Wood Pulp in Cheese Demonstrates Need for Visibility

Meagan Douglas
Thu, Apr 14, 2016
Parmesan products were found to contain other cheeses.
Parmesan products were found to contain other cheeses.

Recently, a number of manufacturers and retailers have come under fire for unadvertised ingredients in food products. Bloomberg News performed an investigation that found parmesan cheese created by popular brands routinely included fillers despite labels proclaiming otherwise. Many consumers find cellulose - often derived from wood pulp - the most troubling additive discovered in this research.

As the news spreads to consumers, a number of companies find themselves under attack from government regulators and consumer litigation. This story highlights a modern trend of media outlets providing data for a public that wants to be informed. Using this scandal as an example, businesses might want to explore the possibility of prioritizing transparency in manufacturing and inventory management before surprises turn audiences against them.

Who's in Trouble?
While Bloomberg may have brought the matter to the public's attention in 2016, the mislabeling and adulteration of parmesan cheese products was under investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for several years. Food Safety News reported a fired plant manager blew the whistle on his company's operation back in 2012.

The products were created by Universal Cheese & Drying Inc. and International Packing LLC and sold through Castle Cheese Company, where the whistleblower worked. The manufacturers recently plead guilty to introducing altered and misbranded products into interstate commerce. Castle Cheese's CEO now faces one year in jail or several severe fines. The now defunct cheese company sold products to several grocery stores across the U.S. under different brand names.

In light of these chargers and the following media attention, many manufacturers and retailers find themselves under stricter scrutiny for their parmesan products. The Chicago Tribune said Kraft Heinz and Wal-Mart's Great Value food brand are both being sued by consumers for misrepresenting the ingredients in their parmesan cheese. Grocery store Jewel-Osco removed merchandise from its shelves found to contain high levels of cellulose.

What is Cellulose?
Unlike many recalls, parmesan cheese products that contain cellulose are not a danger to the public. The Center for Science in the Public Interest reported consumers often consume cellulose and it may have multiple dietary benefits, according to information blog Food Renegade. Diet products include the ingredient to provide a creamy texture, cut calories and increase the fiber content of foods. Cheese manufacturers like to use it because it prevents items in bags from clumping together.

The problem is companies were not honest about their use of cellulose. Many of the manufacturers facing criminal charges and lawsuits advertised their products as containing 100 percent parmesan cheese. While, the FDA doesn't have strict guidelines for the use of cellulose in food production, the rule of thumb is that 2 to 4 percent is an acceptable level. Some of the cheese tested by government regulators and independent studies were found to have over 7 percent cellulose content.

Even worse, the items manufactured by Universal Cheese & Drying Inc. were made with other cheeses and additives and may have been contaminated by Listeria. The cellulose problem is just one example of a manufacturer that didn't prioritize visibility, but a lack of information sharing and collection could lead to more troubles.

What Can Businesses Do?
If a manufacturer lies about one thing, how does the public know any of its information can be trusted? While cellulose was a common practice among cheese manufacturers, it's never a good idea to misrepresent contents. When a company uses natural products to keep food fresh, it's usually better to communicate exact ingredients and reasons for inclusion to appeal to informed consumers.

This news may also encourage businesses to turn over a new leaf and change labeling or manufacturing practices. The RFgen white paper "The Food Traceability Survival Guide" described how organizations can use data collection solutions to create a complete overview of current operations and measure adjustments using real-time data. Companies that want to market the truth to their consumers need to make sure their data is accurate and up to date.

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