Ask the Rabbi: Are There Special Kosher Laws for cheese?

Dear Rabbi:

While visiting the Summer 2009 Fancy Food Show in New York it was indeed impressive to see more OU certified companies than ever before featuring baked goods, chocolates, olive oils from all around the globe, condiments from Turkey, rice from India, tea from Australia and the list goes on. But I did not notice too many exhibits featuring OU certified cheeses, soft or hard cheeses produced in Italy, Spain, Chile… Why is that? Are there special kosher laws for cheeses? Someone told me that it was more difficult to kosher certify cheeses than chocolate chip cookies. Is that true?

Awaiting your response, with thanks.

Dear _______________:

In truth, there are some top-quality kosher cheeses from Italy and other European countries which bear the OUD symbol. However, as you noted, the number of such cheeses is quite limited – and for good reason.

Although acid-set cheeses such as cottage cheese and cream cheese are not difficult to certify — for like chocolate chip cookies these cheeses are kosher so long as their ingredients and equipment are kosher— rennet-set cheeses such as cheddar, mozzarella, parmesan, edam, feta and so forth have special requirements which must be met in order to qualify as kosher.

Kosher rennet-set cheeses need full-time, on-site rabbinic supervision, similar to kosher meat and wine. Unless a company has rabbis conveniently living nearby who are interested in spending many days at the plants without compensation for their time, the cost of kosher rennet-set cheese making is quite considerable. Aside from the travel (and often lodging) costs associated, manufacturers must be able and willing to invest in the heightened supervision requirements.

These cheeses, in order to qualify as kosher, also necessitate that the supervising rabbis personally add the rennet (or activate its automated entry) to each vat of milk. This means that the rabbi(s) must be present and very involved in the cheese making process.

The rennet used in many international (and organic) cheeses is often animal-based. Kosher cheeses cannot use animal-derived ingredients. This has resulted in the OU’s rejection of some cheeses for kosher certification.

Since “regular” (unsupervised) rennet-set cheeses are deemed non-kosher, cheese plants must often have their equipment kosherized and their brine replaced for kosher productions. These are delicate and sometimes costly processes.

Don’t give up, though. The number of international cheese companies which seek to enter the kosher market is steadily growing. All good things take time…

Rabbi Andrew Gordimer
Rabbinic Coordinator OU Kosher – Dairy Specialist

OU Kosher Staff