A Tale from the Local Slaughterhouses of Tempeh and the Fermentation Rooms of Plant-based Cheese

Placed on a rectangular oak wood chopping board is a spread of cheeses. In the middle, a fig cumulus, a soft cheese filled with coconut milk, cultures and figs. Beside this soft cheese is another cumulus sprinkled with herbs and garlic on its rind. To the left are slices of a hard, mostarda cheese that has been aged for six months. Placed on the right is a Gouda-style cheese with a vivid auburn rind sprinkled with smoky spice. Around the board, brightly coloured pickled vegetables including zucchini and a thinly sliced beet wrapped around dill crème fraiche forms an impressive cheeseboard. But according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the cheeses on this board cannot be called cheese. This cheeseboard is plant-based despite its similarities in texture, look and taste of regular dairy milk cheese.

It is a sunny Friday afternoon in March in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, where this cheeseboard can be ordered at SOIL. The restaurant is rustic looking, with white shelves, bright green plants and blue washed wood panels. The cheeseboards come from Blue Heron Creamery just next door. It lies between the divergent road of Main Street and Kingsway.

Blue Heron Creamery is the first plant-based cheese shop in Canada. Karen McAthy, executive chef for SOIL and plant-based cheese creator, must keep up with the demand for her range of plant-based cheeses so the shop is only open on weekends. McAthy says that for weeks after Blue Heron Creamery opened in February 2018, there were lineups down the street and around the corner. “We didn’t anticipate how long those lines were going to last,” she says.


McAthy’s plant-based products (which instigated a “cheese-gate” controversy on the West Coast) are growing in demand in Canada. Last year, the Government of Canada invested $153 million in the Prairie-based Protein Industries Supercluster to develop plant-based proteins such as soy and pea protein. The government is also encouraging these plant-based efforts after updating its food guide for the first time in 11 years. The new guide eliminates serving sizes and is promoting a plate of 50 per cent fruit and vegetables, a quarter of grains and a quarter of protein. Dairy has also been combined into the protein portion. This is no small change—the meat and dairy alternative market was valued $3.3 billion in 2018, according to the Plant Based Foods Association.

When I initially adopted the vegan diet, three years ago, I didn’t bother with trying to experiment with cheese-like products—I knew I would need to quit cold turkey to rid my addiction to brie and gouda. The closest I got to fake meat was lentils. But today, the vast array of local, alternative options is tempting. There is growing investment from businesses throughout Canada and the United States. The thought of plant-based burgers and cheeses behind the counters, beside traditional cheese and meats, is becoming a closer prospect for the future of the sector. One obvious example is Beyond Meat, an alternative meat company that entered the Canadian market via A&W, which served up its plant-based patty. The “burgers” quickly sold out after four weeks in circulation in summer 2018 and are now a regular option at the Canadian fast-food chain. Not to be outdone, in March A&W released its first vegan breakfast sandwich featuring the Beyond Meat breakfast patty. Other chains, such as British Columbia’s White Spot, now serve the Beyond Meat burger patty in the restaurant’s famous burgers and sliced into salads. In turn, A recent report from the Dairy Farmers of America says that the dairy industry has lost $1 billion in sales in 2018.

These local Canadian businesses are beginning to disrupt the meat and dairy industries, but growth is a serious issue. Businesses like McAthy’s face rising costs and branding regulations in order to compete by creating quality plant-based foods.



The history of plant-based diets and veganism

As some of the meat and dairy alternatives enter mainstream grocery stores, the Economist predicts that 2019 will be “The Year of the Vegan.” This is quite a contrast to a decade ago, when a Time article called, “A Brief History of Veganism,” defined the diet and lifestyle choice as an “extreme form” of vegetarianism. In 2018, the first study led by Dalhousie University, found that 9.8 per cent of Canadians are vegetarian or vegan. Those under the age of 35 are leading the way in the growth of this dietary change. Many are drawn to the diet for environmental benefits, including a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from livestock, less deforestation and fewer water shortages as a result of mass dairy and agriculture farming. A University of Oxford study shows that meat and dairy farming accounts for only 18 per cent of the calories consumed around the world. Yet these sectors are responsible for 60 per cent of agriculture greenhouse gas emissions, which has the largest effect on climate change.




