Cheese fraud: FDA finds traces of wood pulp, substitutes in Parmesan

© Petr Josek
Parmesan cheese fraud is a growing problem for US consumers, the FDA warned, after tests revealed products described as "100 percent grated Parmesan” contained wood pulp and cheaper cheeses.

The US Food and Drug Administration has discovered that cheaper cheeses – such as cheddar, Swiss and mozzarella – and even wood pulp shavings, have been used as filler in grated Parmesan products.

The FDA is currently in the middle of a criminal case against Castle Cheese after carrying out an inspection of its cheese factory in rural Pennsylvania in 2012, following a tip-off.

The probe has discovered evidence that the Parmesan had been adulterated with cut-rate substitutes and fillers such as wood pulp before being distributed to some of the country’s biggest grocery chains, according to Bloomberg.

In 2013, the FDA sent Castle Cheese Inc. a warning letter citing its violations.

Castle had been supplying cheese branded as “100% grated Parmesan” which contained "no Parmesan cheese"  for almost 30 years, according to the FDA. The company used to provide the cheese for Target’s Market Pantry brand and two other brands used by Associated Wholesale, the nation's second-largest retail grocery supplier.

Castle President Michelle Myrter is scheduled to plead guilty this month to criminal charges in the FDA’s biggest Parmesan case yet. She faces up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine.

Castle Cheese filed for bankruptcy in 2014, but the problem doesn’t appear to have gone away. It is still possible that you’re sprinkling wood shavings over your pasta.

Is this cheese or wood pulp?

A Dairy Farmers of America subsidiary claims its tests showed only one-third of labels are accurate, according to Grubstreet.com.

Another cheese industry executive told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2014 that some Parmesan cheese being sold contains 20 percent or more cellulose.

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Bloomberg carried out its own investigation on brands claiming to be "100 percent" grated Parmesan to see how much cellulose –  the main ingredient in wood pulp –  they consisted of:

Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese, from Jewel-Osco, was 8.8 percent cellulose.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese came in at 7.8 percent.

Whole Foods 365 brand didn’t list cellulose as an ingredient on the label, but still tested at 0.3 percent.

While Kraft had 3.8 percent cellulose in its parmesan product.

An acceptable level of cellulose is between 2 to 4 percent, according to Dean Sommer, a cheese technologist at the Center for Dairy Research in Madison, Wisconsin.

Spokespeople for the companies questioned Bloomberg's findings, but all assured reporters their companies were most definitely "investigating" or at least "looking into" this matter.

The FDA regulates what can legally be called Parmesan or Romano according to standards established in the 1950s. Among other things, the cheese cannot contain more than 32 percent moisture; it must have a "granular texture"; come with a "hard and brittle rind"; grate "readily," and be made from cow's milk.

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Parmesan is big business in the US: in 2015 output rose 11 percent from 2014, to around 336 million pounds, while Romano production grew 20 percent to 54 million pounds, according to US Department of Agriculture data.