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Cheese: The GMO food die-hard GMO opponents love, but don’t want to label

Slammed by critics, Chipotle has been forced to back track on its non GMO claims. Its beef, pork and chicken are sourced from farm animals fed with GMO grain. And all of its calorie-packed sodas are sweetened with GMO sugar.

But it has yet to come clean on its most controversial GMO ingredient: all of its cheese is genetically modified. That’s right. The clotting agent used to curdle the milk into cheese is genetically engineered. So much for Chipotle’s bragging claim of transparency.

In fact, almost all the hard cheeses made in the United States, and in much of the West, use a protein that is made from genetically engineered yeast and bacteria. That includes cheese made in Vermont, which passed a mandatory GMO labeling bill in 2016—that curiously exempted its iconic Vermont cheese from carrying a GMO label. So much for the consumer’s ‘right to know.’

Critics of GMOs almost never acknowledge the fact that almost all hard cheeses are GMOs. In cheese production, coagulants called rennet are used to clot milk. The primary enzyme in rennet driving the clotting process is called chymosin, which acts on milk proteins like casein and makes milk curdle.

Traditionally, rennet is obtained from the fourth stomach lining of an unweaned calf. Calves have a higher amount of rennet in their stomachs compared to adults as they use it to digest milk, their main source of food. The rennet extracted from the stomach linings is usually a mixture of chymosin, pepsin (another enzyme) and other proteins. Rennet can only be obtained once from a single, young animal. This makes it a costly necessity during cheese production. To make billions of pounds of cheese, industrial chemistry is needed to produce large quantities of rennet. Recently harvested calf stomachs are chopped up en masse, and then chemically refined to produce rennet consisting of precise ratios of various enzymes, such as chymosin and pepsin, which are needed for consistent cheese production.

Beginning in the 1960s, the price of rennet, a byproduct of the veal industry, rose and became less stable as the animal rights movement grew. Demand for cheese also soared, and cheese-makers began looking for alternative sources of rennet from plants and microbes.

Some plants and microbes naturally produce enzymes that have coagulating properties like rennet. However, rennet from these sources tend to produce other side reactions in cheese production, leading to undesirable results in taste.

So how did biotechnology come to play a role? In 1982, Genentech earned approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the medical use of insulin produced by genetically modified microbes. It was more than a boon for medicine—it also showed that GMOs were a viable substitute for animals in the production of pure proteins. In the late 1980s, scientists figured out how to transfer a single gene from bovine cells that codes for chymosin into microbes, giving microbes the ability to produce chymosin. These genetically modified microbes are allowed to multiply and cultivated in a fermentation process while they produce and release chymosin into the culture liquid. The chymosin can then be separated and purified. Chymosin produced using this method is termed fermentation-produced chymosin, or FPC.

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In 1990, the FDA approved Pfizer’s GMO-derived chymosin by the Food and Drug Administration for human consumption, on the basis that it was identical to the chymosin found in animal rennet, and FPC was given Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) status. After 28 months of review, the FDA found that FPC was substantially equivalent to rennet produced from calves, thus it needed no special labeling or indication of its source or method of production. FPC is actually more pure than calf rennet, as it does not contain other proteins from the calf stomach lining that cannot be separated from calf rennet during production. “The real advantage is that it is probably a much cheaper way of producing this substance than to grow calves,” said William Grigg, an FDA employee.

Related article:  CRISPR conundrum: Is there a line between GMOs and 'natural' crops when genes are edited?

Today ninety percent of the cheese in the United States is made using FPC. In the past two decades, FPC has been considered the ideal milk-clotting enzyme. The GMO-derived enzyme has been a boon for cheese manufacturing and cheese sales. The US produced about 11-billion pounds of cheese in 2013 alone, thanks in large part to the cost-effectiveness of FPC. The technology  transformed the industry, making it more efficient, more environmentally friendly and less dependent on animals. FPC has been regarded as suitable for meeting vegetarian, kosher and halal requirements. However, some vegetarians consider FPC to be derived from animals as the microbes were genetically modified using bovine genetic material. In response, scientists began synthesizing the gene needed to produce a synthetic form of FPC that does not have any genetic material from animals.

