I Told You So!
A while back I wrote what I called a“primer” for Parmesan cheese. In it, I extolled the virtues of Parmigiano- Reggiano – the real Parmesan cheese – and excoriated what I have long held to be “crap in a can”; the ubiquitous plastic or cardboard containers of “100% Grated Parmesan Cheese” that you find in every supermarket and in nearly every restaurant in America. I pointed out that because of the cellulose filler most of these sham cheese products contain, you might as well be eating sawdust. It's a quixotic crusade. Although educated and experienced cooks and chefs like Mario Batali will back me to the rind on the subject of Parmigiano-Reggiano, very few consumers pay any attention because they have been so deeply indoctrinated through the successful marketing strategies of the purveyors of fake cheese. To the vast majority of insufficiently informed minds, Parmesan = Crap In A Can.
So imagine my smug, self-satisfied, swellheaded, overweening delight this morning when this parade of news headlines scrolled across my screen: “Investigations rat out fake ingredient in cheese” – CBS News; “Parmesan cheese is not what it seems” – The Washington Post; “The Parmesan Cheese You Sprinkle on Your Penne Could Be Wood” – Bloomberg; “You May Be Sprinkling Wood Pulp on Your Pasta, Not Parmesan Cheese” – Time; “Parmesan cheese from many top brands may contain wood byproduct” – New York Daily News; “FDA: Parmesan suppliers doctored cheese with wood pulp” – The Detroit News; “FDA warning: More wood pulp than parmesan cheese in '100 percent parmesan'” – SILive.com; “Store-Bought Parmesan Cheese Contains Sketchy Ingredients Like Cellulose, Filler Made From Wood Pulp” – Medical Daily
See! I TOLD you so!
The accompanying stories were full of facts that hammered home the point I've been making for years:
The FDA has learned that Castle Cheese Inc. was doctoring its 100 percent real parmesan with such fillers as wood pulp. – The Detroit News
Acting on a tip, agents of the Food and Drug Administration paid a surprise visit to a cheese factory in rural Pennsylvania on a cold November day in 2012. They found what they were looking for: evidence that Castle Cheese Inc. was doctoring its 100 percent real parmesan with cut-rate substitutes and such fillers as wood pulp and distributing it to some of the country's biggest grocery chains. – The San Luis Obispo Tribune
Take my word for it, even as I am happy-dancing my ass all over my kitchen right now, I get no pleasure from being so fully, completely, excruciatingly and unambiguously RIGHT. Well....maybe just a little. The point is that if even that obtuse, foot-dragging, monolithic glacier known as the FDA – an agency frequently accused of being blindly and firmly in the pocket of Big Food and its minions – can come to the conclusion that something is rotten in Pennsylvania, then there must truly be something to worry about. A real “Cheesegate”. Or perhaps that should be “Porta di Parmesan”.
A cheese industry insider recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that some Parmesan cheese being sold contains twenty percent or more cellulose. According to a Bloomberg expert, less than forty percent of grated cheese is actually a cheese product. He believes that a fifth of all hard Italian cheese produced in the United States is mislabeled.
Product testing for the Bloomberg report reveals that Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese, from Jewel-Osco, was 8.8 percent cellulose. Wal-Mart’s Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese registered 7.8 percent. Kraft – the grandaddy of them all – tested out at 3.8 percent. Even Whole Foods 365 brand – a brand that didn’t list cellulose as an ingredient on the label – still tested at 0.3 percent.
In case you didn't read my original piece and are unclear on the definition and purpose of “cellulose,” cellulose is an anti-caking agent made from plant fiber, the most common source of which is wood fiber from wood pulp. In other words, sawdust.
The FDA's own code defines “Parmesan” thus: “Sec. 133.165 Parmesan and reggiano cheese. (a) Parmesan cheese, reggiano cheese, is the food prepared from milk and other ingredients specified in this section, by the procedure set forth in paragraph (b) of this section, or by another procedure which produces a finished cheese having the same physical and chemical properties as the cheese produced when the procedure set forth in paragraph (b) of this section is used. It is characterized by a granular texture and a hard and brittle rind. It grates readily. It contains not more than 32 percent of moisture, and its solids contain not less than 32 percent of milkfat, as determined by the methods prescribed in 133.5 (a), (b), and (d). It is cured for not less than 10 months.”
Ain't nothin' in there about no damn sawdust, now is there?
Castle Cheese, Inc – with parentheses around the word “cheese” – has been peddling its Parmesan-less “Parmesan” for almost thirty years. Bloomberg says the president of the company is scheduled to plead guilty to charges that carry a sentence of up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Her spin doctor attorney tells the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that the case is just a matter of improper labeling, not actual food safety. "No consumer’s health or safety was ever jeopardized as a result of the labeling matters at issue." Whatever helps you sleep, man.
Okay, I've said it and now – words I never thought I'd type – the FDA is backing me up. 100% Grated Crap in a Can is not “real” Parmesan cheese. Is it dangerous? No, not that anybody can prove. The helping of termites you have to swallow to help you digest the stuff might not be so good, I don't know. Does it taste like Parmesan? Sure. If you have no idea what Parmesan is supposed to taste like. Is it a cheap, crummy, inferior, low-quality, substandard, odious, counterfeit substitute for the real thing designed to appeal to the wallet rather than to the palate? Indubitably!
I've got to give one prop to Olive Garden and a few other faux-Italian eateries; at least the stuff they grate over your plate is actual cheese. It's not usually expensive Parmesan. Generally it's a more “affordable” substitute like Romano, but that's okay. Points for it not coming out of a shaker. Do yourself the same favor at home. Buy a grater and a wedge of real cheese. And ditch the can.