Getting Cheesed About…What?

Published on: 14:40PM Oct 16, 2009

To listen to some of the reaction, the announcement recently by Cargill that it has created a new form of fake cheese called Lygomme was tantamount to the end of the world.   How dare a major feed company, with its stake in supplying a growing dairy sector, come up with a form of imitation cheese that would compete with something not made on a chemist’s bench?

I understand that the dairy farmers don’t need any more bad news in 2009, but is it really news of any kind that imitation cheese exists as a competitor to real cheese?  Let’s face it:  fake cheese, typically made with vegetable oils and starches, has been around more than 30 years.  Perhaps Lygomme is a quantum leap forward in artificiality, but the reality is that we’ve had this contest in dairy for many decades.  You can go to any major retailer today and already find a hunk of veggie cheese for sale that wouldn’t know a cow from a corn stalk.

Those who were around in the 1970s will remember that the increased use of imitation cheese on frozen pizzas was the key reason why the dairy Real Seal was developed, so that the marketers of milk-based cheese could distinguish themselves from fake fromage.  Even if Lygomme turns out to be a better mousetrap than other fake cheeses, it’s not like mousetraps are a new concept.

Cargill certainly is guilty of poor timing of this big news.  My guess is that the chemistry geeks there convinced someone in marketing that this new formula is going to be the biggest thing since…sliced cheese, maybe?  What this episode really illustrates is the value in having an industry-lead effort to keep the marketing chain honest if and when imitation dairy products are deployed. 

Back in 2001, NMPF asked the FDA to stop soy beverage makers from using the term “milk,” but it’s obvious from their indifference that the FDA can’t be bothered to get involved in this spat.  Don’t look for them to get concerned about the appearance of just one more imitator.  This type of competition from non-dairy or semi-dairy sources has been around since the days of oleomargarine.