GMO concerns about FPC are few compared to those directed at genetically modified crops. Recent campaigns in Vermont, a major cheese-producing state that passed a GMO-labeling law in 2016 did not address the use of FPC to make cheese; dairy products were simply exempt. The Vermont law never took effect as it was eventually superseded by federal regulations.

FPC is especially interesting for the divisive role it plays in contemporary debates over the safety of genetic engineering, and the labeling of GMO foods. Should consumers be made aware of the fact that genetically modified microbes are in their cheese? If so, how should they be made aware? It’s not as though the cheese itself is genetically modified. Neither is the chymosin that produces the cheese. Because chymosin is a protein it contains no genetic material. Any genes found in purified FPC would be present only in trace amounts, vestiges of whatever genetically modified microbe produced the chymosin.

Cheesemakers know this line of reasoning well. Chr. Hansen, a Danish company, manufactures of some of the most popular brands of FPC in the world. The company describes its FPC as “GMO-free,” because purified FPC contains little to no trace of the genetically modified fungus, Aspergillus niger, that produces it. (But because organic food cannot even be a byproduct of GMOs, Chr. Hansen states that its GMO-free FPC is not acceptable for organic cheese production.) Similarly, Tillamook, an Oregon-based dairy company, uses FPC for all but five of its dozens of cheese varieties. Tillamook representatives recently stated on the company’s blog that “after purification, the end [FPC] rennet product does not contain any genetically modified material, since it no longer contains DNA from the cow gene. It is considered non-GMO by U.S. food industry standards.”

But there is huge hypocrisy by many anti-GMO campaigners who are quick to exempt their favorite cheeses from the dastardly GMO designation by target GMO sugar. Sugar made from GMO sugar beets is genetically indistinguishable from sugar derived fr0m sugar beets or sugarcane that has not been genetically modified, but is labeled as GMO in many countries and demonized by activists

Cheese is a foodie favorite, so it’s viewed differently. In other words, may be an unambiguous product of genetic engineering, but it is two steps removed from the genetically modified organism responsible for its existence. FPC is not allowed in organic cheese based on the certification rules in the United States, Europe and Canada, providing an option for consumers who wish to avoid FPC. Cheese with FPC are also considered a GMO by the Non-GMO Project.

A version of this story originally appeared on the GLP on May 15, 2015.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, has been a journalist for more than 40 years, as a writer, network television news producer and author of seven books, four on genetics and risk. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @JonEntine

XiaoZhi Lim is a freelance journalist and former GLP editor and writer

74 thoughts on “Cheese: The GMO food die-hard GMO opponents love, but don’t want to label”

  1. Since the GMO is removed during the process of the cheesemaking the cheese really isn’t GMO. That’s like saying the oxygen produced by a GMO tree is GMO oxygen, which it clearly isn’t. To get non-gmo certification the product can not have originally derived from any GMO even if the end product doesn’t have any GMO in it.

    So regardless of the propaganda, the cheese isn’t GMO, but it is amusing that the scientifically illiterate pro-GMO crowd has to go to such desperate measures.

    • There is no pro-GMO crowd here, just pro-science. As for your statement, there is no GMOs present in processed oils or in many GMO products. The fact is there is NO definition for GMO as it’s a made up term to describe dozens of different processes, functions and end points. If you want to talk about illiteracy, look in the mirror. That’s the point: It’s more ideology then anything else; it’s certainly not about science.

      • A standard definition was set up and agreed to by the international community at the Cartagena Protocol for Biosafety. Funny how someone so “illiterate” was able to know that but you weren’t able to. Guess all the anti-science GMO crowd has is insults when they don’t have facts on their side.

