New tests from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Bloomberg News have found that products labeled 100-percent Parmesan are not only not 100-percent Parmesan, they’re not even all cheese. The tests found that the products are often filled with cut-rate substitutes and cheaper cheeses such as cheddar, Swiss and Mozzarella. Sometimes they even contain a large percentage of cellulose, the main ingredient in paper and wood.
One particularly egregious violator is Castle Cheese, a company known for supplying cheeses to large grocery chains like Target. Making cut-rate cheeses for almost 30 years, the company was able to enrich itself to a point where they were housed in an actual castle, which, according to Bloomberg, had “crenelated battlements and curved archways.”
Per the FDA, they supplied “Parmesan” products to Target’s Market Pantry brand and Associated Wholesale that contained “no Parmesan cheese” despite claiming on their labels to be 100-percent pure.
Other grated Parmesan suppliers have been mislabeling products by filling them with large quantities of cellulose, an anti-clumping agent made from wood pulp.
This month, the president of Castle Cheese, Michelle Myrter, is scheduled to plead guilty on charges that could lead to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. That may seem like a slap on the wrist, given the way the company was raking in the dough—or the cheese—during its heyday of manufacturing cheese products for grocery chains. However, the company actually filed for bankruptcy in 2014 after a fired whistleblower went public over the company’s shoddy products.
Unfortunately, even though the Castle Cheese saga is about to come to an end, the FDA isn’t finished. According to the report, one genuine Parmesan cheesemaker claims that as much as 40 percent of what’s on sale at stores isn’t even cheese at all.
The Fairfield, New Jersey-based company, Arthur Schuman Inc., is the biggest manufacturer of hard Italian cheeses in the U.S. and has 33 percent of the domestic market. The company estimates that $375 million in sales of cheese products–as many as 20 percent of all sales–is mislabeled.
“The tipping point was grated cheese, where less than 40 percent of the product was actually a cheese product,” owner Neal Schuman told Bloomberg. “Consumers are innocent, and they’re not getting what they bargained for. And that’s just wrong.”
A subsidiary of Dairy Farmers of America claims that tests show that at least two-thirds of labels are inaccurate.
Bloomberg, determined to find out how much of the reports were accurate, ran lab tests on products from stores labeled to be “100 percent” Parmesan. They wanted to discover how much cellulose was present.
Essential Everyday 100-Percent Grated Parmesan Cheese, from Jewel-Osco, turned out to be 8.8 percent cellulose. And Walmart Stores Inc.’s Great Value 100-Percent Grated Parmesan Cheese contained 7.8 percent. Whole Foods 365 brand tested at 0.3 percent, though it didn’t list cellulose on the label. Kraft had 3.8 percent cellulose content.
Predictably, spokespeople for all the companies tested, including Kraft Heinz, Walmart, Jewel-Osco, Target, and Whole Foods questioned the findings, but they also said that they had employees “investigating” or “looking into” them.
An acceptable level of cellulose, which is considered a safe additive, is 2 percent to 4 percent, according to Dean Sommer, cheese technologist at the Center for Dairy Research in Madison, Wisconsin.
“We remain committed to the quality of our products,” Michael Mullen, spokesman for Kraft Heinz Co., said in an e-mail to Bloomberg.
Marty Wilson, chief executive officer of Sugar Foods, which buys cheese from Schuman, says he battles dishonest cheese manufacturers all the time and often loses business to them.
“We’re constantly battling cheap imitators across all of our product lines,” Wilson said.
Bob Greco of Cheese Merchants of America said he has been underbid by as much as 30 percent by cheap ersatz cheesemongers.
“The bad guys win and the rule-followers lose,” Greco said.
There hasn’t been much investigation into the fraud up till now because the FDA has been focused on issues of food safety. But with the new study, that might all change, and signal that American consumers will soon be able to get the pure Parmesan they deserve.