Why the FDA Doesn’t Consider Wood Pulp in Your Cheese a Crisis

A little cellulose never hurt anyone, right?
(Photo: Julie Thurston Photography/Getty Images)
Feb 25, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

When is a product labeled “100% Parmesan cheese” not, in fact, 100 percent Parmesan cheese? Apparently, all too often.

The fallout over the ongoing Parmesan scandal in the U.S. continues into a second week with a lawsuit filed Tuesday against Walmart, alleging the giant retailer deceived customers by labeling its Great Value brand as “100% grated Parmesan cheese” when independent analysis shows the product contained upwards of 10 percent cellulose—aka wood pulp. Outraged customer Marc Moschetta filed the complaint in Manhattan federal court and is seeking class-action status. As Bloomberg reports, a similar case was filed against Kraft last week in San Francisco.

The suits follow a recent Bloomberg investigation that found a number of different products being marketed as 100 percent grated Parmesan aren’t as pure as their labels suggest. The bargain brand sold by Jewel-Osco contained 8.8 percent cellulose, while the Bloomberg-sponsored tests found Walmart’s Parm tested at 7.8 percent. Kraft came in at 3.8 percent, and even Whole Foods’ store brand appeared to contain 0.3 percent cellulose. Each company responded to Bloomberg with some variation of defending its high standards and vowing to investigate further.

Although cellulose is considered safe for human consumption and functions as an anti-clumping agent in grated cheese, the acceptable level is in the 2 to 4 percent range, one independent “cheese technologist” told Bloomberg. Higher levels would suggest manufacturers are using the cellulose as a cheap filler.

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The brouhaha stems from a 2012 investigation by the Food and Drug Administration into Pennsylvania-based Castle Cheese, which provided its products to big names such as Target and Associated Wholesale Grocers. The FDA found that Castle’s “100% grated Parmesan” products contained more like 0 percent Parm. Instead, Castle substituted less expensive cheeses along with cellulose and other starchy fillers, according to the FDA investigation. The company has since declared bankruptcy, and its president, Michelle L. Myrter, is expected to plead guilty to federal criminal charges sometime this month.

That the FDA only launched an investigation into Castle Cheese because of a tip from a former employee—not to mention that the two most recent lawsuits stemming from “Cheesegate” appear to follow tests conducted by a news organization and not government monitors—just goes to show that when it comes to trusting food labels, the best advice is probably “Buyer beware.”

As the chief watchdog for food safety, the FDA struggles to fight for adequate funding to implement key aspects of the Food Safety Modernization Act, passed by Congress in 2011. These include developing more effective programs to address food-borne illness as well as combating the rise of antibiotic resistance linked to the overuse of antibiotics in the livestock industry. With such pressing public health issues to address, the agency isn’t about to make it a priority to go after food makers that are sneakily spiking their products with what are undoubtedly unappetizing and underhand but otherwise harmless additives and fillers.

A 2014 report on food fraud and “economically motivated adulteration of food and food ingredients,” prepared for members of Congress by the Congressional Research Service, notes that such fraud is estimated to cost the global food industry between $10 billion and $15 billion each year, affecting 10 percent of all commercially sold food products. On the one hand, that’s just a small percentage of the trillions of dollars spent on food each year; on the other, the report notes, “the number of documented incidents is most likely a fraction of the true number of incidents, since the goal of adulteration for economic gain is not to be detected.”

Despite the recent dustup regarding grated Parmesan, cheese does not appear on the report’s list of the most adulterated foods. Those include olive oil, which can be doctored with cheaper oils, such as soybean or corn oil, as well as fish and seafood, the mislabeling of which also made headlines over the past few years. Fruit juices, often marketed with the “100%” claim, may be watered down or contain cheaper juices (think pomegranate juice cut with apple juice), while honey and maple syrup may likewise be adulterated with cheaper sweeteners, such as high-fructose corn syrup.

Avoiding some adulterated products would seem relatively simple. You can always buy your Parmesan whole and grate it yourself. It’s a similar story for coffee, also among the most adulterated foods, with ground coffee sometimes found to contain leaves, twigs, roasted corn, or barley. Buy whole beans and grind them at home, and you’ve dodged that scam.

But heck, who among us is really going to press our own olive oil or tap our own backyard maple trees?