        As for your claim about processed oils, the genetic markers for the transgenic organism is present in the oils which is seen in the altered acid levels in the end product, compared to the levels seen in the non-GMO product.

        http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308814613012570

        I know, science, turn away while you can.

        • That’s just a silly argument, avoiding the reality that anti-GMO/anti-science activists use ideology and not science. Scientists do not agree on what GMOs are. Or haven’t you read documents from the National Academy of Sciences or the World Health Organisation or the European Commission? Or are they on your banned list as too scientific? In fact making GMOs is a complicated process and there is no logical/scientific reason to contend that Vermont GMO cheese is any different than many other GMO processed products. It’s a distinction without a difference. There is no traces of GMOs in “GMO Cheerios” either. There are no GMO markers in many products (including many oils by the way)–so if that’s your definition, you’re just flat out wrong.

          • The facts are simple. The oils do not contain GMO materials even if made with GMOs. A change in the molecular weight distribution may be caused by a GMO process, but that is not sufficient to claim it is a GMO material. All oils have a distribution of components that varies naturally. I could.do the same thing by mixing individual components in the lab. No GMOs involved. Theree is no way to create a conclusive test method in this case.

          • So you can detect something even in
            refined oil, with great difficulty though if I interpreted the
            summary correctly.

            What is this « something »?
            DNA fragments from the RR gene.

            So what?

          • That’s the point maggot. Every organization has its own definition. Proved the point. Now go back to the Poliburo and get your next talking point.

          • Actually, that wasn’t your point. For someone so literate you can’t even understand your own claims. You’d think with all the money your corporate benefactors have they could have hired someone with a bit more scientific literacy.

          • Yeah, what?….you wrote “The fact is there is NO definition for GMO as it’s a made up term to describe dozens of different processes, functions and end points.”…and now you go on and describe a definition all the while decrying that you “Proved the point.”
            What point? That your pecky little fingers click too fast or that you are wrong?
            One way or the other, both of those assertions are true.

            So, can you write what you mean? Maggot’s got you beat so far even though it seems you think you’ve “Proved” something.

          • Funny definition by the WHO! Well, if
            you consider it a definition, in a FAQ page and with the word
            « can »:

            « Genetically modified organisms
            (GMOs) can be defined as organisms (i.e. plants, animals or
            microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered
            in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural
            recombination. »

            So natural mutations are GMOs…

            Since all modern tomatoes have genes
            introduced through wide crosses with wild relatives, they are all
            GMOs…

          • Learn English grammar or be seen as uneducated. You repeatedly fail to agree nouns and verbs. Reading your comments is taxing, e.g. “There is no traces…”, “there is no GMOs”, etc. Also, you are a terrible Mod — aggressive, argumentative, insulting. You should resign your post, as your belligerence and combativeness harm discussion.

          • Yes, Jon Entine is unabashedly pro GE/GMO. His talking points mimic almost word for word Monsanto’s talking points. He has nothing ‘scientific’ to say to help the discussion on GMOs and should probably just be ignored. (You can lead a human to knowledge, but you can’t make him think…)

          • Where did Monsanto enter the argument? Whenever I see the word “Monsanto” in an anti-GM argument it’s usually followed by catchphrases such as “sheeple”. Heck, Monsanto isn’t even the largest proponent of GM technology! (DuPont claims that title)

            With current scientific evidence, there is no known evidence of harm from GM food or organisms. Could that change in the future? Hell yes. Anyone following the scientific method, when presented with clear, Repeatable evidence that’s rigorously cross checked by peers will change their views.

            Works both ways as well. Tobacco was thought to be safe, we all know it isn’t now. Saccharin was thought to cause bladder cancer until further testing revealed that was the case in creatures with alkaline urine such as rats – not humans. Science is dynamic like that.

