I stopped buying pre-grated Parmesan at the supermarket as soon as I discovered the difference that a hunk of freshly grated makes. The powdery stuff didn't have much taste or personality, more cardboard than umami. That analysis might have been more accurate than I realized: This month, Bloomberg News reported that agents of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration discovered that Parmesan cut with fillers like wood pulp was being distributed to supermarket chains across America after a surprise inspection at a cheese factory in rural Pennsylvania.
Bloomberg then hired an independent laboratory to test store-bought grated cheese, and the findings stunk worse than an overripe piece of Limburger, with most big brands failing the filler test. Imagine, all that time I might have been actually getting a little extra fibre in my spaghetti.
Cheese is just the latest in a mass of food forgeries – a desperate bricolage of Champagne chicanery and chocolate sleight of hand.
Late last year Italian financial police discovered more than 9,000 bottles of fake Moet & Chandon Champage and 40,000 additional counterfeit labels in a shed in the countryside near Padova. The lot would have sold for millions. Also in Italy, police recently seized 85,000 tonnes of green olives treated with copper sulphate to brighten their colour. Charges here included the use of banned additives and planning to sell edible goods containing dangerous substances.
Around Christmastime in Williamsburg, N.Y., hipsterism took a hit when the hyper artisanal Mast Brothers chocolate company was accused of bringing in ready-made chocolate and melting it down for their own exquisitely wrapped "bean-to-bar" offerings.
In China, the food fakery problem is terrifying: Past years have seen reports of fake noodles, fake eggs, fake honey and fake rice, and in 2009, 53,000 Chinese babies and children were sickened (and four died) after drinking milk that had been "enhanced" with the chemical melamine. Wine forgery there is a problem so widespread that the French have called it an industry.
The main culprit in food fakery is the current population boom, and demand is outpacing production. People can't keep up. As costs to producers increase, in addition to globalization, drought, war and the further industrialization of food, desperate – and nefarious – producers try to find quick, sometimes harrowing fixes to challenging situations.
How do we protect ourselves? To start with, by simmering down and realizing that these are extreme cases and are thankfully not the norm. Next step: Frequenting reliable sources – cheesemongers, butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers, befriending the people who are passionate about what they do and often know every producer they deal with by name. I can tell you this: The Cheese Boutique will not sell you wood pulp, and a reliable farm stand will not sell you fresh "local" blueberries during a Canadian winter.
Most of the time, the system works: The good news is, we know about all of these food forgeries because the perpetrators of these particular crimes were apprehended by the proper authorities. Then again, the bad news is we've all probably been eating wood pulp Parmesan for years.