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When is Parmesan Cheese Really Parmesan Cheese and the Need for Global Brand Protections

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Earlier this week, Bloomberg Business published what could be described as a very eye catching report: The Parmesan Cheese You Sprinkle on Your Penne Could be Wood.  Obviously, such a byline can immediately pique the interest levels of general and social media, and indeed it has. Sometimes, reporters can get carried away with their prose.

The report essentially observes that U.S. grated cheese brands labeled as 100 percent Parmesan cheese purity contained little or no evidence of the cheese.  It traces the history of a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 2012 investigation of a cheese factory in rural Pennsylvania that utilized cut-rate substitutes for Parmesan cheese, while also adding fillers such as wood pulp.  While the producer in question, Castle Cheese Inc. filed for bankruptcy in 2014, it reportedly produced and sold mainly imitation cheeses for nearly 30 years. After the FDA probe, Castle ceased production of  the problematic cheeses and now its president is expected to plead guilty to criminal charges that could amount to up to a year of jail time and a $100,000 fine.

Bloomberg contracted an independent laboratory to test currently offered Grated Parmesan cheese brands sold at major grocery and supermarket chains.  The report cites findings from identified brands from Jewel-Osco, Wal-Mart and Kraft that either just met an acceptable two to four percent recommended threshold for cellulose additive, or exceeded that threshold.

The article further observes that producers who doctor their Parmesan grated cheese products are undercutting by as much as 30 percent in price, producers who actually adhere to utilizing the pure ingredient.

Obviously this news report will get lots of media, Facebook and Twitter air time. However, there is more at-play from the lens of food and other industry supply chains.

Within our 2016 Predictions for Industry and Global Supply Chains (Available for complimentary downloading in our Supply Chain Matters Research Center), Prediction Eight declares that geopolitical developments centered on global trade agreements will present concerns and added challenges for specific industry supply chains including those related to food and food products.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) is a proposed trade agreement among the 28 European Union member countries and the United States. The measure calls for singular approval processes for products, standardized customs and border forms and fees. The agreement further addresses increased access to both member markets for goods and services but it comes with certain definitions as to product branding, labeling and country of origin among member regions.  For instance, Parmesan cheese can only originate from certain regions of Italy, and other products of a similar nature have to be labeled or termed differently. The Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium of Italy requested the European Union in December to protect its Italian producers against U.S. companies that were using names such as Parmesan cheese on packaging. The consortium’s head takes the position that “deceit” is being practiced with producer’s use of Italian names and symbols on products that do not originate or conform to EU and Italian brand standards.

We all love our Parmesan cheese, whether sprinkled on pasta or served in appetizers and cheese dishes.  However, expanded global trade agreements come with adequate protections for branded or origin labeled products that protect original producers that have built their reputations for quality and taste from producers who may elect to exploit such brands.  In essence, Parmesan cheese is no different than branded extra virgin olive oil, French wine, premium Swiss watches, branded pharmaceuticals, American bourbon or German beers.

As the world becomes more of a universal shopping offering with online shopping, authentic brands and countries of origin become very important for economic considerations and for consumers themselves in their buying and quality preferences. Producers need to respect such protections if they choose to compete nationally and globally.

The world is becoming a universal market and suppliers will need to adhere to international standards and protections.

Bob Ferrari

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