In 1984 after 7 years of perseverance, Beauty Without Cruelty managed to convince the Government of India to impose a total ban on the import of animal rennet used in cheese-making. As this ban still exists, all Indian-made cheese is vegetarian. It does not contain calf rennet obtained from the stomach of calves which have not been weaned and have been specially killed for the purpose, but is manufactured using imported non-animal rennet.

However, one has to beware of certain desi style cheeses (made by housewives and cottage industries) like the Parsi topli nu paneer and Surti paneer which can very well contain animal rennet/junket tablets illegally brought into India. Bandel cheese of Portugal origin made in West Bengal is similar to Surti paneer but made exclusively from cow milk. Whereas, the Kashmiri Dogra cheese called kalari doesn’t seem to contain rennet.

Rennet is the chymosin enzyme sourced from the inner mucosa of the abomasum (fourth stomach) of a new-born, slaughtered calf. Whey, an ingredient of foreign chocolates, may also contain animal rennet since it is sold as a by-product by the cheese industry.

Imported Non-Veg Cheeses
However, due to economic liberalisation foreign cheeses have been allowed into the country for some years. Annually around 400 tonnes of cheese is imported – 75% of which is for 5-star hotels. They utilise the services of foreign chefs and imported ingredients including unsuspected non-vegetarian items like cheese. Most foreign cheeses contain calf/animal rennet which could be used alone or mixed with Indian/vegetarian cheese for making fondues and other dishes containing cheese.

We also find a large amount of foreign cheeses like Kraft being sold freely. This brand of cheese is not all vegetarian, except the Kraft Grated Parmesan (but only if lipase obtained from pig pancreas and calf glands is not listed as an ingredient) and Philadelphia soft cheese varieties also available. (Kraft Whipped Cream cheese and Kraft Neufchatel cheese do not contain rennet; and Kraft Domestic Swiss Cheese available in America only, and if not labelled “Imported” is made from microbial rennet.)

In fact, some of the imported cheese packets sold under different brands clearly state that the rennet utilised is “made from cows” and are marked with the brown non-veg symbol. Such non-veg cheeses could be used in the manufacture of certain baked products like biscuits, pizzas, etc. BWC continues to periodically write to the Government not to permit the import of cheese made from animal/calf rennet, but unfortunately it has not been banned. Worse still, in April 2016 bottles of liquid animal rennet derived from veal (calves) manufactured in USA were illegally available from the on-line seller Amazon - India. BWC wrote them after which it seems they are selling only vegetable rennet. (Around the same time Amazon was also illegally selling traps, snares, hunting manuals, as well as trophies of wildlife and marine species which they presumably stopped.)

In contrast, manufacturers of a couple of other quality brands of foreign cheeses sold in India state “suitable for vegetarians” on their entire range of cheese packets indicating that animal rennet is not an ingredient, e.g. Pilgrims Choice, imported from the UK.

The Government of India has made it mandatory for all packaged food items to be affixed with the veg/non-veg symbol (one of BWC’s major achievements) and this applies to imported foods as well. However, importers do tend to affix the green vegetarian symbol on all cheeses and some other non-vegetarian items – deliberately or due to ignorance, one can not be sure. For example, foreign cheese marked vegetarian although animal rennet was stated as an ingredient has been pointed out by BWC to a leading department store. Unless it is clearly stated by the manufacturer (not only by the importer) as being “suitable for vegetarians” it is not likely to be so, especially if rennet without its origin is declared as an ingredient. Some times the origin of ingredients is unknown and confusing, such as “cheese” being listed as an ingredient in cheese! The ingredient “cheese” could very well have been made with animal rennet.

In 2010, America wanting to export dairy products to India, did not wish to disclose the origin of rennet on cheese, but it had to relent. Another problem was that cattle in the US are given animal feed fortified with certain meat products. India requires any country sending dairy produce here to certify that the source was “never fed feeds produced from internal organs, blood meal and tissues of ruminant origin”. The US conveyed that it could not provide such a certificate because their cattle are regularly fed such animal feed. (Australia, New Zealand and some European nations give such certificates because their cattle are mostly reared on grazing.) India explained to America that the cow is a revered animal here and the notion that it is fed feed containing meat products would hurt religious sensitivities. The US then proposed it could ensure that the cattle are not given this feed 30 days prior to sourcing dairy produce to India. This way, the US could certify that it has “not” fed its cattle such feed rather than using the word “never”. But luckily this did not get a positive response from India.

Even if the origin of the rennet utilised in the making of cheese, which in turn is an ingredient of cheese spreads, is non-animal, it does not totally rule out cheese spreads from containing other ingredients of animal origin, e.g. gelatine.

Goat milk and yak milk Nepalese cheeses, considered delicacies are some times available at select outlets in certain cities. Depending on where and who has made them, they may or not contain animal rennet especially as the veg/non-veg symbol is usually not be affixed on these packets.

or Withania somnifera (an Ayurvedic herb) can be used as a substitute for rennet in cheese making, but BWC has not come across any manufacturer who uses it.

