Italian Cheesemakers Embed Trackers to Parmigiano Reggiano to Fight Cheese Fraud

  • Is the parmesan on your spaghetti fake? Now we can find out.

People will create counterfeit versions of absolutely everything to scam unsuspecting consumers. Even cheese.

You no doubt know Parmigiano Reggiano, also called parmesan. Or so you’d think, but what if we told you that you actually may never have had real parmesan?

In the EU, both the names Parmigiano Reggiano and parmesan are strictly controlled. Only cheeses manufactured in very specific parts of Italy can legally be called by those names.

Elsewhere in the world, the regulations are laxer. Parmigiano Reggiano is still a controlled name, but you can call similar cheeses produced elsewhere parmesan.

But that’s not the issue. The issue is that cheese fraudsters are selling fake Parmigiano Reggiano all over the world, which results in massive losses for the makers of authentic cheese.

Now, the cheesemakers are fighting back with high-tech weapons. They’ve started embedding tiny tracking devices into the rind on their cheese wheels.

Photo courtesy of the Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese Consortium.

Taking Half the Pie

You might initially chuckle at the idea of cheese fraud — we sure did. But it’s actually a serious problem for the Parmigiano Reggiano industry.

According to the Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese Consortium (CFPR), sales of authentic cheese amount to roughly $2.5 million annually. Meanwhile, the organization values the market of fake cheese — parmesan-like cheese sold under the official name without being produced in approved regions — at about $2.1 million.

The fake cheese brings in almost as much money every year as the real deal. That means Parmigiano Reggiano makers lose about half their potential income.

Understandably, they’re not very happy about that.

A Block(chain) of Cheese

In order to protect the exclusive status of their cheese — and their income — CFPR has decided to bring out a big gun. They’ve partnered with digital tracking technology firm P-Chip to create a novel solution.

Together, CFPR, P-Chip, and casein cheese tag producer Kaasmerk, have developed the world’s first digital cheese tracking labels. It’s basically a James Bond-like tracking device — but for cheese.

The tiny, food-safe chips are embedded into casein tags. Cheesemakers use the tags, made from the natural dairy protein casein, to mark cheese wheels with batch numbers and production dates.

The casein tag eventually melds into the cheese rind, becoming one with the cheese. Only now, it will also merge the tracking chip into the wheel.

According to P-Chip, the tracking chips enable blockchain-backed tracking, digital product authentication, and real-time inventory control. In other words, CFPR can know exactly when, where, and who made each marked cheese.

As an added bonus, determining if a cheese wheel is authentic becomes extremely easy. No digital tracking tags? False cheese.

CFPR plans to initially tag 120,000 bulk cheese wheels. But if the results are successful, we can probably expect a lot more.

“Parmigiano Reggiano is one of the world’s oldest and most famous cheeses, and it is a product that symbolizes Italian produce. By being the first to incorporate these secure digital labels onto our cheese wheels, we can continue to ensure consumer safety, bringing the traceability and the authentication of our products to meet industry 4.0 technological targets,” Nicola Bertinelli, CFPR president, said in a statement.

Death by Fake Oil

It’s not just Parmigiano Reggiano that falls victim to food fraud. Far from it, it impacts practically every food-producing industry in the world.

In the case of Parmigiano Reggiano, the issue is mostly about the protection of origin. The fake cheese producers aren’t necessarily making bad cheese — their product just doesn’t conform to CFRP’s standards.

But in other cases, the fake food products actually are not food at all. One famous example includes mixing sawdust into flour to cut costs while baking bread.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, some unscrupulous shrimp producers in Asia are injecting shrimp with various gels to enhance their weight and appearance. The issue is the gels are likely to be toxic.

As such, food fraud is a serious problem that can cause people to get seriously ill — or die. In 1981, 600 people in Spain died from aniline-adulterated “olive” oil. The oil was actually reprocessed rapeseed oil that criminal producers illegally sold as olive oil.

We should be glad the fake “parmesan” we buy at the supermarket probably won’t contain anything toxic. It’s just not made in Italy.