While environmental concern and climate change continue to drive the demand towards a plant-based diet, the ethical pull towards a vegetarian or vegan diet is not new. The term “vegan” was coined by Donald Watson, an animal rights activist who founded the Vegan Society in 1944. He created the word in opposition to vegetarians who ate milk and eggs, taking the first three letters and last three letters of ‘vegetarian.’ This word was created to represent a lifestyle and activism against the exploitation, slaughter and cruelty of animals. This includes encouraging the purchase of vegan clothing, make-up, and accessories. Plant-based refers to eating non-processed, whole foods from plants. If you are plant-based, eating an Oreo cookie would be avoided because it is processed, even though it has no animal derived ingredients (yes, it’s vegan).

The practices of veganism have been followed long before the word existed. Religions such as Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism advocated for the same principles founded in veganism—refraining from the use and consumption of animal products based on the foundation of non-violence. The principles are also reflected by the Black Hebrew Israelite Community, established in the nineteenth century. And Rastafarianism, which was developed in the 1930s in Jamaica, evolving from Hindu religions, also follows a similar vegan diet that rejects all processed food and additives called, “Ital.”

While environmental concern and climate change continue to drive the demand toward a plant-based diet, the ethical pull towards a vegetarian or vegan diet is not new. The term “vegan” was coined by Donald Watson, an animal rights activist who founded the Vegan Society in 1944. He created the word in opposition to vegetarians who ate milk and eggs, taking the first three letters and last three letters of ‘vegetarian.’ He created the contraction to represent a lifestyle and activism against the exploitation and slaughter of, and cruelty to, animals. This includes encouraging the purchase of vegan clothing, make-up and accessories. Plant-based refers to eating non-processed whole foods from plants. If you are plant-based, eating an Oreo cookie would be avoided because it is processed, even though it has no animal derived ingredients (yes, it’s vegan).

The practices of veganism have been followed long before the word existed. Religions such as Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism advocated for the same principles founded in veganisn—refraining from the use and consumption of animal products based on the foundation of non-violence. The principles are also reflected by the Black Hebrew Israelite Community, established in the nineteenth century. And Rastafarianism, which was developed in the 1930s in Jamaica, evolving from Hindu religions, also follows a similar vegan diet that rejects all processed food and additives called “Ital.”

Down to a science

As a young child, Karen McAthy would visit her extended family’s farm in Saskatchewan.  Her dietary changes began when she sensed the fear in the animals’ eyes right before slaughter. Since then, McAthy wanted to reduce her own meat consumption. “My decisions were pretty clear early on after witnessing activity at a slaughterhouse,” she says. Before starting her career as a chef, she felt that same sense of fear in humans in her work as a paramedic. “Fear has a distinct smell. Fear has a distinct sound, regardless of the creature expressing it and I couldn’t make sense of it for myself,” she says.
At 12, she became a vegetarian and became vegan in 2011.

In 2015, McAthy started to experiment with creating plant-based cheeses. She turned to the scientific process of dairy cheesemaking to create a non-dairy counterpart. “It’s not guesswork,” she says. McAthy researched how dairy cheesemaking is done and applied similar methods to her work, like rind-washing, creating moulds, and ripening. Her cheeses use a range of bases like coconut, almond, and cashew, which are then fermented with microbes and aged. She also collaborated with a company in the Netherlands to develop a nut-free, legume-based version of her cheese using the lupin bean, which was released in March 2019.

With her own scientific process, McAthy has her own definitions for the various plant-based cheeses on the market. She describes cheese with a “z” when additional oils are used to mimic the texture of cheese versus using an ageing and fermentation process. “In cheesemaking, hard cheese is about moisture eradication,” she says. “It’s not about holding moisture in.” She defines her plant-based cheese as cheese with an “s,” where the process is focused “singularly on the use of microbes and digestive enzymes and affinage.” Despite McAthy’s definitions for different types of plant-based cheeses, there is no regulated definitive method for creating these products yet, unlike dairy cheese. “If you gathered 10 dairy cheesemakers in a room and started talking about cheddar,” she says, “they would know the process.”

McAthy thinks of her work as a craft, as any cheesemaker would. But the day she made her first dairy-free cheese, she knew that her use of ‘cheese’ would be challenged. This February, the CFIA ordered her to eradicate the word from her marketing plans after the agency received an anonymous complaint. This is the incident she refers to as “cheese-gate.”

Currently, there are no clear standards for labelling dairy-free cheeses and other plant-based alternatives. Kevin Smith, the CFIA’s national manager for standards of identity, composition and grades, admits his agency is struggling to keep up, saying, “we are working on that to clarify the requirements.” The CFIA is responsible for verifying that all food products are labelled accurately to ensure the consumer is not misled. It states that if these plant-based products don’t fit the guidelines of a food standard like beef or dairy, modifications must be made.









