Wait, hang on a second. My Parmesan cheese is actually chock-full of… wood?
That’s the question that many Americans are asking themselves after reports from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirmed that Castle Cheese, Inc., a Pennsylvania-based company, had been adding wood pulp – yes, wood pulp – to their 100 percent real Parmesan cheese products for years. And not just a tiny bit of wood pulp either; in some cases, a whole lot of wood pulp.
Americans everywhere – to put it one way – are stumped. But don’t throw out that cylindrical jar of grated cheese that’s been lurking in the back of your refrigerator just yet – the findings so far may only pertain to a few select grated cheeses on American store shelves. Still, Americans should heed caution.
What Did the FDA’s Investigative Report Turn up?
Back in winter of 2012, the FDA, tipped off by an anonymous source, paid a surprise visit to an unsuspecting cheese factory in rural Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. What they found confirmed their source’s allegation: That Castle Cheese, Inc. was processing, labeling, and selling misbranded food. Worse, the FDA found that Castle had been, in effect, “cutting” their 100 Percent Real Parmesan Cheese product with cut-rate cheese substitutes and fillers such as wood pulp. When their cheese-making process was complete, Castle then shipped their cheeses across the U.S. to some of the largest grocery retailers in the country.
It all may sound like a joke at first, but such findings are not just baffling or puzzling – they are outright despicable – and they speak to a much larger issue in the American food industry. To dupe the public into purchasing a product that they’re led to believe is 100 percent of anything – when it’s not – is not only inaccurate or misleading, it’s a crime. Perhaps the worst crime of all: dishonesty.
The substitute that grated Parmesan suppliers have been using in their grated cheese products is called “cellulose,” which is an anti-clumping agent derived from wood pulp.
The FDA’s investigation into cellulose usage in the cheese industry has struck a nerve and sparked more widespread skepticism across this particular market in the U.S. Not only were a handful of companies adding wood pulp into their products, many were advertising their cheeses as 100 percent grated Romano or grated Parmesan, but, in reality, were adding cheddar, Swiss, Mozzarella, and Havarti into these products – by all accounts cheaper cheeses.
Michelle Myrter, President of Castle Cheese, Inc., has been facing a 3-year legal battle – and her company, shortly after the FDA’s findings came to public attention in 2013, filed for bankruptcy. It is expected that Myrter will plead guilty to charges of misbranding food. She faces steep fines and up to a year in prison.
With Which Grated Cheeses Should Americans Exercise Caution?
An independent laboratory test conducted by Bloomberg found the following cheeses contained cellulose, the wood-pulp based cheese-filler (this list not exhaustive, and many cheeses have not yet been tested):
- Walmart’s Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese® contained 7.8% cellulose
- Jewel-Osco’s Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese® contained 8.8% cellulose
- Kraft®’s 100% Real Parmesan Grated Cheese No Fillers contained 3.4% cellulose
- Whole Food’s 365 Brand Grated Parmesan® contained less than 1% cellulose
It should be disconcerting to many American consumers that the 2 adjectives – “100%” and “real” – often appear in the product labels of these cheeses; almost as if the companies marketing these cheeses are desperately trying to convince buyers that their cheese is the real deal. Labels exist for a reason: to help consumers make more well-informed decisions. When it came to Castle’s fraudulent cheese, it wasn’t merely that their product contained a high amount ofcellulose, it was that their cheese was also a mixture of cheaper cheeses, the bulk of which were not Parmesan at all.
The labeling of products should be much more than just a coy marketing tool for cold-hearted business executives; labeling should be creative – yes – but it should operate under a moral compass that steers the public toward buying a product because it is better than its competitors. Product labels should never be a mere vehicle for mass-market deceit.
Would you buy a grated Parmesan that was labeled as 91.2% Real Parmesan Cheese? Most likely not. Which is why companies need to accurately label their products – so that Americans are aware of what they are buying, putting into their bodies, and feeding their families.
Renowned Cheese Purest Sticks up for Consumers
The worst part of Bloomberg’s findings is that consumers aren’t to blame, at all, but they are the ones who wind up taking on the burden of mislabeled products. As is the case in dealing with unregistered dangerous chemicals, or even in asbestos industry deceit, it’s the everyday, average American consumers and workers, who are ultimately affected by corporate lies.
Neal Schuman, owner of Arthur Shuman Inc., which is the biggest seller of hard, Italian cheeses in the U.S., has been saying this for years. He has chosen to rise above his cost-cutting competitors and is considered by many in the industry to be somewhat of a “cheese purest.” Schuman estimates that 20 percent of the entire U.S. market of dry, grated cheese is mislabeled. How much does 20 percent of the market equate to? That’s nearly $375 Million worth of mislabeled cheese.
So, given that, it’s likely that the grated parmesan in your refrigerator isn’t 100 percent grated parmesan at all.
Shuman is correct in believing the American consumers deserve not to be misled: “The tipping point was grated cheese, where less than 40 percent of the product was actually a cheese product,” Schuman stated. “Consumers are innocent, and they’re not getting what they bargained for. And that’s just wrong.”
Americans Hope for More Regulation for Cheeses and Beyond
For decades, companies have had little incentive to “follow the rules” per se – especially when it comes to labeling their products. Why? The FDA is a smaller-sized governmental agency, relatively speaking, and the agency’s primary interest is in protecting the American public from serious health hazards, like bad meat or E.coli. Beyond monitoring potential health hazards, the FDA has little resources to police the trend of mislabeled foods. As a result, criminal cases are – and have been – fairly rare.
In the case of doctored cheese, manufacturers like Castle and Jewel-Osco cut corners because, at the end of the day, shaving wood pulp into their products and calling it “cheese” saves them a whole lot cost-wise per product unit. And because Americans consume 336 million pounds of grated cheese a year, whoever supplies the bulk of the market’s demand will reap the incredible profits. These cheaper suppliers wind up saving buckets of money, their product becomes more cost-efficient to retailers at wholesale, and they can beat their competitors’ prices by as much as 30 percent.
The FDA’s investigation into Castle Cheese may very well prove to be the catalyst in a trend of food companies heeding caution when it comes to making false claims, and let us hope – for all of our sake – that it is.