How Is This Legal?
In short, it isn’t. In Europe, Parmigiano-Reggian is allowed to contain only three very simple ingredients: milk (produced in the Parma/Reggio region and less than 20 hours from cow to cheese), salt, and rennet (a natural enzyme from calf intestine) (4).
Three other ingredients, Cellulose Powder, Potassium Sorbate, and Cheese Cultures are found in American cheeses but are completely illegal in European production (4).
American cheese don’t follow the same standard and have their own anglicized name: Parmesan (4). The FDA regulates what can legally be called Parmesan or Romano cheese according to specific standards in place since the 1950s (2).
The administration is currently researching claims and complaints in an attempt to ensure quality. Unfortunately, some brands trademark the name of their product or their claim to try to avoid persecution (5).
The situation has gotten so bad that European cheese are getting in on the crackdown. Bloomberg reports that the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium, a trade group based in Rome, asked the European Union in December to protect its manufacturers against U.S. companies (2).
They believe that the use of Italian flags and cheese names are deceitful to consumers and are undermining the perception of quality of true Italian products. (2)
What Brands Are The Worst Offenders?
The following results indicate cellulose content of popular brands that’s higher than what the FDA allows(3):
- Castle Cheese Inc.: 2-4 %
- Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese: 8.8%
- Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese: 7.8%
- Kraft parmesan: 3.8%
- Whole Foods 365 brand: 0.3 %
How To Avoid Fake Parmesan
Above all, do not buy pre-shredded cheese!
The best way to avoid eating these fake products is to purchase cheese directly from reputable artisanal cheese markers.
You can typically find these products in farmer’s markets and specialty food shops.
If you want authentic Parmigiano-Reggian, go to an Italian grocer and look for the Italian name and signature pin-prick patterns on the rind (4).