View this post on Instagram















A 🧀 by any other name would taste as sweet, tangy, umami rich, creamy, delicate …to cheesily paraphrase Shakespeare. . The @lexxgill @globeandmail article set off a storm of activity and a slew of responses coming our way via different platforms. . There are a few things we would like to say: . 1) thank you to our supporters (near and far @estherthewonderpig a special thank you to you!), retail partners, regular guests. Your words of encouragement, suggestions and general thoughtfulness are very welcome and very appreciated. We are doing our best to respond to everyone. . 2). As is our tendency and preference, to those who choose to be aggressive, rude, hostile, impolite, bordering on the violent, and abusive, we will not engage with you. Period. Bullying from behind a keyboard is not all that different from bullying in person. We don’t stand for it. We won’t call you names or swear at you. We just won’t respond. You are probably never going to be our customer and we genuinely have no desire to create confusion for you about our products and dairy cheeses. . 3). We would like to be clear, that while we stand behind what we do and how we name it, we also want to comply with regulators, and have no intention nor desire to trick anyone. . We see this as an opportunity to hopefully, engage in a constructive, meaningful dialogue about what the possible boundaries of the word associated with 🧀 could be, especially as regards definitions based in process and not merely the starting material. . 4)we also see this as a promising time for our sector to work with other similar producers of vegan 🧀, around what it means to make our various products, what methods are being broadly employed, what basic standards and language we could potentially begin to share and make common so as to engage in fruitful diogue with regulators with respect to this rapidly growing field. . Wishing everyone well, and let’s play nice out there in the rough and tumble playground of the internet. . #vegandairyfreeplantbasedcheese #saycheese #dontsaycheese #cheeseplease #blueheron #vancity #vegan #veganchef #veganbusiness #eastvan #mtpleasantyvr #blueheroncheese #cheeze #cheesy A post shared by Blue Heron (@blueheroncheese) on

Since this order, McAthy has fought back. Now, she’s the only plant-based cheese producer that is allowed to call her cheese “100 per cent dairy-free, plant-based cheese.”

In Toronto, one way of dealing with the unclear guidelines from the CFIA is to come up with a cute name. The CFIA suggested that Culcherd, a dairy alternative company, call their product “fermented cashew loaf.” But shoppers might be more misled with a name like that—or simply turned off. Elizabeth Gallagher, co-owner at Culcherd, concedes that unappealing descriptors would create a “challenge” for her business. Instead, Culcherd decided to label its plant-based product “Cheeze.”

For McAthy, the complaint from the CFIA was a wake-up call for the dairy-free cheese sector to create “its own internal discussion around what we are and what we do,” she says. She acknowledges that the sector is new, “five to 10 years of vegan cheese making, trying to get mass market stuff out, that’s not the same thing yet,” in comparison to hundreds of years of crafting cheese.

In the future, McAthy would like to see an expansion of the definition of cheese to include cultured vegan options like her product, while uncultured products should be a separate category. Products like cream cheese are already separate from the cheese definition under the CFIA’s regulatory standards and must be called “cheese product.” Until then, McAthy believes artisan dairy cheese makers might continue to push for “tightening up regulations to keep our sector out” of the cheese market, she says.

View this post on Instagram


Hello friends!! We have such gratitude, love, and appreciation for everyone who wrote and messaged us, who dived into the depths of internet comment land (ugh…the horrors of that terrain sometimes), who have shopped with us, ate with us @soil_yvr . Today we received confirmation that our 100% dairy free, plant-based cheeses can be identified exactly that way. . We are certain that it is the overwhelming support in such a public fashion that facilitated the response, which is in fact confirmation of our proposed language in early communication. . . There remains much work to be done regarding policies, regulations and language and this rapidly emerging sector. We look forward to it. We will be hosting a belated 1 year anniversary party on Saturday, March 9th at our Vancouver shop and sister restaurant SOIL ..details to come soon. . . photo: @feedurlife . THANK YOU. 💚💚💚💚

A post shared by Blue Heron (@blueheroncheese) on

The Food of Tomorrow?

At the Juice Truck, also located on Main Street in Vancouver, the “meatball sub” is not a usual item on the menu at the plant-based food and juicer. On a Saturday afternoon in March, servers hand out compostable boxes that contain the classic sandwich. Inside the box, it looks like a regular meatball sub with three meatballs, tomato sauce, cheese and topped with basil, but it’s not.

The Juice Truck x TMRW Foods combo meal.

