In the 1950s, the Food and Drug Administration established an official definition for parmesan cheese. According to these requirements, it cannot contain more than 32 precent moisture, while it must have a "granular texture," come with a "hard and brittle rind," grate "readily," and be made from cow's milk, among others things.
Nowhere in the definition is there the suggestion that "wood pulp" would be an appropriate ingredient. Nor does it say it's acceptable to substitute in less expensive cheeses, such as cheddar, swiss, and mozzarella. That's not surprising: It should go without saying parmesan cheese should be parmesan cheese.
And yet, somehow, parmesan cheese advertised as 100 percent parmesan appears to be including wood pulp and other cheese, unbeknownst to us.
The unusual tactic was first flagged by the FDA in 2012, when it found evidence that Castle Cheese Inc, which sold a variety of shaved parmesan and romano cheeses, was introducing unexpected substances into its parmesan cheese products. The government agency wrote the company a stern warning, which was filled with unambiguous language like "your product labels declare that the products are parmesan cheese or romano cheese, but they are in fact a mixture of trimmings of various cheeses and other ingredients" and "your parmesan cheese products do not contain any parmesan cheese."
What distinguishes one cheese from another is a consequence of both its ingredients and the process in which its made. In the United States, the standards are set by the FDA, which requires that different cheeses carry different fat, moisture, protein, and salt contents. Parmesan is what is considered a hard Italian cheese, defined by its low moisture, high salt, and medium fat content, as well as its comparatively long ripening process. Mozzarella, on the other hand, is high in moisture and low in salt. It also, like cheddar, swiss, and many other softer cheeses, doesn't require the aging process that Parmesan does, making it cheaper to produce.
The charge against Castle was crippling for the company, which reportedly sold doctored cheeses to major retailers like Target. Castle filed for bankruptcy the following year, and its president Michelle Myrter is expected to plead guilty to criminal charges this month to charges related to the cheese issue.
This past October, Myrter's attorney, Stephen Stallings, told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette the case was a matter of improper labeling, not food safety. "No consumer’s health or safety was ever jeopardized as a result of the labeling matters at issue," he told the paper.
Castle, for its part, has mostly complied with the FDA. The company protested the accusations in a response to the FDA's original probe, claiming that the agency could only prove the likelihood that Castle was selling parmesan cheese with a misleading label, but stopped producing the cheeses in question and threw away what inventory it had left on hand.
Castle's foul play seems to be less of an outlier than an industry-wide ailment. A new report by Bloomberg News, which tested parmesan cheese bought at various stores across the country, found that other brands advertised as 100 percent parmesan weren't exactly that.
The FDA's guidelines are vague about the permitted level of cellulose, an approved additive made from wood pulp, which stops the cheese from clustering. Cheesemakers are allowed to use as much as needed to stop their product from clumping, which, per industry standard, is somewhere around 2 percent. But some cheese makers are selling product that contains more than four times that amount, according to Bloomberg:
Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese, from Jewel-Osco, was 8.8 percent cellulose, while Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese registered 7.8 percent, according to test results. Whole Foods 365 brand didn’t list cellulose as an ingredient on the label, but still tested at 0.3 percent. Kraft had 3.8 percent.
What's more, major industry players are convinced the problem extends well beyond the products tested by Bloomberg News.
"The tipping point was grated cheese, where less than 40 percent of the product was actually a cheese product," Neil Schuman, who owns Arthur Schuman Inc., which controls a third of the hard Italian cheese market in the U.S., told Bloomberg. "Consumers are innocent, and they’re not getting what they bargained for. And that’s just wrong."
Shuman believes a fifth of all hard Italian cheese produced in the United States are mislabeled.
Another cheese industry executive told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2014 that some Parmesan cheese being sold contains 20 percent or more cellulose.
Tests seem to have corroborated the notion that a lot of cheesemakers are cheating. DairiConcepts, a subsidiary of Dairy Farmers of America, tested 28 parmesan brands and found that most were lying about the protein content in their cheese, likely because they were introducing extra cellulose.
The reason companies appear to be cutting corners is simple: it helps them save money. Making parmesan, romano, and other hard Italian cheeses isn't nearly as efficient as making their softer counterparts—the drying process takes months, shedding moisture and, with it, weight.
Depending on how long it sits, the same amount of milk could mean significantly less cheese by weight than it would if a manufacturer were making cheddar, swiss, or mozzarella. Adding a little extra cellulose, or swapping in a little—or a lot—of another cheese, can save commercial manufacturers millions of dollars.
The growing popularity of hard nutty cheeses in the United States, and the relative unfamiliarity with the nuances of their flavor profile, could be making it easier for the tweaks to go unnoticed. Both parmesan and romano production are growing rapidly in the country, rising by 11 percent and 20 percent, respectively, last year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The problem, in many ways, is emblematic of an issue afflicting the broader American food industry. The FDA's first priority is ensuring the safety of the American food system, protecting consumers from health hazards that arise when manufacturers are mishandling products or skirting essential food safety standards, which makes it hard to expend the time and resources necessary to catch coy companies like Castle. 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.
Often, these have been used to pitch questionable health benefits. In 2010, the Food and Drug Administration issued warning letters to 17 food manufacturers, mandating that they correct labels that made unfounded health claims. That same year, nearly half of all new food and beverage products came with a health- or nutrition-related claim, up from 25 percent in 2001, according to a report by the USDA’s Economic Research Service.
"Food labeling has become an incredibly powerful marketing tool," said Bill Marler, a lawyer and food safety expert who regularly represents consumers in claims against food companies.
But packaging has also become a viable vehicle for other forms of deceit, like those uncovered in the cheese industry. Look no further than the olive oil industry for evidence, which is fraught with fraud. The problem, according to Tom Mueller, the author of 'Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil,' is that we just aren't all that great at catching crooked behavior.
"In America, olive-oil adulteration, sometimes with cut-rate soybean and seed oils, is widespread, but olive oil is not tested for by the F.D.A.—F.D.A. officials tell me their resources are far too limited, and the list of responsibilities far too long, to police the olive-oil trade," he told the New Yorker in 2012.
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. And few feel more strongly about this than those who haven't been skirting the rules to reclaim the market.
"The industry wants to be known for a wholesome, safe, honest product — it’s what’s kept the industry growing for 100 years," John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, told Bloomberg this week.