Explore this issueApril/May 2016
Nobody really knows when cheese making started. Several myths describe how cheese making originated with one of the most popular legends dating back 4,000 years ago. It describes an Arab trader who had to cross the desert and he carried milk in a pouch made from a sheep’s stomach. Since there was rennet in the lining of the pouch, and with the heat generated by the sun, the milk separated into whey and curd. When he tasted the whey in the evening, he found that it satisfied his thirst, and the curd his hunger.
According to recent findings by the research group of Richard Evershed from the University of Bristol, cheese making dates back to the Neolithic period, much before the Arab trader story. His group found traces of dairy fat in ancient ceramic fragments, supposedly used as cheese-strainers, in Poland, which suggest that people have been making cheese in Europe for up to 7,500 years.
However, some of the cheeses we know today, like Gouda, Parmesan, and Cheddar, have their beginning in the Middle Ages.
The mass production of rennet is said to have started around 1860 and industrial cheese production followed in the 20th century.
Types of Cheeses
Considering that cheese is made from a single ingredient, milk, how is it possible to have so many different types of this product? There are many factors affecting cheese making, from the milk source and its quality to several factors involved during production.
How many varieties of cheeses are being produced? This is a difficult question to answer. Cheese can be classified using different criteria. Such as milk source (e.g. cows, goat, sheep, or buffalo milk), softness degree (soft, semi-soft, semi-hard, and hard), by geography (country or region), production method, curing or ripening duration, fat content, etc. According to the International Dairy Federation, there are 500 types of cheese. Sandine and Elliker mention 1,000 and the website Cheese.com references more than 1,700 different cheeses.
The Global Cheese Market
As previously mentioned, large scale industrial production of cheese emerged in the 19th century and exhibited breath-taking growth. By the end of the 19th century, the industry was reported to have produced 98 million kilogram (kg) of cheese per year and by end of the 20th century, it was already 10 times as much. It is estimated that in the U.S., about 30 percent of all milk goes into cheese production. And the global cheese market is estimated to have a value of U.S. $80 billion and will reach U.S. $105 billion in three years from now, with a healthy growth of a CAGR of 4.4 percent.
Specifically for Parmigiano Reggiano, the production of cheese wheels levels around 3.3 million per year, limited by the geographic region in which it can be produced and the amount of milk coming from that region. Based on the sales price of approximately U.S. $18/kg at a major Italian supermarket (price on Jan. 16, 2016) and the average weight of a cheese wheel of 38 kg, this results in a total U.S. $2.2 billion sales value—which gives plenty of incentive for fraud.
What is Food Fraud
Food fraud encompasses two aspects: the deliberate misrepresentation of a product, e.g. a champagne label on a bottle that contains sparkling wine from a region other than the French champagne; and the deliberate modification of a product, e.g. by dilution, addition, or replacement of an expensive ingredient with a cheap one.
Although not the oldest business in the world, food fraud is not far from it. In 1820, the first book on food adulteration (and methods of detection) was written by Fredrick Accum, a German chemist living in London. The subtitle on the cover features cheese as a product of adulteration. The chapter on cheese adulteration is titled “Poisonous Cheese” and discusses the addition of red lead to annatto for coloring. Today, the addition of red lead is less likely, however, a look at the USP Food Fraud Database reveals that other adulterants are being used.