WASHINGTON — If you love cheese, this news is not “grate.”
“Your Parmesan cheese products do not contain any Parmesan cheese” is not a letter you want to get from the Food and Drug Administration if you’re a company that manufactures Parmesan cheese products.
But that’s what a 2013 letter from the FDA to Pennsylvania’s Castle Cheese stated, according to BuzzFeed — and an investigation by Bloomberg shows that’s just the edge of the cheese wheel.
The FDA discovered Castle was cramming its Parmesan cheese with lower-quality substitutes (e.g., Swiss, mozzarella, white cheddar) and cellulose (a filler made out of wood pulp that’s legal in small amounts), then distributing it to grocery chains nationwide.
Castle President Michelle Myrter is scheduled to plead guilty this month to criminal charges. She faces up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
After the FDA investigation, Bloomberg decided to pick up some store-bought grated cheese and have it tested by an independent lab. The results showed many supermarkets’ Parmesan cheese suffered from the same issue.
Although a food technologist for the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research says cellulose is permitted as a cheese filler as long as it doesn’t exceed 4 percent of the final product, a Wal-Mart grated Parmesan came in at 7.8 percent cellulose, while the Essential Everyday 100 percent Grated Parmesan Cheese sold at Jewel-Osco registered at 8.8 percent.
And a Whole Foods brand whose label didn’t indicate any cellulose tested at 0.3 percent. Bloomberg also obtained the FDA’s Castle report through an FOIA request and found “no Parmesan cheese was used to manufacture” either a Target Market Pantry brand or two versions sold by Associated Wholesale Grocer — which appeared confusing to Target, as a representative told Bloomberg that Castle has never been one of its vendors (they’re looking into it).
But why are the cheese makers doing this? Money, it appears.
“The bad guys win and the rule-followers lose,” the executive vice president of Cheese Merchants of America said, adding that competitors with subpar products often underbid him by up to 30 percent. (The FDA went after cheese makers for their wooden aging racks a couple of years back.)