Friday, February 19, 2016

The Great Parmesan Cheese Scandal of 2016

In my debut posting to this blog, I mentioned that the business of food and the food industry interests me just as much as actually cooking does. It should be no surprise then that I've been glued to the buzz surrounding the latest breaking story about grated parmesan and how multiple food manufacturers have been duping the public about the ingredients in their product.

So...... Fresh off the Great McDonald's Mozzarella Sticks Scandal of 2016, I give you The Great Parmesan Cheese Scandal of 2016! (Seems like, as a country, we're having cheese issues so far this year)


This all started with a tip to the FDA that Castle Cheese Inc. was doctoring its parmesan cheese with too much cellulose, which is used as an anti-clumping agent and is derived from wood pulp. By law a certain amount is acceptable, but whistle-blowers said that Castle Cheese Inc. was putting just a little bit too much in. In fact, by the time the FDA finished its investigation, they reported that Castle, who makes Market Pantry brand 100% grated Parmesan Cheese sold at Target Corp. stores, contained “no parmesan cheese." Castle also supplies Always Save Grated Parmesan Cheese and Best Choice 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese, sold by Associated Wholesale Grocers Inc.

This inspired the FDA to investigate other producers of grated cheese, and as a result of this investigation, the supermarket chain Jewel-Osco removed all of its Essential Everyday 100% Parmesan Cheese from shelves, which contains 8.8% cellulose, and Wal-Mart removed its Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese, which registered 7.8% cellulose. Other brands, including Kraft, came in within the legally acceptable 2-4% levels of cellulose.

The lesson from this is quite simple - Business is business, and many food producers have no problem cutting a few corners, especially when just a little change here or there can save them millions of dollars and the consumers are unable to tell the subtle difference. That's why I buy block parmesan, which is less susceptible to the cellulose and fillers. Note, I said "less susceptible," not "completely immune" to.

I've never liked grated parmesan cheese. I've thought its odor was over-powering and its texture just odd. Maybe companies add that extra flavor and odor as a way to mask the blandness of the actual product (see the book The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth about Food and Flavor by Mark Schatzker for more details.) I've always liked freshly shredded parmesan on my salads, and I've recently begun cooking with it as well. Yeah, it can be a pain shredding it by hand, but I think the small amount of effort is worth it.

There are still many claims and phrases companies put on their labels to tempt us to buy their product over their competitors. For instance, the word "organic" is still being brandied about a lot lately but there is no clear definition what it means, and the FDA hasn't tackled that issue as of yet. "All natural" is another term, and while it is technically defined, the definition is so vague it's useless.

Are these companies evil for intentionally deceiving us? It honestly depends on your point of view and your philosophy on the whole matter. It's important to remember, these companies don't exist to make sure you have a well balanced healthy diet. These companies exist to make money and to satisfy their hungry stock holders. Yes, they chose the food industry to conduct their business and have a legal obligation to be honest in product labeling and delivery, but don't ever forget who they're really loyal to and who they're willing to bend the rules for --- it's not you. I've understood that from the beginning, and maybe that's why I'm surprised that other people are surprised when stories like this break. (For instance, did Fast Food Nation tell you anything you didn't already suspect?)


So I'll keep an eye on this story to see if anything new comes of it, and in the meantime, your homework is to buy your kitchen a cheese shredder and from now on, only buy parmesan in blocks.

Until next time...
Here's a short video from Gourmet Magazine on different shredding/grating tools you can buy and the results of each tool.

Cheesely Yours,
Michael