Cutting Corners in Cheese
The concept of “food fraud” or “economic adulteration” refers to the whole or partial replacement of genuine foods and food ingredients with cheaper substances without informing the customer or consumer of the substitution. Food fraud can also refer to the fraudulent mislabeling of a product grade or quality, or adulterating the product with undisclosed and typically less expensive additives to boost the bottom line. A prime example of food fraud is mislabeled extra virgin olive oil, identified by the EU Parliament as the top food fraud problem in the world. Extra virgin olive oil is often rancid, or mixed with refined olive oil or cheaper seed oils. Food fraud can destroy margins for honest producers, and can cause consumer confusion which can erode margins for higher quality product categories in the long run.
Recently, parmesan cheese has been making headlines due to allegations that products marketed as “100% parmesan” may contain unexpectedly high quantities of cellulose fiber. In 2013, FDA warned Castle Cheese, Inc. for marketing “parmesan cheese” products that did not contain any actual parmesan cheese. Those allegations ultimately crippled the company and resulted in criminal charges being filed against its president. This week, a new report by Bloomberg News suggests that parmesan cheese purity problems may now be an industry-wide issue. Although FDA technically permits cheese makers to use cellulose in cheese to prevent clumping, the Bloomberg report indicates that some producers are using as much as four times the amount necessary to serve this function.
One problem with high-profile food fraud examples is their ability to call into question the integrity of the entire market for that product category, creating headaches for finished food marketers and problems throughout the supply chain. As part of FDA’s hazard analysis and risk-based preventive control (HARPC) requirements, companies soon will be required to take economic adulteration into consideration as part of their mandatory food safety compliance strategies.