The cheese police are on the case. Acting on a tip, agents of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) paid a surprise visit to a cheese factory in Pennsylvania on a cold November day in 2012. They found what they were looking for: evidence that Castle Cheese Inc was doctoring its 100% real parmesan with cut-rate substitutes and such fillers as wood pulp and distributing it to some of the country’s biggest grocery chains.
One might be tempted to think of this as a ripped-fromthe-headlines episode of “NYPD Bleu,“ except that the FDA wasn’t playing. Some grated Parmesan suppliers have been mislabelling products by filling them with too much cellulose, a common anti-clumping agent made from wood pulp, or using cheaper cheddar, instead of real Romano. Someone had to pay . Castle president Michelle Myrter is scheduled to plead guilty this month to criminal charges.She faces up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
German brewers protect their reputations with Reinheitsgebot, a series of purity laws first drawn up 500 years ago, and Champagne makers prohibit most vineyards outside their turf from using the name. Now the full force of the US government has been brought to bear defending the authenticity of grated hard Italian cheeses. Which is good news for Neil Schuman.
For years, Schuman has been a one-man Reinheitsgebot, insisting that the fragrant granules Americans sprinkle on their pizza and penne ought to be the real thing; if not, the label should say so.
The stakes are 100% real for him. Schuman’s Fairfield, New Jersey-based company , Arthur Schuman Inc, is the biggest seller of hard Italian cheeses in the US, with 33% of the domestic market. He estimates that 20% of US production -worth $375 million in sales -is mislabelled.
“The tipping point was grated cheese, where less than 40% of the product was actually a cheese product,“ Schuman said. “Consumers are innocent, and they’re not getting what they bargained for. And that’s just wrong.“
How serious is the problem? Bloomberg News had store-bought grated cheese tested for wood-pulp content by an independent laboratory .
Cellulose is a safe additive, and an acceptable level is 2% to 4%, according to Dean Sommer, a cheese technologist at the Center for Dairy Research in Madison, Wisconsin. Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese, from Jewel-Osco, was 8.8% cellulose, while WalMart Stores Inc’s Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese registered 7.8%, according to test results. Whole Foods 365 brand didn’t list cellulose as an ingredient on the label, but still tested at 0.3%. Kraft had 3.8%.