Kosher Parmigiano? Sorry, No, Says The OU | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

Kosher Parmigiano? Sorry, No, Says The OU

Kosher Parmigiano? Sorry, No, Says The OU

The cheese shelves of Empire Kosher, far from Parmigiano. Lauren Rothman/JW

Standards for authentic Italian regional products are incompatible with those of the premier kosher certifier.

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Some kosher cheese lovers are about to be very disappointed.

A couple of months ago, they learned that a kosher-certified cheese factory in Italy, Bertinelli’s, was producing a new and authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano, the so-called “king of cheeses.” The hard, salty cheese would hit the market by the end of the year, according to news reports.

But then the Orthodox Union, the world’s largest kosher certifier, announced that it won’t be recognizing Bertinelli’s cheese as kosher. That could disappoint kosher cheese lovers and have a big impact on U.S. sales of the cheese maker’s new kosher offering, potentially cutting down on the number of buyers who currently make up a market that’s worth about $12.5 billion according to the kosher marketing consulting firm Lubicom.

Caseficio Colla, a “latticini” in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, makes a kosher parmesan that’s available stateside. Their “Gran Duca” line of both Parmigiano-Reggiano and Romano is certified by Shalom Elmaleh, a Chabad rabbi located in Milan. It’s for sale here in New York only at Zabar’s in Manhattan and Benz’s in Crown Heights – but it’s the only one.

“Our kosher shoppers are always on the lookout for better and better cheeses, and why shouldn’t they be?” said Olga Dominguez, the cheese buyer at Zabar’s. She said she was one of the first buyers of the Gran Duca line, and that while it’s proven very popular, Zabar’s shoppers would likely leap at the chance to sample another parm out of Italy. But at the moment, it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to try it.

That leaves them schlepping to Zabar’s or Benz’s; settling for kosher Romano cheese, easier to find than parmesan or settling for a bag of grated so-called “parmesan,” which  may or may not taste like the real deal.

That’s why news of the Bertinelli cheese factory’s new kosher parmesan — first reported by Ha’aretz in April — piqued eaters’ interest.

But on June 10, the OU issued this advisory: “Recent media reports stated that there is a new Parmigiano Reggiano cheese made with kosher animal rennet which will be recognized as kosher by the Orthodox Union. These reports are inaccurate. The Orthodox Union reviewed the kosher status of animal rennet and determined that currently there is no animal rennet that meets OU kosher standards for the production of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses made with animal rennet are, therefore, not considered kosher by the OU.”

The debate boils down to animal rennet. Like many European countries, Italy takes its native foodstuffs very seriously. A government agency vets products like wine, olive oil and cheese and assigns those that are authentic, and produced only under the most stringently traditional methods, an official label: denominazione di origine protetta. Authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano is D.O.P., and one of the requirements for that designation is that the cheese be set with animal-derived rennet, as per thousands of years of tradition.

And that explains why real-deal parm uses rennet — a coagulating agent that solidifies the liquid milk into a hard cheese — that’s made from enzymes that are found in ruminant animals’ stomachs. Microbial “rennet” — the fungus-derived rennet substitute that has increasingly been used in kosher cheese making over the past few decades —doesn’t fly in Italia. And so a tiny handful of producers has been certified by Italian rabbis to set their cheese with true rennet that comes from shechita, or kosher-slaughtered animals. But while in the grand scheme of things microbial rennet cheeses are brand-new — they’ve only become widely available over the past 20 years — in the U.S. they’ve almost completely replaced kosher rennet cheeses. And the OU errs on the side of caution by only certifying the fungus-derived kind.

“After the Bloomberg article ran, we were getting a lot of calls from people asking if this cheese really was kosher,” said Rabbi Moshe Elefant, the OU’s chief operating officer. “Understandably, people are anxious to enjoy this product. But we felt we had an obligation to the community to tell them that we wouldn’t be certifying this cheese.”

