Row over herbal blue cheese tears US apart

Row over herbal blue cheese tears US apart
Row over herbal blue cheese tears US apart

In January, judges at a prestigious competition decided to award a prize to blue cheese created from pumpkin seeds, hemp, lima beans and cocoa butter. Before he was disqualified. The cheese wars are in full swing.

It was certain: the event was bound to make a big splash. For the first time, a cheese made from plants would win a prestigious competition against competitors produced from cow’s milk. In January, the judges at the Good Food Awards in San Francisco decided to award a prize to blue cheese created by Climax Foods from pumpkin seeds, hemp, lima beans, cocoa butter, etc. A great honor which promised significant publicity to this California start-up. Oliver Zahn, the boss, had to keep the announcement of his victory secret until the ceremony on April 29. Yes, but here it is… A week before the awards ceremony, this former astrophysicist converted to biotech was informed by the competition organizers that his blue was disqualified. The ingredients for a good controversy were there.

When word of Climax’s victory began to spread this winter, traditional cheese producers saw…blue! According to Washington Post, the Good Food Foundation in charge of the competition tried to ease tensions by offering to crown two winners. She also declared that she would think about creating a special category next year, before discreetly disqualifying the blue from Climax.

Mysterious complaint

The organizers received a mysterious complaint accusing the start-up of not respecting the specifications. She first used kokum butter, derived from the seeds of an Indian tree in the mangosteen family. However, this ingredient does not seem (opinions differ) to be designated GRAS, an acronym from the United States Food Agency (FDA) which means “Generally recognized as safe for the consumer”. According to the complaint, its products were also not ready for retail sale.

Oliver Zahn responded that these two criteria were not mentioned when he sent his samples last year. It’s unclear exactly when the foundation added them to its site, but it appears to have been after the judges’ tasting in January. The Climax boss defended himself by saying that the organizers had not contacted him to ask for details. He would have told them that his cheeses were ready for marketing. They are already distributed in more than a dozen restaurants including Eleven Madison Park in New York, a three Michelin star. He could also have provided them with another sample. He has since ditched kokum butter and replaced it with cocoa butter which is certified by the FDA.

Lobby

Sarah Weiner, the director of the Good Food Foundation, acknowledged that it was a “very disappointing“. The change of rules was intended “a clarification of our principles and standards“. She also claimed that she had contacted two Climax employees, with no response. One of them no longer worked at the company.

According to the American daily, Oliver Zahn suspects the person behind the complaint of being linked to the dairy industry. And accuses the organizers of the competition of having given in to pressure from the industrial lobby. He doesn’t want to make a big deal out of it but… “It would have been very easy for them to contact us and tell us the new criteria“, he said in another interview.

Fierce battle

This is only the beginning of the battle which resembles that waged by breeders against “meatless meat”. Traditional producers believe that plant-based products should not be labeled “cheese” when they are not made from animal milk.

Not all manufacturers share this opinion. Last year, the Bel Group took a stake in Climax Foods to create “plant-based alternatives indistinguishable from cheese», Explains the French giant in a press release. Before adding, just to whet the appetite: “Drawing on the power of data and artificial intelligence (AI), as well as their complementary capabilities and expertise, the two companies will co-create future portions of Laughing Cow, Kiri, Boursin, etc.»

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