The concoction is a collaboration between some of Vancouver’s local plant-based food businesses—on the menu it reads The Juice Truck x TMRW Foods. The combo is $19, it comes with a large chocolate peanut butter milkshake with whipped coconut cream and a small salad, the special of the day.

Dean Blignaut is one of the creators of TMRW Foods “meat” that goes into the sub. TMRW is a new Vancouver-based protein manufacturer and wants to create a local Canadian-produced, plant-based meat alternative. In the TMRW offices, facing Vancouver’s snow-capped mountains in Strathcona, Blignaut cooks the ALTBurger for quality testing. The burger is part of the range of TMRW foods alternative meats. It sizzles in the frying pan like any burger and gets crispy on its edges before being placed in a burger bun. Blignaut says the demand for these alternatives comes from those unwilling to replace the act of eating meat but see the benefit of reducing meat intake. Eating meat can be so culturally ingrained that “people can feel like their way of life is threatened,” he says. TMRW burgers include cauliflower, adzuki beans, yellow split peas and mushrooms combined with a wheat-based protein and fat made out of coconut oil. Unlike “high-tech” burgers such as Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger, which actually bleed like meat, Blignaut says TMRW tries to create a balance between something that still has the textures of meat, while feeling like “real food.”

However, the cost of creating these plant-based burgers presents a barrier. From ingredients to processing, it is a challenge for local entrepreneurs. Blignaut’s burger is created using protein made from wheat that must be processed through a dry extrusion method. It is the extrusion that creates the texture and mould of meat-like products. The dry extrusion of this protein can only be imported from the United States despite Canada having plentiful access to the protein ingredient. Saskatchewan produces a large amount of plant-based proteins—41 per cent of the world’s lentils and 36 per cent of the world’s pea exports. Blignaut says that while these proteins are currently available in Canada, they’re not being processed using a wet or dry extrusion method yet. Importing the protein portion of the burger from the U.S. adds to the total cost of ingredients for the local plant-based meat company.

Ron Kehrig, deputy director of investment at the Ministry of Trade and Export Development for Saskatchewan, says that the province has “numerous types of the chickpeas, quinoa, oats and even canola, which have protein components that are largely untapped for foods.” The province is part of the Government of Canada’s Protein Supercluster Initiative. But these projects are still in their infancy. Blignaut believes that these major investments and access that Canada has to these ingredients are good for the sector. But the inaccessibility to these ingredients is proof that alternative proteins are not mainstream yet. Conventional meat and dairy producers receive subsidies from the Canadian government for products like animal feed. He says, “That obviously helps them keep pricing down on meat. If you look at some of the other proteins, they don’t really have that.” If Blignaut had his way, plant-based burgers would be placed right next to animal-based meats in grocery stores.

Eye level is buy level

Pusateri’s, a family-run butcher, has been serving Torontonians since 1963. The shop has a new addition to its spread of meats and fish. Plant-based burgers now sit proudly on display, a rarity across Canada’s butcher shops. They’re from YamChops, which has been Toronto’s only plant-based butcher since 2014.

YamChops is located at 705 College Street in Toronto.

YamChops is similar to a meat butcher shop, with shiny glass display cases, bright lights and signs plastered around the shop advertising “meats.” The motto as you walk in the door says, “Bite off more than you can chew.” The store’s slogan is on the wall, “Grown, Not Raised.” John Tashjian and Julie Boyer took over the store in 2017 after researching the environmental sustainability, health and ethical implications that come from owning a plant-based butcher. Tashjian says it’s important to have these products in shops such as Pusateri’s, in full view of sworn meat-eaters. Never mind the planetary benefits, more demand would almost certainly reduce overall production costs. YamChops stocks its own meatless steaks, non-poultry chicken and fishless fish, in addition to the popular Beyond Meat range of plant-based foods, tempeh products and dairy-free sauces. Boyer says his customers range from vegans to meat eaters who just want to reduce their intake of dairy and meat are regular customers.

Click image to watch video


YamChops is an anomaly in Toronto, but more plant-based butchers are popping up across the country. In the west, Victoria’s the Very Good Butcher opened in February 2017. In the east, Halifax’s Real Fake Meats, the first plant-based butcher in Atlantic Canada, opened in January 2019. This relatively sudden proliferation may make good business sense. After the release of the 2019 Canadian Food Guide, Dalhousie University analyzed its affordability. The research suggests that a meal for a family of four is set to cost 6.8 per cent less compared to the 2007 guide recommendations, even though someone like TMRW’s Blignaut recognizes that meat alternative products are unlikely to match the affordability of the 2019 food guide recommendations. He says, “Although veganism is not expensive—you can eat rice and lentils and beans and all this amazing stuff for really cheap—if you want to buy processed products, it is more expensive.” Accessibility to working-class Canadians and those living outside of metropolitan areas is something that the plant-based food sector is likely to combat in the future.


