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22 December 2017

The cheeseboard the dairy industry doesn’t want you to eat this Christmas

Vegan cheese producers are capitalising on concerns about animal welfare.

Veganism, it’s fair to say, is having a bit of a moment. The number of vegans has trebled in the UK in a decade to reach a record high of more than half a million people on a strictly plant-based diet.

There’s been the vegan junk food revolution, vegan street food and night markets, and even a vegan restaurant championed by the grime music scene.

But there’s one thing that’s been a tougher nut to crack: vegan cheese. “What’s out there at the moment is generally disgusting,” says Ellie Brown, who started her handmade dairy-free cheese company, Kinda Co, in a bid to change the face – but more importantly the taste – of vegan cheese.

Brown is a lifelong vegetarian, but says she “always wanted to go vegan”.

“I thought I couldn’t, because I love cheese so much. I finally gave veganism a proper go about two years ago.”

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She began a six-month taste test that saw her scouring the aisles for a decent vegan cheese, but nothing was to her liking. “What was out there was very plasticky and fake,” she says. “A lot of them smell and taste awful.”

In the end, she was driven to her own kitchen with a copy of Artisan Vegan Cheese by Miyoko Schinner – the American “godmother of vegan cheese” – and started milking nuts and adding culture to them to make into her own faux-dairy blocks.

Over the course of the next few months, Brown experimented with taste, texture and form to create a range of cheeses including Greek-style marinated cubes, garlic and herb roulade, her cheddar-esque farmhouse block, a nacho dip and even a festive creamy mock-salmon and dill spread. She says they all sell out regularly at local food markets.

Before she began selling earlier this year, Brown applied for a trade mark for her company’s original name, Kinda Cheese. The application was accepted at the Trade Marks Registry and was partly approved, providing there were no objections in a three-month interim period.

But there was an objection. And it came from the dairy industry.

Dairy UK is the trade association for the British dairy supply chain and in June, it voiced its members’ objection to Kinda Cheese, calling it “misleading to the consumer” and “not in line with EU legislation” – referring to a rule which states the term “cheese” cannot be used if the product is not made exclusively from milk.

Dairy UK followed up two months later, but this time with an email from its lawyers, DWF LLP, who branded Kinda Cheese “unlawful” and “deceptive”. They instructed the Trade Marks Registry to “confirm you will act accordingly to stop registration”. Brown had no other option than to change her company name.

“It literally says all over that my cheese is made from nuts,” she says. “It’s almost laughable that they would want me to change my name as I’m so small. The amount of sales that I would take from them would surely be so minuscule, yet they’re coming to shut me down.

“It must be pretty bad for the dairy industry if they’re trawling through trademark applications to find products with the word ‘cheese’ in them.”

The UK dairy industry is currently valued at £3.8bn. Brown sells around 100 cheeses every few weeks. Is Dairy UK’s action indicative of an industry worried by a rise in veganism?

When I put this question to Dairy UK, its chief executive Dr Judith Bryans insists that “consumers continue to show overwhelming support for the dairy category”. She adds: “Figures show continuous growth in volume of sales of milk, cream, cheese yogurt, butter and organic dairy products. The future outlook for dairy is bright.”

However, according to the Vegan Society, more than half of the country has switched to “vegan-buying behaviour.” All the major supermarkets have swiftly got in on the act too, increasing their ranges of dairy-free food, with Sainsbury’s noting that sales of plant-based milks are up 29 per cent in two years and sales of their own-brand vegan cheese surpassed their own predictions by 300 per cent.

Other global brands followed suit: Ben & Jerry’s released a dairy-free ice-cream, there’s an almond-milk Baileys available just in time for Christmas, and Pizza Hut trialled Violife vegan cheese on its pizzas last month.

The practices and ethics of the dairy industry have also come under scrutiny. In July, an emotive advert ran in a national newspaper that said “humane milk is a myth, don’t buy it” and described calves as “daughters fresh from their mother’s womb” and “sons… slaughtered for their flesh”.

It was accused of being inaccurate and misleading by the dairy industry, but was cleared by the Advertising Standards Authority – essentially allowing milk to now be branded as “inhumane”.

Bryans defends the dairy industry against the accusations contained in the ads: “UK dairy farmers are committed to the health and wellbeing of their cows, and to maintaining these world-class standards.”

And yet the Vegan Society’s Samantha Calvert says the tide of public opinion is beginning to turn against dairy: “Things are certainly changing regarding attitudes to the dairy industry, especially on the back of the ‘humane milk myth’ advert ruling. I don’t think the same decision would have been made a few decades ago.

“People are more open to hearing about the grim reality of farming. There’s still a determination by advertisers to show images of dairy cows grazing – or even dancing – and expressing the idea that cows are ‘giving’ milk, when, to vegans, the system is exploitative.

“We would like to see a society that decided to embrace the creativity of the many alternatives to dairy products – and this consumer choice will have an impact on the sales of dairy milk and its products.”

Brown says she doesn’t want to shame customers into moving to a plant-based diet, and she prefers to let her products do the talking instead: “People can get defensive when you put them on the spot about why they eat dairy products. Whereas I think food is my activism, I can say, look, you’ve got a choice here. It’s much better to make people feel good about their choices, rather than feeling bad.”

She adds: “The response I value the most is from omnivores. Because if my cheese tastes good to them, then that’s the ultimate accolade. And the overwhelming feedback I get is that it tastes delicious.

“The dairy industry made me change my name. They won that battle. But they can’t stop me from producing my dairy-free products.”

Next in her sights is a vegan halloumi. “This is my new personal Everest,” she says.

Given her determination so far, expect to see it on the menu soon – just not at the dairy industry’s Christmas dinner.

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