Sun. Jun 4th, 2023

Italy’s cheese consortium has announced it is taking steps to tackle the hugely lucrative market of counterfeit parmesan.

Parmigiano-Reggiano, a hard aged cheese, has become an icon of Italian gastronomy. But it has also spawned a thriving spin-off market of fake parmesan cheese.

A fraudulent cheese market worth billions

Parmigiano-Reggiano is one of Italy’s most renowned food products. It is made in the northeastern Emilia Romagna region in the areas of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna and Mantua. In 2021, sales of the cheese reached an estimated $2.7 billion.

But the business of fake parmesan is almost as big. The Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese consortium, a body that fights to protect the authentic product, estimates the copycat market to be worth $2 billion — not far off the real one.

Cracking down on counterfeit cheese

With huge sums at stake, the consortium has announced it is introducing measures to clamp down on knock-off parmesan.

Later this year, the consortium will begin adding tracking chips to the real Parmigiano-Reggiano. To start with, 100,000 wheels of the cheese will have the tiny trackers embedded in the casein label.

It’s hoped these devices will enable the group to easily identify the authentic cheeses from the fakes. If the experiment is successful, the chips will become a permanent feature of production.

How can you spot fake parmesan?

Real Parmigiano-Reggiano is made from just three ingredients: locally produced milk no more than 24 hours old, salt and rennet (a natural enzyme taken from calf intestine). It has protected destination of origin status meaning can only be produced in particular areas of the Emilia Romagna region.

In the US, supermarket shelves carry cheeses with names like Parmesana, Parmabon, Real Parma, Parmezan, and Parmezano. This is a sure indication that the product is far from authentic.

But many imitation versions will also simply be labeled parmesan, the direct translation of Parmigiano-Reggiano. This is because the name is not regulated outside of the EU in countries such as the US.

However, often cheeses proclaiming to be 100% parmesan might be nothing of the sort. Many producers add crafty ingredients like potassium sorbate, cheese cultures and cellulose, which is essentially wood pulp.

Fighting made in Italy food fraud

Italy is known for being highly protective of its made in Italy food produce. Recently, the name of a Croatian wine sparked a row in the northern Veneto region. This area is famous for producing prosecco, a sparkling white wine now sold across the world.

Tempers flared in Italy when Croatia applied for EU recognition for its prosek wine. Despite the similar name, the amber-hued sweet wine has little in common with the Italian fizz. Prosecco producers protested, however, that permitting the name prosek would confuse consumers.

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