          • The tobacco industry fought tooth and nail to not have to label cigarettes. Just like Monsanto, Dupont, Bayer are spending millions to stop the labeling of GMO foods. If Science food is so good why are the not proudly waving the GMO banner? Like “Lite” and “Natural” they could say hey “GMO” and let us choose.

        • Actually, not sure you know that much about lipid science, or you missed this “it is possible to monitor the GMO content at the first stage of processing crude oil.” Commercial oil goes through several steps, typically refining, deodorizing and blaeching. I suspect the first is pretty important to this conversation. If you do find any evidence it is or is not in thefinished oil, I’d love to know as I’ve asked that before and had differing replies.

          • That’s always my point– the final product is refined away from any DNA, which is in aqueous fractions and does not associate with lipids. Can you detect something with PCR and 40 cycles? Maybe, but there is nothing there except for picograms of DNA. It really illuminates the point that you need to look at the product, not the process. The antiGMs are so bent on the process that they can’t see past it.

      • Jon Entine (aka Entoman) is definitely pro-GMO, and definitely not pro-science (unless you consider pro-industry science to be pro-science.) He is a shill for GE technology and active on many pro-GMO pages and sites. He is a troll for biotech and should be ignored. He has nothing useful to say and certainly does not rely on independent, evidence based science.

    • OK dude, what is the concern with GMO foods? As far as I can tell, it seems predicated on this notion that anything GMO is automatically dangerous in some way.

    • Uh, maggot …. you’ve just made an argument AGAINST labeling. The labeling measures ALL require sugar, made from genetically engineered sugar beets, to be labeled, tho the end product has NO ge material in it.
      Propaganda goes both ways, punk. (odd thing to call yourself, maggot punk; low self esteem issues much?)

      • I really don’t know what’s more pathetic, that you’re trolling a year old post or that you have to resort to ad hominems. It just proves, once again, that the anti-science/pro-GMO crowd has nothing to offer. much like the article which things the DNA of cattle changes because they eat animal feed.

        BTW, the article is commenting on cheese, not sugar. Try reading the article, and my comment, before replying to either.

        • Maggot, the point is about your blindness to the end product in cheese, and slamming “gmos” in sugar. (Did I not make that clear to the readers? Others got what I was getting at.)

          I may be pathetic in your eyes, which is perfectly ok with me; or “trolling” (huh?) — but I have high self-esteem. You have some issues, as I pointed out, reflected in what you call yourself. Luckily, there are good, inexpensive therapists around to help you with your self-esteem issues.

    • “the GMO is removed during the process of the cheesemaking”

      You’re referring to the fact that chymosin is extracted from the GM bacterial “broth”, right? How exactly is this different from extracting sugar from GM beets, cornstarch or HFCS from GM corn or, say, TVP from GM soy? The end product is a refined, though not 100% pure extract. Or are you claiming that, for some reason, chymosin can be extracted with zero contaminants while sugar from GE beets must necessarily be contaminated? Can you please spell this out?

      Thanks.

      • I’m amazed so many people instantly became interested in a post that’s over a year old. Apparently anti-science/GMO kooks travel in packs. Since the responses don’t appear to be valid inquiries I direct you to the largest manufacturer of enzymes who, like myself, acknowledge the enzymes aren’t classified as GMOs.

        http://www.chr-hansen.com/products/product-areas/enzymes/certification-of-dairy-enzymes/gmo-free.html

        Since I tend to defer to the actual scientists and am labeled anti-science I’m sure they’d appreciate commentary from the people here about how they are anti-science as well and will probably tire from responding to the same questions by attention starved internet trolls who spend their lonely hours searching for year old threads to post on.

    • Bwaaa haaaa – me too! Very helpful to avoid sleazy food companies that label “non-gmo”! I found popcorn the other day in a “health” food store that said “non GMO.” I told the manager that, um, there IS no gmo popcorn to make a distinction with. She said, “Oh, those lables mean squat.” She’s right.

