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Filed February 22nd, 2016 F.A. Kelley

According to a warning from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), many brands of grated cheese labeled “100 percent Parmesan” contain cheese substitutes and fillers—like wood pulp.

Castle Cheese, for example, has produced Parmesan cheese containing no actual Parmesan for almost 30 years, Bloomberg Business reports. The president of the company, which sold its products to store chains like Target, is scheduled to plead guilty this month to charges that carry a sentence of up to a year in prison and a $100, 000 fine.

Neil Schuman, who runs Arthur Schuman Inc., the largest seller of hard Italian cheese in the U.S., estimates about 20 percent of grated cheeses are mislabeled.

Bloomberg tested a number of brands of grated cheese for wood pulp content and found that many cheeses contain cellulose, which is made from wood pulp. Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese, from Jewel-Osco, contained 8.8 percent cellulose. Walmart’s Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese had 7.8 percent cellulose. Whole Foods 365 brand didn’t list cellulose as an ingredient, and tested at 0.3 percent. Kraft had 3.8 percent cellulose. The stores said they were “investigating” these findings.

Cellulose, present in plant cell walls, is indigestible. Because it is tasteless, cellulose is often added to foods to give texture, according to John Coupland, a professor food science at Pennsylvania State University and president-elect of the Institute of Food Technologies, USA Today reports. Coupland said cellulose is extracted from plants and ground up into a powder, and “doesn’t taste like anything” in the food. Powdered cellulose in shredded cheese “prevents the cheese from sticking together and getting oily, ” Coupland explained. FDA guidelines permit cheese makers are to use enough cellulose to stop their product from clumping. The industry standard is around two percent, but some cheese makers use more than four times that amount, according to Bloomberg.

The FDA conducted a lengthy investigation into Castle Cheese Inc., a company that falsely claimed to produce 100% Parmesan cheese, but used a high percentage of cellulose and a mixture of imitation cheese and trimmings of Swiss, white cheddar, Havarti and mozzarella. The FDA’s report on Castle, which Bloomberg obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, said “no parmesan cheese was used to manufacture” the Market Pantry brand 100% grated Parmesan Cheese, sold at Target stores, and Always Save Grated Parmesan Cheese and Best Choice 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese, sold by Associated Wholesale Grocers Inc., which supplies 3, 400 retail stores in 30 states.

After the probe, Castle stopped producing the problem cheeses and dumped the inventories. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2014.

Bloomberg explains that cheese makers have an incentive to use fillers in grated Parmesan. Parmesan cheese wheels sit in curing rooms for months, and the cheese loses moisture during the curing process, resulting in a smaller yield. One hundred pounds of milk might produce 10 pounds of cheddar, for example, but only eight pounds of Parmesan. The two-pound difference means millions of dollars to manufacturers, Bloomberg says.

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