A few years ago, while traveling through Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, I visited a facility dedicated to the production of Parmigiano Reggiano. Made from unpasteurized cow’s milk, the “king of cheeses” is one of the country’s most fabled food products. At the end of the tour we were led into a wing of the building that resembled a museum.
It was indeed a museum, but the theme was unusual: it was dedicated to all the lawsuits brought by the Italian government against the worldwide producers of fake “parmesan cheese.” The hundred or so cases included global food giants such as Kraft and Sargento, and all the complaints had been resolved in the government’s favor. Within the European Union, Parmigiano Reggiano is a fiercely protected trademark.
Outside the confines of the E.U., those lawsuits don’t have much chance of enforcement. We were reminded of this last week when the FDA announced they were cracking down on companies that augmented their parmesan cheese with wood pulp—or cellulose, to be precise. Cellulose prevents the cheese from clumping together and is thought to be safe in concentrations of 2-4%. Walmart’s Great Value 100% Parmesan came in at 7.8%, and Jewel-Osco’s version registered 8.8%. A now-defunct company called Castle Brands sold cheese for 30 years that contained no parmesan at all.
On the surface, it appears that few consumers are capable of distinguishing between real and fake parmesan. Even worse, most people apparently can’t tell the difference between cheese and wood pulp. On an intellectual level, anyone who has spent time in Italy realizes that the stuff sold in the grocery store can’t possibly be real. It now appears that the journey from the brain to the taste buds is more convoluted than neurologists ever thought.
In the wake of the cellulose disclosure, it’s tempting to rant and rave about the counterfeit nature of modern culture. It’s also amusing to think about highly sophisticated diners spending $36 for a plate of pasta in a tony restaurant, and augmenting their dish with a healthy sprinkling of wood pulp. Either way, the conclusions are the same: artisan products can’t be mass-produced and quality can’t be faked. You can paint a giraffe grey and tell everyone it’s an elephant, and people who have never seen an elephant are likely to believe you. At the end of the day, though, it’s still a giraffe.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is forthcoming from Black Opal Books in 2016. For more information, go to amazon.com