Cheese has, improbably, been a pretty big success story for vegans in the past few years. Vegan pizza, thanks to the evolution of non-dairy cheeses, entered a golden age; a gourmet vegan cheese shop opened in Brooklyn, bringing a snobbishness once only employed by meat-craving omnivores to the borough. Vegan cheese used to mean slimy soy products, but it has significantly evolved thanks to products made from cashews, the high fat content of which makes for a good cheese-like texture, and innovative combinations of coconut, oils, and starches.
One could say that vegan cheese has gone mainstream: Daiya, the eight-year-old plant-based cheese company that has soared in popularity thanks to its ability to produce non-dairy cheeses that melt and stretch, is now stocked in the cheese aisles at many major grocery stores, including Food Town, Publix, and Kroger. In May, the Vancouver-based business, which also produces vegan cream cheeses, cheesecakes, salad dressings and frozen pizzas, was named the fastest-growing plant-based food company in America, with an annual revenue of $50 million.
To answer the inevitable question from those skeptical of vegan cheese: Daiya looks and tastes the same as pretty good store-brand shredded cheese, ideal for junk food like pizza and nachos. For vegans like me who care about animal welfare and also the crazy environmental impact of livestock, that’s good enough.
But the vegan cheese revolution has not been without controversy.
Last month, Daiya announced it was being acquired by Otsuka, a Japanese pharmaceutical brand, for $325 million, in order to become a “global leader” in offering plant-based cheese options. However Otsuka, like many pharmaceutical brands, conducts tests on animals, things that can include pumping animals full of diseases and experimental drugs (a company spokeswoman wouldn’t say what specific tests they conduct). In short, Otsuka adheres to some decidedly non-vegan practices. Fans — and, more crucially, stockists — of Daiya felt betrayed.
“The day that the sale was announced we pulled Daiya products from our shelves,” Nora Vargas, general manager of Orchard Grocer, an all-vegan grocery store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, told me. She said the store is “quietly” joining a boycott of the brand. “It’s a total bummer. That’s the perfect word to describe it. It’s really too bad.”
Fans — and, more crucially, stockists — of Daiya felt betrayed.
Other vegan outposts across the country followed suit. Portland’s two-location Food Fight grocery store, one of which anchors what is called the world’s first vegan mini-mall, announced on July 23 it was pulling Daiya products. Opponents of the sale started an online petition in early August (for all that’s worth) that has more than 6,000 signatures as of this writing. A lot of the comments read like this one, from Kimberly Jarman of North Carolina:
“Daiya has been so helpful for so many people to leave animal products behind and make more humane choices.... this acquisition would be a huge step backward.”
The controversy highlights a major problem with taking vegan products mainstream: the bigger you get, the more people you try to appeal to, the more compromises, ethically or environmentally, you have to make. There might be a grass ceiling for vegan products, so to speak, and Daiya smashed right into it.
“I think that move shows nothing but a lack of integrity on the part of the owners of Daiya. It is obviously a greed-driven, shameful move,” Mark Mebus, the owner of Blackbird, a vegan pizzeria in Philadelphia, told me. Blackbird used Daiya for years before switching to a brand called Violife because he preferred their cheese’s taste and texture. “I hate the sale completely. I find it gross but unsurprising,” he said.
But Mebus, like many vegans, is conflicted on calls for the boycott. Products like Daiya aren’t totally targeted at ethical vegans like him; they’re a sort of dairy methadone that helps wean omnivores off the food they’ve been fed their whole lives. Then, once you can accept there is life outside dairy cheese, it helps open your mind up to more plant-based options. (The products do still cost more than dairy: An 8-oz. bag of Daiya goes for $5.79 at my local Key Food, where Kraft cheese made with 2 percent milk costs $4.99; store-brand cheddar at a nearby Stop & Shop is just $2.39.)
“If it can do the same on a more grand scale, then theoretically it would still be beneficial to animals moving forward,” he said. “I just have some problems with boycotting products that are still pushing things in the direction that we want everything to go in.”
Could it be that mass-market capitalism and ethical consumption just don’t mix?
At least two other high-profile brands have hit the grass ceiling this year: By Chloe, the vegan fast-food chain offering tempeh-lentil-chia-walnut burgers, air-baked fries, and smoothies with eight locations across New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, had the potential to become the vegan Shake Shack, but it very publicly broke with its namesake, chef Chloe Coscarelli, reportedly over plans to add non-vegan dishes to its menu. (Esquared Hospitality, the owner of the By Chloe brand, disputes this, saying it "will never plan to serve non-vegan items on its menu"). Just Mayo, an egg-free product borne of San Francisco startup culture, was pulled from the shelves of Target after a host of food safety concerns and shady business practices surfaced.
Could it be that mass-market capitalism and ethical consumption just don’t mix?
“This acquisition could make Daiya a cheaper, more widely available option. Anything that makes vegan food more accessible is a win to me,” said Megan Adamson-Jackes, an editor at Vegansaurus, a blog that revels in joyful (rather than pedantic) vegan living. “Plus, it's not like I don't go to meat-serving restaurants and order the vegan option, and that's not really different morally speaking.”
But unless you grow all your own food, you’re bound to make compromises in anything you buy — even the most ethically sourced products are shipped by trucks that are pumping out greenhouse gasses — so why demand ethical purity from Daiya? Some vegans I talked to wondered if Daiya was never in it for the animals in the first place. Adamson-Jackes and other vegans I talked to said they’ll stop buying the brand because they’re lucky enough to have access to alternatives, such as Field Roast Chao Cheese, made from coconut, or Miyoko’s, made from cashews.
Daiya declined a request for an interview with its founders. In a statement, vice president of marketing Michael Lynch said the company would remain mostly the same.
“Daiya is committed to healthy living and bringing benefits of plant-based foods to more people around the world,” he said. “We’re not changing the way we create our foods and our companies will operate independently. Daiya will always remain Daiya, and we hope that all our fans recognize that Daiya will remain the brand our customers have come to trust.”
Unless you grow all your own food, you’re bound to make compromises in anything you buy.
An Otsuka spokeswoman said the company minimizes animal testing and has developed an in-house oversight committee to reduce (though she did not say eliminate) animal suffering in its practices.
“Use of laboratory animals in some areas of drug development is still necessary in order to validate the efficacy and safety of potential drug candidates prior to use in humans,” according to an emailed statement from the company.
Vargas said there’s hope for breaking through the grass ceiling, as smaller brands that were born out of ethical veganism and stores like hers thrive, exposing people to more options. Orchard Grocer checks its products to make sure they’re owned by companies they feel comfortable with. Last visit I made, the shelves were bursting with vegan options, from pop tarts to lox made of carrots.
“In our little vegan community in New York City, it’s not a huge loss to not support Daiya any more,” she said. “But on the larger scale, of the world, and the rest of the United States, it is going to make a pretty big difference."