  2. This is totally different than crossing slime bacteria with corn so they can spray Roundup on the corn. There could be good things done with BT but crossing in order to spay pesticides on a plant is different. Everyone, before buying this sites “pro gmo” spin go watch the movies
    “Food Inc.” and “Seeds of Death” to hear the other side of this topic.

  3. Funny, in the mid 90s I started noticing that my system did not handle cheese as well. Wonder if this could be a reason. Obviously, these things will affect everyone differently, so my issue may not be someone elses.

    • Me too! Expensive, higher e.coli rates, and over-hyped.
      A local “health” food store has signs bragging that organic has “cancer-fighting antioxidents” that non-organic doesn’t have. They ought to be slammed by the BBB for claiming that.

  4. The exemption for gmo cheese was in Colorado’s initiative, too (which got soundly pounded into defeat by educated voters). The sponsors kept saying, when asked about this hypocracy, “Well, it’s a start.”

    A bad piece of legislation is bad public policy. It’s not “a start,” it’s a piece of junk.

    My gmo-hating friends just glaze over when I tell them that 90% of cheese sold has genetically engineered chymosin in it. Truth is inconvenient, sometimes.

  5. Oh how I love bitch slapping hipsters with reality.

    Get a clue idiots! Things are done for a REASON in this world. You cant just make up sheet as you go along!

  6. Perhaps the most absurd objection to GMOs I have seen. And a major improvement to using calf stomachs! Please rethink your concerns, people. GMOs can be enormously beneficial.

    • I didn’t know lemon juice could be used for hard cheeses, I knew it was user in making Mozzarella, but not everyone wants that in sandwiches. Cheddar uses rennet or the artificial substitute because of the way it coagulates the milk which allows the “cheddaring” process to work. Other cheeses may have their own place, but for me Cheddar is the definitive cheese taste.

  7. I am still trying to follow the slant of this site but I would like to point out that the language is a bit imprecise in this article. One example is that you refer to the chymosin as a genetically modified protein but it is the same chymosin enzyme molecule that is produced in a calf’s stomach. It is just being produced by a genetically modified yeast. Along the same lines, you write about Chipotle’s “all of its cheese is genetically modified”. Is it really? In technical terms? It isn’t as though a microbe was genetically modified to pump out cheese. If it is coagulated by chymosin molecules that are identical to those produced in a calf’s stomach, should that make the cheese genetically modified? Further for me, is the whole debate about whether GMO feed = GMO milk. Whatever gene has been inserted into the grain genome to allow it to withstand whatever compound, blight or weather condition, it doesn’t carry into the milk intact. The cow’s multiple stomachs see to the process of breaking everything down to allow the cow the energy and building blocks to make milk for its calf. You may have concerns that the GMO feed means that feed is exposed to different levels of an herbicide or pesticide that risk carryover into the milk but that doesn’t make the milk GMO. It would be the same concern if the grain was a non-GMO grain that was treated with that same herbicide or pesticide. I don’t think it serves anyone to be unclear in the descriptions.

    • Daggum man,
      I ate some genetically altered foods and I have seen sasquach cut through my bck yard like a half dozen times now!
      If I hadn’t been watching Jerry Springer by God well I’ll tell you what,Id gave shaped a Polaroid of that sumbitch!
      Since eatting GMO’s, I also have been abducted multiple times by the ZORK people (u know them little green men man!) and have a constant ringing in my ears and nasty nose bleeds!
      Now this May or May Not have something to do with the laser beams.
      Look Pal stay outta my Damn yard!
      There’s a friggen leash law round these here parts and if you can afford that Fancy fur coat you strut around here ah wearing, you Damn sure can drink the good beer!
      Stop drop and roll brother.
      And tell that no count cousin of yours I want my darn money he owes me and my circular saw he borrowed back!
      They landed the mothership and left all kinds a dips in my lawn as a result.
      Grilled cheese a pickle and a sack of turnips ought to cover it?

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