Seventy years ago my grandfather, Arthur, started an Italian cheese importing business in New York (Arthur Schuman Inc.). He may not have known at the time that his company would evolve significantly in the years that followed, but he did know his commitment to high quality products would construct the foundation for success in the decades to follow.
Today, the Italian hard cheese business in the U.S. is north of $3 billion in total sales across both domestic and imported product sectors; consisting of 465 million pounds of cheese sold through retail, food ingredient, and food service channels. Our organization does business in all channels and is vertically integrated as a domestic manufacturer, an importer, and an aggregator of supply from other cheese makers.
It may come as a surprise to some in the industry that somewhere between 20 to 23 percent of the pound volume in domestic Italian hard cheese is adulterated, and non-compliant with the Code of Federal Regulation (CFR) for Parmesan, Romano and Asiago.
Adulteration in other food categories has received a lot of media attention and scrutiny. Many will note recent stories citing food fraud pertaining to olive oil, fish, Greek yogurt, honey, fruit juices and beef. In the case of hard cheese, this adulteration is just now coming to light.
Hard cheese adulteration exists primarily in grated, dehydrated, and shredded cheeses and is a significant problem in all three channels.
The consequence of this begins with frauding the consumer: principally by misrepresenting and mislabeling these cheeses as real domestic Parmesan, Romano, or Asiago. In fact, they are imitations that displace real cheese with less expensive fillers, often side stepping time honored aging processes through chemical accelerants.
Arthur Schuman Inc. routinely tests products to determine how they are made and has found numerous examples of grated cheeses labeled as Parmesan that in reality contained anywhere from 20 to 40 percent cellulose, starches, and/or cheese analogs including vegetable oil or other lesser-quality cheeses. The CFR for Parmesan permits the use of cellulose as an anti-caking and flow agent, but the accepted practice in our industry is to the keep the levels at 2 to 4 percent of volume. This is also the amount that is recommended by cellulose makers. Anything past that and you are simply replacing real cheese with inferior, cheaper, non-cheese ingredients.
The outcome of this practice is flavorless, chalky, gritty cheeses that weaken the taste expectations consumers have for Italian varieties. And the losers in this practice include not only the consumer, but reputable cheese companies and dairy farmers. It takes about 13 to 14 pounds of milk to make one pound of real Parmesan, and so the input costs for authentic products are anchored in the market for real dairy. The motivation underneath adulteration is simple–money. This economically motivated adulteration (EMA) aims to lower costs while increasing margins in an effort to hit a desired price point. And in doing so, the conditions are created in our industry that subtract from, denigrate, and dilute the quality reputation of Italian hard cheeses–and in turn, our category and our businesses.
Of course this immediately prompts the question, does anyone really care about EMA in hard cheese beyond the self-interests of reputable cheese companies? To find out, Arthur Schuman Inc. conducted a national quantitative study of consumer attitudes and opinions, from a broad sample of cheese users and buyers across all demographic variants.
Here are some of the highlights:
- 95 percent of respondents are concerned that adulterated products are masquerading as real in the marketplace;
- 78 percent believe that companies making adulterated Italian cheeses should not be allowed to label them as “Parmesan” or “Romano;”
- 61 percent would no longer trust a company that is producing adulterated products and would no longer buy from them;
- 48 percent went even further to say they would not trust any other product made by the same company; and
- 75 percent of those surveyed would be willing to pay anywhere from 10 percent to 25 percent more for real domestic Italian cheeses that are correctly labeled.
Consumers want real. They are savvy label readers. They pay attention to the first five ingredients and quickly dispel products with preservatives, artificial flavors, or chemical-sounding ingredients. They want products to be honestly made and honestly labeled. They care about quality and desire great taste. Unfortunately, the types of fraud occurring in the hard cheese category can’t be detected by label reading–and consumers are literally paying the price.