Vegan Creamery Can't Call Its Product 'Cheese' Anymore
Blue Heron's product is made of nuts, not milk. According to a Canadian food agency, that means it's not "cheese."
Photography by Colin Medhurst, Blue Heron
Until a few weeks ago, the Vancouver-based Blue Heron Creamery sold plant-based, dairy-free cheese. At least, it did until a few weeks ago. Now, it’s not quite clear what the word is for Blue Heron’s product—since the start of February, they’ve been exclusively using the cheese emoji where one might expect to see the word “cheese.” It’s all because of a ruling from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that stops Blue Heron from classifying their vegan product with the c-word.
“We have been informed that our dairy free, vegan, plant-based 🧀 cannot be called cheese,” Blue Heron wrote on Instagram. “We cannot reference the word cheese in relation to our 🧀 even if we identify it as plant-based, vegan, dairy free, use a hyphen or otherwise distinguish it from dairy.” Blue Heron added that cheese-specific terms like Cheddar and chèvre were also prohibited, which would make product names like Hazelnut Asiago and Herb Coco-Chevre no longer possible.
Karen McAthy, a co-owner and head vegan cheesemaker at Blue Heron, wrote to MUNCHIES in an email that the CFIA seems to take issue with the use of the word on Blue Heron’s website; as they quickly told the CFIA, Blue Heron does not use “cheese” on its packaging. Blue Heron currently retains the URL and Instagram handle “blueheroncheese.”
As Toronto-based food lawyer Glenford Jameson told the Globe and Mail, the standards established by the CFIA were created before “alternative protein products were even a thing, and they are based on the concept that consumers are complete rubes when faced with products like non-dairy milks and cheeses.” Jameson added that “the rules are not subjective.”
However, according to McAthy, the enforcement of these rules seems a little arbitrary. “This appears to us, when compared to other producers in our field who have been approved to use the word cheese, providing they use a modifier (e.g. like, style, hyphen, 100% dairy free),” she told MUNCHIES, “to reveal a degree of arbitrariness with respect to application of the regulations.”
As Jameson suggested, the recent backlash over product labeling for plant-based alternatives assumes that shoppers are confused quite easily. But, according to the Globe and Mail, this comes at a time that the Canadian dairy industry faces threats including a new Canadian food guide that puts less emphasis on meat and dairy, and trade deals that could increase the number of dairy imports into Canada.
As vegan diets become more mainstream worldwide, traditional animal-derived streams of production increasingly feel the threat of alternative milk, meat, and cheese products, and labeling issues arise. A Missouri bill that went into effect in 2018 bans products from using the word “meat” unless they come from livestock or poultry (it has since been challenged by Tofurky). Dairy producers throughout the United States want the nut milk industry to stop using the word “milk.” A recently opened vegan cheese shop in London has sparked controversy via accusations that it misleads customers.
The situation is undoubtedly frustrating for a growing business, but McAthy told MUNCHIES that she sees this an opportunity for growth in the plant-based market.
“We are working to ensure that we comply with their rules, but we do stand behind what we make and what we do wish to identify our product as,” she told MUNCHIES. “But, we also see a great opportunity for fostering a dialogue with other commercial vegan cheese makers regarding our growing field, its lack of ubiquitous standards and practices, and how we can work together to effect change or communication with regulators.”
While Blue Heron brainstorms new ways to market their product, let’s hope that the usage of the cheese and milk emojis don’t come under fire next.