When FDA agents acted on a tip back in 2012 and raided a cheese factory located in rural Pennsylvania, little did they know they had stumbled upon quite possibly the greatest Parmesan cheese scandal to grace American soil in recent years.
As it turns out, the father-and-daughter-operated Castle Cheese Inc. of Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania was found by said agents to be doctoring their "100 percent real" Parmesan cheese with fillers like wood pulp. In fact, according to the FDA's report on the matter, "no Parmesan cheese was used to manufacture" Castle's Parmesan. Instead, the cheese they called Parmesan was a combination of cellulose (an anti-clumping agent made from wood pulp), white cheddar, Swiss, and mozzarella. The faux-Parmesan was intended to be sold at some of the country's largest supermarket chains, like Target and Associated Wholesale Grocers. Michelle Myrter, whose father started the company, is scheduled to plead guilty to criminal charges later this month, and faces upwards of a $100,000 fine and a year in prison.
John Umhoefer, the executive director for the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, explains that the FDA's investigation into Castle Cheese may in fact be the spark needed to bring about industry-wide changes. While the FDA does regulate what can be called Parmesan or Romano in this country, the standards—which were put in place to guarantee a modicum of industry uniformity back in the 1950s—failed to enact any sort of appellation designation like Champagne has in France or beer has in Germany.
According to a report by Bloomberg Business, other cheese suppliers are mislabeling the cheese you buy in your local store. Bloomberg decided to bring in an independent laboratory to see what gives. They found that several types of grated, hard cheese sold at big stores, including Wal-Mart, were over the acceptable limits of cellulose. The investigation found that Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese, from Jewel-Osco, was actually 8.8 percent cellulose and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s Great Value 100 percent Grated Parmesan Cheese was 7.8 percent cellulose. Both Jewel-Osco and Wal-Mart questioned the reliability of Bloomberg's testing and said they stand by their products.
The Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium, a trade group based in Rome that protects the integrity of the cheeses sold under that name in Italy, is none too happy with what's going on in America. They've asked the European Union to protect their manufacturers from US companies that were using the names of their cheeses and Italian flags on their packaging. They call such behavior "a deceit."
Call it a deceit, call it a fraud. In either case, you may be delicately sprinkling a product made out of wood on your Amatriciana.