisroel milk, one would need one use one tanker (max. 20.000L for a single tanker or 45.000L for a double tanker). Penalty charges are likely for a partially filled tanker. Costs per Litre of milk would be relatively small for a full 24.000L tanker. Note that the cheese yield from milk is only 10-12%.
Therefore, smaller scale production seems more feasible in a scenario where the milking and cheese making occurs on the same location, and where one organisation controls both aspects. Ideally, this would be within a reasonable distance of the Jewish community to reduce travel time.
Additionally, milk is acidified using starter culture before the rennet is added. Most common starter cultures are Kosher certified, but contain non-Chalav Yisroel milk powders. Starter cultures are available as freeze-dried and frozen varieties. The former are stored in regular -18C freezers, but the latter require special low temperature (-60C) freezers, which are usually only available in larger dairies. Freeze-dried Chalav Yisroel cultures are batch produced on special order and are not easy to get hold off. Chalav Yisroel frozen starter cultures are more easily available in Australia, but difficult to handle. Furthermore, the cheese maker will need to accept that the Chalav Yisroel cheese will likely be a different tasting cheese due to the replacing of an ingredient, and not be able to sell the cheese under his regular label/brand to non-Kosher customers. The full batch of Chalav Yisroel cheese would therefore need to be sold to Kosher consumers.
Batch production of Kosher cheese requires multiple organisations involved: cheese company, supervising agency, distributor/marketing/sales company.
Cheese companies are hesitant to start on such a project because of the impact on their daily routine due the presence of the Rabbi and concerns about kashering. Chalav Yisroel cheese production requires a change in a company’s cheese formulation and Chalav Yisroel starter cultures are difficult to source and handle.