FDA Says ‘Parmesan’ Cheese Might Actually Be Cheddar or Wood Pulp

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That label's full of holes. Photo: Rob Lawson/Getty Images

Add Parmesan to the list of foods that come with more than you bargained for: The FDA warns Parmesan fraud has become a serious problem for American consumers. Tests show products described as "100 percent Parmesan" routinely have cut-rate substitutes — like wood pulp, and cheaper cheeses such as cheddar, Swiss, and mozzarella.

As part of its new leaf, the agency has stepped up prosecuting industry offenders, and right now it's in the middle of a criminal case against Castle Cheese, once a top supplier to the big grocery chains, for selling "Parmesan" products that would give old-world cheese-makers in Parma a coronary. Per the FDA, Castle made shoddy cheeses for almost 30 years, and supplied the Market Pantry brand at Target and two others for Associated Wholesale, the nation's second-largest retail wholesaler, all of which contained "no Parmesan cheese" despite claiming on their labels to be 100 percent.

Castle is the FDA's highest-profile case of Parmesan-maker-gone-awry — its president is supposed to plead guilty this month to charges that could mean a year in prison and a $100,000 fine, and Bloomberg notes its scam cheeses made money hand over fist, enough to adorn the factory "with crenelated battlements and curved archways" so it looked like "a medieval castle." But while the company actually filed for bankruptcy in 2014 after a fired factory worker ratted the company out to the FDA, people in the industry still say packs of grated Parm are full of fraud: One cheese-maker fighting for stricter labeling laws says 40 percent of what's out there isn't even a cheese product, and a Dairy Farmers of America subsidiary claims its tests showed only one-third of labels are accurate.

Bloomberg also ran some lab tests on brands of "100 percent" grated Parmesan to see how much cellulose, the main ingredient in paper, they contained. The results were disconcerting:

Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese, from Jewel-Osco, was 8.8 percent cellulose, while Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese registered 7.8 percent, according to test results. Whole Foods 365 brand didn't list cellulose as an ingredient on the label, but still tested at 0.3 percent. Kraft had 3.8 percent.

Spokespeople for Kraft Heinz, Walmart, Jewel-Osco, Target, and Whole Foods each questioned Bloomberg's findings, but they assured reporters their companies were most definitely "investigating" or at least "looking into" this matter.

[Bloomberg]