'Pure' grated Parmesan may contain cheddar. And wood pulp.

Even if a cheese is labelled '100 percent Parmesan,' it likely contains cheaper cheeses and wood pulp substitutes. 

Stefano Rellandini/Reuters/File
A storage area for Parmesan cheese wheels is pictured at a warehouse owned by Credito Emiliano bank in Montecavolo, near Reggio Emilia, central Italy, Nov. 28, 2012. An Italian dairy cooperative has sold bonds backed by Parmesan cheese, the company said on Feb. 2, a rare example of one of the country's plethora of small firms raising funding on capital markets.

The US Food and Drug Administration says many cheese products sold as “100 percent Parmesan” are actually made from cheaper substitutes such as cheddar and wood pulp. 

After inspecting a Castle Cheese factory in rural Pennsylvania in 2012, the FDA found evidence of cheaper cheeses and cellulose, typically referred to as wood pulp. 

For 30 years, Castle supplied “100 percent Parmesan cheese” to Target and Associated Wholesale, the nation’s second-largest retail wholesaler supplying 3,400 retail stores. But according to the FDA, “no Parmesan cheese was used to manufacture” these Castle products, which were actually comprised of a mixture of Swiss, mozzarella, and white cheddar cheeses, as well as cellulose. 

Wood pulp may not sound particularly appetizing, but it is a common additive and deemed safe for consumption at low levels of two to four percent. But after conducting their own study of Castle’s competitors, Bloomberg News found that Castle is not the only company doctoring up its Parmesan.

Wal-Mart’s ‘100% Grated Parmesan Cheese’ was 7.8 percent cellulose, Jewel-Osco’s ‘Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese’ was 8.8 percent cellulose, and Kraft had 3.8 percent cellulose, Bloomberg found.

All of these companies told Bloomberg they are investigating the findings, with Wal-Mart questioning the reliability of Bloomberg’s testing.  

Cellulose content aside, there are likely other imposters in many Parmesan cheese products. Parmesan is expensive to make because of its dry consistency. As the wheels sit for months losing moisture, they shrink in size and yield less profits to manufacturers. So to beef up their Parmesan sales, some manufacturers add in substitutes. Instead of ‘100 percent Parmesan,’ Neil Schuman, president of New Jersey-based cheese manufacturer Arthur Schuman Inc., told Bloomberg that he suspects 20 percent of all US Parmesan production is mislabeled. 

And Mr. Schuman thinks pre-grated cheese is the “tipping point” for Parmesan rip-offs. Less than 40 percent of grated Parmesan is even a cheese product, he suspects.

The ingredients in processed foods have come under intense public scrutiny in recent years, as consumers have become more savvy about what they eat and more vocal about what they expect companies to provide. Pressure from consumers has prodded major corporations to rethink their ingredient lists, from McDonald's pledge to transition off of antibiotic-fed chicken to Chipotle's elimination of genetically modified ingredients. In general, consumers – especially Millennials – are pushing for more transparency around what is in their food.

“Increasingly, labels, which are supposed to allow customers to make more informed decisions, are instead turning into advertising vehicles, bending the truth in ways neither consumers nor the government appreciates,” explains the Washington Post. “The hope is that the recent crackdown in the cheese world will shine a spotlight on an unbecoming part of the industry, making it increasingly more difficult to cheat without being caught.” 

Because the FDA prioritizes health issues over mislabeling offenses, criminal charges are rare. But as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in October, Castle President Michelle Myrter has been "charged with one misdemeanor count of aiding the introduction of misbranded and adulterated food into interstate commerce." Ms. Myrter is expected to plead guilty at a plea hearing later this month. She could face a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. 

And the case of mislabeling, the Parmesan cheese doesn't stand alone: the number of improper labelling cases has risen in recent years.

In October, Oceana, an oceanic sustainability organization, released a report suggesting that nearly half of salmon sold in stores is not properly labeled, as The Monitor's Schuyler Velasco reported. Oceana analyzed 83 US salmon products, and found that 43 percent of the products were mislabeled. The fraudulent labels suggested the salmon products were wild-caught or higher quality varieties like Chinook or Coho. But in reality, the most of the salmon was farm-raised, lower-value species.

"Americans might love salmon, but they may be falling victim to a bait and switch," Beth Lowell, senior campaign director at Oceana, said in the study's release. "When consumers opt for wild-caught US salmon, they don't expect to get a farmed or lower-value product of questionable origins. This type of seafood fraud can have serious ecological and economic consequences. Not only are consumers getting ripped off, but responsible US fishermen are being cheated when fraudulent products lower the price for their hard-won catch."

In the olive oil industry, companies cut product costs by adding in cheaper soybean and seed oils without any repercussions. “FDA officials tell me their resources are far too limited, and the list of responsibilities far to long, to police the olive-oil trade,” author Tom Mueller told the New Yorker. 

Similar allegations have been made against the hot dog industry, with the startup Clear Labs suggesting in October that ten percent of vegetarian hot dogs contained meat and 67 percent had traces of human DNA. The group alleges that the same vegetarian hot dog manufacturers also exaggerated the products' protein levels.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.