The Parmesan scam: shock for vegetarians

Trigger Warning: If you feel uncomfortable reading about the use of animals/animal produce in food then please avoid reading.

I am not a vegetarian, nor a vegan. However, with the growing discussion regarding the ethical and environmental troubles around intensive farming, I have been making a conscious effort to reduce my meat intake. My mother is vegetarian, as is my younger sister. Two of my housemates eat an almost entirely vegetarian diet as do several of my closest friends. Vegetarianism is now a widely adopted lifestyle. Nonetheless, this is not an article about whether or not one has an obligation to restrict their diet. This is an article about how current vegetarians and any others who wish to limit their meat consumption, are getting fooled by what I am terming: the Parmesan scam.

Previously, I believed that cheese was avoided by those who maintain a vegan diet but was happily consumed by those who identified as vegetarian. I thought that vegetarians were okay with consuming cheese because it is produced by an animal rather than being made of the animals themselves. It turns out, I was wrong. As were almost all of my vegetarian friends who believed the same. In short summary, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (known to many as Parmesan), along with many other cheeses such as: Grana Padano, Manchego and Gorgonzola are actually not suitable for vegetarians. This means that most Pesto, a staple of the student diet, is not suitable, as it contains Grana Padano cheese.

These hard cheeses contain rennet. Rennet is an enzyme taken from the stomach lining of a slaughtered calf. Even as a meat-eater, learning this made me feel slightly queasy. My sister was the one who brought this to my attention. She had been out for dinner at an Italian restaurant and had seen that the menu advised that vegetarians order a pizza or pasta dish explicitly without the Parmesan. Conversing with the waiter, she enquired as to why this was (she also believed that Parmesan was suitable for vegetarians) and was shocked when it was explained to her that this was not the case.

Many a time, she and other vegetarians I know, have been offered additional Parmesan on a pasta dish or a pizza and have accepted. This was the first restaurant she has ever visited which explicitly drew attention to the suitability of Parmesan for vegetarians. This got me thinking: how many restaurants are aware of this themselves? Would most waiters be able to tell a customer whether the cheese contained animal rennet or a vegetarian substitute? A quick google search will confirm whether a cheese is vegetarian or not, but restaurants seem to operate on the basis that customers will know whether to avoid a cheese based simply on its name. Based on the experience of my sister and friends, it seems that most vegetarians assume that cheese is suitable unless explicitly told otherwise.

With most hard cheeses that contain rennet, it can be fairly easy to find alternatives. The exception is Parmigiano-Reggiano. Under European Law, for a cheese to be legally sold under the name ‘Parmigiano-Reggiano’ or ‘Parmesan’, the cheese must be made using the traditional process from the Italian regions it is named after. This means that cheese sold under this name inside the European Union will always contain animal rennet.

Due to Brexit, I am unclear as to how exactly this may change for the UK moving forward, but I would ere on the side of caution. Even if circumstances do change, it will only then be the term ‘Parmesan’ that could potentially be vegetarian cheese. International Law is committed to ‘Parmigiano-Reggiano’ being produced with animal rennet. Even then, vegetarians will have to be careful. UK Law does not demand that manufacturers identify processing agents under listed ingredients, meaning rennet can be difficult to detect. Vegetarians who feel passionately about avoiding the consumption of animal rennet ought to look for an explicit ‘suitable for vegetarians’, or ‘V’.

Featured Image: Andrew Blight on flickr with license 

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