“The issue is obvious,” Rabbi Elefant continued. “Since ancient times everywhere, and today in Europe still, the milk used in cheese making is coagulated with animal rennet. Microbial rennet is fairly new. But the stance of the OU is that there’s a real issue with using animal rennet in milk. I mean, mixing milk with meat is the number one sin in kosher law.”

Rabbi Elefant explained that while in ancient times animal rennet was used in kosher cheese making, there were strict Talmudic codes that dictated exactly how the rennet was processed. The animal stomachs used in cheese making had to be dried to an almost wood-like state, ground into a powder, then re-activated with an acid.

“In order for us to allow an animal rennet to be used, it would have to go through that process,” Rabbi Elefant said. “Reviewing it, it doesn’t quite meet our standards,” he said. In fact, the OU doesn’t currently certify any animal rennet cheeses.

Rabbi Zushe Blech is a kosher consultant, formerly of the OU, and the author of Kosher Food Production. An expert on kosher cheese making, he explained that the suitability of animal rennet kosher cheese is “a thousand-year-old question.”

“There’s a question of whether you can make kosher rennet in the first place,” Rabbi Blech said, “if for no other reason than you can’t mix milk with meat. This is an old question.”

The issue still divides the kosher community, Rabbi Blech explained. While some rabbis — like the ones who will presumably certify Bertinelli’s new cheese, for example, or like Rabbi Elmaleh, the Italian rabbi who certifies the popular Gran Duca line — give the a-ok to properly processed animal rennet cheeses, many others, like the OU, try to keep things simpler for the consumer by only certifying microbial rennet cheeses. Of the hard kosher cheeses available today, the vast majority don’t use animal rennet.

While the OU might not embrace today’s crop of animal rennets as kosher, many consumers certainly do.

“If the kosher supervision is legitimate and one that I hold by, then that’s fine for me,” Alyssa Kaplan of New Jersey, who regularly shops at Zabar’s, said. “I don’t only eat OU foods.” Kaplan is a big fan of the Gran Duco parm—“I love it, it’s the greatest,” she said–but she’d still be interested in trying out what a competitor has to offer.

Kaplan is an active member of the foodie discussion group Chowhound, where, on the Kosher board, cooks and eaters post about the best kosher products. The board’s members, who are heavily based in the tri-state area, tend towards adventurousness in their eating habits.

She said she’d definitely try to the Bertinelli cheese – but she and other kosher foodies might not get the chance.

The OU’s ruling on Bertinelli’s new parmesan could hurt its ability to get picked up by distributors in the U.S., according to Menachem Lubinsky, president and CEO of the aforementioned Lubicom.

“Having the OU certify a product opens that product to a broad market,” he said. “[Bertinelli] is not going to be able to reach a much broader audience.” So far, the kosher groceries in New York don’t seem to have heard of the Bertinelli cheese — buyers at Zabar’s, Benz’s and Pomegranate hadn’t heard of it — and without OU certification, these stores’ distributors might never get a hold of it.

“Rennet is traif,” said a woman who would only identify herself as Malka, on a recent weekday afternoon in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, at Empire Kosher, a large grocery store on Empire Boulevard. The brightly lit cheese aisle was bustling, but there were no animal rennet cheeses to be found. “And I’m sure that if you asked around in the community, 99 percent of shoppers here make sure that the foods they buy have an OU certification,” Malka added.

The OU is famous for its rigor, Lubinsky noted.

“This is not an isolated incident,” he said. “The OU just has tougher standards. While you can often rely on certain leniencies in Jewish law, the OU takes the highest common denominator when it comes to certifying. And apparently, that’s what they’re doing here.”

Time will tell how widely Bertinelli’s parmesan gets distributed in the U.S., even without OU certification. After all, Lubinsky noted, it is a kosher-certified cheese, just not according to the OU. For that reason, there will likely market for the cheese, albeit a small one.

“It could very well be a niche-market item,” Lubinsky said, “but there will be people out there who want to try it.”

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