Simplicity is a virtue

At Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC, students enter a small recreation room for a meal called “Veggie Lunch.” World music echoes through the space as students mingle and line up for a $6 meal and dessert. The program was started by the not-for-profit organization Karma-Free Meals. Kala Roy, the server and chef, is upfront about her products. She doesn’t try to masquerade her meals as a meat or dairy alternative.

Roy serves her meals from Tuesday to Thursday every week. She sets up the blank room with tables draped with flowery blue and yellow table cloths. A long table at the front is filled with home-cooked meals, placed in four canteen tins. Roy doesn’t need to worry about branding her meals correctly to meet the CFIA’s standards. They’re regular meals, but they happen to be vegan.

On Thursday, she’s serving up a large tin of chili with kidney beans in a tomato sauce and a range of vegetables such as carrots, peas and string beans. In another tin, a yellow cornmeal curry with green vegetables is served with the chili and a scoop of white rice. Dessert is a traditional Indian version of Halva, a pudding made out of semolina flour and cooked with berries and coconut oil. It’s scooped out, like ice cream, into a biodegradable tray, with a slice of lemon poppy seed cake.

Some students like to eat Karma-Free Meals because they’re healthy. Whether vegan, vegetarian or omnivore, all enjoy the home-cooked taste. Roy’s mission is “to provide affordable and healthy food and to promote a healthy and compassionate lifestyle.”

As the Dalhousie study suggests, plant-based diets can be affordable. Since she took over Veggie Lunch in 2011, Roy decided to convert the program to vegan meals, which are more affordable and healthier for students on a budget. The halva dessert was one of the first recipe modifications that she made. The two pounds of butter in the original recipe was replaced with coconut oil.

“That’s a tremendous amount, while I use one and a half cups of coconut oil now. Our prices just plummeted,” says Roy. This huge reduction in costs encouraged Roy to make the whole program vegan.


Click image to watch video

Holistic nutritionist Manjari Kansal, based out of Vancouver, encourages a lifestyle of home cooked, plant-based meals like Roy’s. She says that creating a simple diet of legumes, vegetables, nuts and seeds is a better choice compared to processed products. She says, “Everything comes down to how you are digesting your food.”

Kansal is impressed by the available selection of meat alternatives, but she also thinks the public needs to be educated about the amount of protein that naturally occurs in vegetables like broccoli. Plant-based cheeses that include added oils and the processing of some basic meat alternatives can cause digestive distress. “It’s still processed food, although healthier than meat and dairy,” says Kansal. Like most foods, she says these products should be consumed in moderation. Even the fermented specialty cheeses, which are beneficial for digestion, should be a special treat like any artisan cheese.

At Blue Heron, on a Saturday morning, McAthy and co-owner Colin Medhurst open the 100-square-foot storefront to customers. The space has two fridges that are filled with specialty items, including hard cheese mostarda, almond ricotta and Bocconcini. Behind the counter are large white curtains and plastic dividers that lead to a space not open to visitors. McAthy calls it “the cage,” the fermentation facility where McAthy makes her cheeses. The small space is filled by seven customers. A chalkboard lists the day’s cheeses. The fig cumulus that I tried yesterday is already out of stock. Blue Heron’s artisan vegan cheeses are a treat for vegans and non-vegans alike.

Blue Heron might be a disruptor, but Blignaut says the alternative meat and dairy sector still has “got a hell of a long way to go before we actually make it mainstream, to the extent where you’re slowing down the rate at which animals are being slaughtered.” Veganism and plant-based eating are about saving the environment and animals, after all. The 2019 Canadian food guide might keep up with the innovation from local plant-based businesses, but it hasn’t erased the animal versus plant protein mindset just yet.


About the author

I am a freelance journalist, based in Toronto originally from the west coast. I have a passion for in-depth, visual storytelling, and I have previously produced current affairs segments for CBC Radio in Vancouver and written features for The Peak, Simon Fraser University’s student newspaper. I hold a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Simon Fraser University and I am currently a Master of Journalism candidate at Ryerson University.  Please take a look at my website for more information about my published work: www.ashley-fraser.com  

Back to Top