There could be what in my parmesan cheese?

February 17, 2016

The latest case of food fraud has made headlines as a recent article investigates the use of wood shavings—among other substitutes and fillers—in what is claimed to be 100% real parmesan cheese.

Known as cellulose, the common anti-clumping agent is made from wood pulp, and while it is a safe additive in the food industry, acceptable levels in parmesan cheese should only be 2% to 4% of the product, according to Dean Sommer, a cheese technologist at the Center for Dairy Research in Madison, Wisconsin.

However, in the Bloomberg News investigative report, a variety of parmesan cheese brands were bought and tested for levels of cellulose. While each brand tested claimed to be 100% real parmesan cheese, the report found actual levels of cellulose ranging from 3.3% to 8.8%. In addition, a small amount of cellulose was also found in some brands that did not list it as an ingredient.

This angers many legitimate parmesan cheese producers, including Neil Schuman, whose company is the biggest seller of hard Italian cheeses in the U.S., with 33% of the domestic market. According to the article, he estimates that 20% of the U.S. production of parmesan cheese — worth $375 million in sales — is mislabeled and either contains excessive amount of cellulose or contains a mixture of imitation cheeses including swiss, white cheddar, havarti and mozzarella.

“The tipping point was grated cheese, where less than 40% of the product was actually a cheese product,” Schuman said in the article. “Consumers are innocent, and they’re not getting what they bargained for. And that’s just wrong.”

The FDA regulates what can legally be called parmesan cheese according to standards established in the 1950s to ensure that manufacturers wouldn’t sell cheeses wildly different in composition. However, until recently, there was little incentive to follow labeling rules. The article explains this is because the FDA, which enforces the country’s food laws, prioritizes health hazards first. However, there is no shortage civil lawsuits that result from cases such as this.

Marty Wilson, chief executive officer of New York-based Sugar Foods, which buys cheese from Schuman and supplies major pizza chains with to-go packets of parmesan, said whenever his contracts come up for renewal, competitors peddling ersatz cheeses surface. And he has lost business to them. “We’re constantly battling cheap imitators across all of our product lines,” Wilson said in the article.

Italian cheese producers have also voiced their concerns over this sort of “cheese fraud.” The Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium, a trade group based in Rome, asked the European Union in December to protect its manufacturers against U.S. companies that were using the names of their cheeses and Italian flags on their packaging. “A deceit” is how the organization’s president, Giuseppe Alai, characterized Americans’ use of Italian names and symbols.

Of all the popular cheeses in the U.S., the hard Italian varieties are the most likely to have fillers because of their expense, the article explains. Parmesan wheels sit in curing rooms for months, losing moisture, which results in a smaller yield than other cheeses offer. While 100 pounds of milk might produce 10 pounds of cheddar, it makes only eight pounds of Parmesan. That two-pound difference means millions of dollars to manufacturers.

Now, the FDA’s investigation into the matter may be the spark that changes things, John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, said in the article.

“The industry wants to be known for a wholesome, safe, honest product — it’s what’s kept the industry growing for 100 years,” he said. “The wholesomeness of dairy products is a treasured part of our story.”

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Category: Food Safety