News & Politics

FDA: Your Parmesan Cheese Might Be Wood Pulp

The nation is being swept by the latest food fraud: counterfeit Parmesan cheese.

Writes Grub Street, “Tests show products described as ‘100 percent Parmesan’ routinely have cut-rate substitutes — like wood pulp, and cheaper cheeses such as cheddar, Swiss, and mozzarella”

The FDA is has begun an aggressive pursuit of food crimes “and right now it’s in the middle of a criminal case against Castle Cheese, once a top supplier to the big grocery chains, for selling ‘Parmesan’ products that would give old-world cheese-makers in Parma a coronary.”

And there could be jail time.

Castle is the FDA’s highest-profile case of Parmesan-maker-gone-awry — its president is supposed to plead guilty this month to charges that could mean a year in prison and a $100,000 fine, and Bloomberg notes its scam cheeses made money hand over fist, enough to adorn the factory ‘with crenelated battlements and curved archways’ so it looked like ‘a medieval castle.’ But while the company actually filed for bankruptcy in 2014 after a fired factory worker ratted the company out to the FDA, people in the industry still say packs of grated Parm are full of fraud: One cheese-maker fighting for stricter labeling laws says 40 percent of what’s out there isn’t even a cheese product, and a Dairy Farmers of America subsidiary claims its tests showed only one-third of labels are accurate.

Bloomberg actually ran some tests on packaged Parmesan cheese and the results were alarming.

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.

But these results did not go unchallenged.

Spokespeople for Kraft Heinz, Walmart, Jewel-Osco, Target, and Whole Foods each questioned Bloomberg‘s findings, but they assured reporters their companies were most definitely “investigating” or at least “looking into” this matter.

Be warned — and buy your cheese from a local dairy farmer if you can.