I am never without a good wedge of Parmesan cheese in my fridge. I use it to top pasta, make my meatballs, sprinkle on my son's favorite snack (bruschetta), and flavor my oven-roasted potatoes with it, just to name of a few of the many uses.
One of my son's friends heads straight to our cheese drawer and hacks off a huge chunk of Parmesan every time he comes over. (Poor kid has never had anything but shelf-stable grated Parmesan cheese in his house.)
The grated cheese he's been shaking out of a plastic container in his home might not even be real Parmesan, according to Bloomburg Business. In 2012, following a tip from a disgruntled former employee, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took samples of cheese from Castle Cheese, Inc. The Pennsylvania cheese manufacturer supplies grated Parmesan cheese to some large grocery chains including Target.
The FDA found that Castle Cheese was manufacturing some majorly faux Parmesan — as in there was no Parmesan cheese in something labeled 100 percent Parmesan cheese.
According to the FDA’s report on Castle, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, “no parmesan cheese was used to manufacture” the Market Pantry brand 100% grated Parmesan Cheese, sold at Target Corp. stores, and Always Save Grated Parmesan Cheese and Best Choice 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese, sold by Associated Wholesale Grocers Inc., which along with its subsidiaries supplies 3,400 retail stores in 30 states. Instead, there was a mixture of Swiss, mozzarella, white cheddar and cellulose, according to the FDA.
Castle was trying to save money by using other cheeses along with the filler cellulose, which is made from wood pulp. Parmesan is an expensive cheese to make. Because it's a hard cheese, it spends months drying out and when a cheese loses moisture, it loses weight. A pound of properly aged genuine Parmesan will cost more to make than a pound of cheddar or mozzarella because it takes more milk to create that pound of cheese. Castle used less expensive cheese varieties and charged its customers for real Parmesan.
The company's president, Michelle Myter, is expected to plead guilty to criminal charges, and she may spend a year in prison and pay a $100,000 fine. Castle Cheese has declared bankruptcy. The adulterated, fake Parmesan problem isn't over, though. Bloomberg had other store-bought, grated Parmesan cheese tested for the percentage of wood pulp in it, which is allowed up to 4 percent in U.S. grated Parmesan cheese as an anti-clumping agent.
Tests showed that some well-known brands like Jewel-Osco's Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese and Wal-Mart's Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese had cellulose that far exceeded the allowed amount.
Real Parmesan cheese from Italy will have the words Parmigiano Reggiono stamped on the rind. (Photo: Paul Kelly/flickr)
How can you be sure your Parmesan cheese is actually Parmesan cheese? First of all, stop buying grated Parmesan cheese. I know it's convenient, but grating a wedge of Parmesan, a very hard cheese, is not difficult to do. You can grate a cup of it in a minute or two. If you're concerned that the wedge of Parmesan you're grating may not be authentic, then look to the rind of the wedge.
While there are certainly many excellent authentic Parmesan-style cheeses made by American cheese makers, real Parmesan comes from Italy where it's name is Parmigiano Reggiano. By law, the cheese must have the words Parmigiano Reggiano embossed on the rind. It may cost a little more, but you can be assured you're getting the real deal.
I want you to experience that, because friends don't let friends eat faux Parmesan.