Although the rennet utilised in the manufacture of basic Indian cheese is vegetarian, certain varieties may be flavoured by some manufacturers with pieces of meat like ham, bacon, salami and turkey, thus making it non-vegetarian.

In view of the facts above it is most important for vegetarians to read the ingredients on labels very carefully.

Enzyme and Protease/Proteolytic Enzymes: Rennet, Rennin, Pepsin, Trypsin, Lipase, Chymosin and FPC Rennet
Enzyme and protease are biological molecules which break down foods and help to modify or synthesise them.

Rennet, an enzyme of animal origin is used by most cheese manufacturers all over the world, however, as India does not permit the import and use of animal rennet, “plant rennet” extracted from micro-organisms (microbial rennet) is imported and used in the manufacture of vegetarian cheeses here.

Pepsin, another enzyme derived from pigs’ stomachs, is also used to make foreign cheeses. Similarly, lipase is obtained from pig pancreas and calf glands. Pig lipase is commonly used in high-flavoured, ripened cheeses like romano. The Italian provolone cheese made from full-fat cow milk utilises calf lipase for the dolce/sweet/mild version and sheep or goat lipase for strong versions of this cheese.

Since Italian ricotta cheese is manufactured without rennet, people tend to feel it is vegetarian, but it is not so because whey derived during traditional cheese manufacture using animal rennet, is a vital ingredient of this cheese. In comparison, a similar cheese called mascarpone is usually made without rennet or whey (citric acid, acetic acid or lemon juice is used for coagulating the cream) and is therefore vegetarian.

Proteases are enzymes which are used in the manufacture of soy sauce, tamari, and miso. They are also used in clarifying fruit juices. Most proteases are extracted from plants or micro-organisms. For example, a leading biscuit manufacturer has declared that their products are 100% vegetarian but the questionnaire returned to BWC raise serious doubts about this claim. Some of the ingredients/processing aids which they have not named specifically could easily be of animal origin like proteolytic enzyme because some enzymes belonging to this class come directly from an animal source: rennin, trypsin, pepsin. If the manufacturers are using a proteolytic enzyme of vegetable origin, then they could have as well named the same in the questionnaire.

Microbial enzymes are a cultured strain of bacteria that digests protein: strictly speaking not animal, vegetable or mineral in origin, but in a class by itself. Rhyzomucor miehei is a species of fungus that is commercially used to produce enzymes which can then be used to produce microbial rennet. Microbial enzymes are the same as those referred to as vegetable enzymes/rennet and that is how the term “vegetable rennet” came about – more appropriately termed “vegetarian rennet”.

A commonly used microbial enzyme in cheese making is called Chymosin or Chymostar which is a gene recombinant product. However, what is disturbing is the fact that of late microbial rennet is being replaced by FPC (fermentation-produced chymosin) rennet. Made by taking the rennin-producing gene out of the animal cell’s DNA string and inserting it into the DNA string of host cells like that of bacteria, yeast or mould, the animal gene begins producing the chymosin enzyme within the host which is then cultivated and fermented. This makes FPC rennet a genetically modified organism (GMO). According to the American Cheese Society, 90% cheese is made with “vegetarian-friendly but animal-origin, GMO-derived FPC rennet”.

Genetically engineered rennet is derived from plants that have been injected with cow genes.

Rennet in Products Other than Cheese
KitKat chocolate made in UK contains whey derived from calf rennet. Nestlé products are also manufactured in many other countries and they may or may not be utilising whey derived from calf rennet. Nestlé India did not reply BWC.

Whey powder was found to be listed as an ingredient on a box of imported Rochero Ferrero chocolates marked with the green veg symbol. The chocolates had been manufactured in Italy so it was more likely than not that the whey used had been derived through cheese-making with calf rennet. The company’s response to this complaint was unsatisfactory.

Commercially made curd or junket (sweet) found abroad could contain animal rennet. In India what is commonly called curd/dahi which is prepared at home or in restaurants by setting milk with the help of a little left over curd spread to the sides of a bowl, is really yoghurt and could contain gelatine.

Casein is the principle protein in milk obtained by adding rennin/rennet (enzymes from the stomachs of animals like calves or non-animal origin rennet) or casein can be obtained by adding acid in place of rennin to milk which is more likely being done by Indian manufacturers. Casein is used in the manufacture of certain glues, paints, safety matches, agarbattis, plastics and condoms. Incidentally, although it takes 35 litres of skimmed milk to produce only 1 kg of casein, India exports large quantities.

Milk and milk products (cheese, cream, butter, etc.) of a kosher animal (ruminant with a cloven hoof) are termed Kosher-Dairy by the Jewish people. However, they are not allowed to be consumed in combination with meat or fowl and in the case of cheese, unless the source of rennet is a kosher species of animal, ritually slaughtered under rabbinical supervision. Therefore, cheese marked Kosher would more often than not be acceptable to vegetarians but there is no absolute confirmation that it does not contain animal rennet.
Page last updated on 12/12/16