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What’s in Parmesan cheese? FDA’s CFR rules, Europe and cows

Italian Parmesan has the words "Parmigiano Reggiano" stippled

Italian Parmesan has the words "Parmigiano Reggiano" stippled onto its rind. Credit: Dreamstime

The big food news these days is that many widely available brands of grated Parmesan were filled out with cellulose — aka wood pulp. And that isn’t even the worst of it. One manufacturer, Castle Cheese of Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, has been accused by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration of selling Parmesan that was actually a mixture of real cheese trimmings (none of which were Parmesan) and imitation cheese. Castle’s cheese was sold at, among other retailers, Target, IGA and Price Chopper. The company has since declared bankruptcy.

A July 11, 2013 “warning letter” addressed to the company’s president (who faces criminal charges and is scheduled to be sentenced this month) said that some milk had been replaced by another fluid, that a fat source other than milk fat had been used and that “cellulose and/or starch were used to increase the weight of the cheese base.”

It was that broke the Castle Cheese story Tuesday, and to see how widespread the wood-pulp problem is, the business website brought a number of store-bought grated Parmesan cheeses to an independent lab and had them tested. Among the findings: Kraft contained 3.8 percent, and Walmart’s Great Value contained 7.8 percent. Both packages listed cellulose as an ingredient, but Whole Foods 365 — which did not list it — tested positive for 0.3 percent.

The presence of cellulose in grated cheese may be distasteful, but it is legal. The FDA categorizes cellulose as a “substance generally recognized as safe” and considers it a permissible anticaking agent in the manufacture of grated cheese. How much anticaking agent is permissible is not outlined in the definition of grated cheese in the FDA’s Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), but an FDA representative said that “a general rule would be up to 2 percent at the use level.” Which would appear to mean that both Kraft and Walmart are using more cellulose than they should, if the Bloomberg lab tests are correct.

I am not troubled by the presence of a little wood pulp in Kraft Grated Parmesan, the ubiquitous green can that belies a true appreciation of cheese. What troubles me is the FDA’s definition of Parmesan cheese.

According to the CFR, Parmesan cheese is made from cow’s milk that has been pasteurized or clarified (subjected to a centrifugal force). It can be bleached with benzoyl peroxide and, instead of whole milk, a manufacturer can use a combination of milk constituents — cream, skim milk, nonfat dry milk, water — that are recombined to approximate milk. Antifungals and artificial coloring also can be added. The milk is coagulated by any “safe and suitable milk-clotting enzyme,” heated and, after the whey is drained, the curds are pressed, salted, formed and aged for at least 10 months.

It’s safe to say that no one in Italy would regard such cheese as Parmesan cheese, known in Italian as Parmigiano-Reggiano.

In Europe, Parmigiano-Reggiano is a DOP cheese. DOP stands for Denominazione di Origine Protetta (Protected Designation of Origin) and foods that bear this label must adhere to rigorous standards to merit the designation. The Parmesan standards are set and verified by the Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Consortium, established in 1928, which regulates and promotes the independent dairies that produce the cheese. The standards hold, in part: Parmesan is produced only in a defined area of Italy that comprises the cities of Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena, and parts of Bologna and Mantua. The milk must be raw, not pasteurized or centrifuged, and produced by cows whose feed consists mainly of forage. (Cows and forage must be from the defined area). The cows are milked twice a day and neither milking should exceed four hours. The milk must be delivered to the dairy within two hours of the milking’s completion. Coagulation, “obtained exclusively by the use of calf rennet,” takes place in bell-shaped copper vats and is followed by cooking. The process up to this point must be performed by noon the day the milk arrives. When drained, the cheese mass is transferred to wheel molds and aged for at least 12 months. The finished cheese has a cylindrical shape with convex sides; a diameter, at the base and top, of 14 to 18 inches; height from 8 to 10 inches, a minimum weight of 66 pounds and a rind thickness of about 1/4 inch. No additives are permitted.

Italian Parmesan is regarded by many as the world’s greatest cheese. It isn’t cheap — anywhere from $17 to $30 a pound — but its taste is incomparable. Luckily, unlike American Parmesan, it’s easy to know when you’re getting the real thing. Every wheel of Italian Parmesan has the words “Parmigiano Reggiano” stippled onto its rind in big letters. You cannot miss it.

Almost all pasta dishes — except those containing seafood — can benefit from a good grating of Parmesan. (The same could be said for most vegetables.) Parmesan is a wonderful snack, a requirement on an antipasto platter. It has even been eaten in space: Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori brought it to the International Space Station.

Accept no substitutes.

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