Bringing trust to cheese

by Donna Berry
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CHICAGO — Following news reports of adulteration and fraud in some sectors of Italian cheese, a four-generation family-owned U.S. cheese company, Schuman Cheese, Fairfield, N.J., is introducing what it calls the industry’s first “trust mark.” The on-package seal is intended to verify product quality and manufacturing integrity.

The True Cheese mark will appear on Schuman cheeses and snacks sold in supermarket and mass retail channels. The company said newly labeled products are already appearing in some stores and will be phased in as customer orders are filled.

True Cheese Guaranteed seal, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board
The True Cheese label will mean the verified product is made only with milk, cultures, salt and enzymes.

The announcement follows a guilty plea earlier this year by an executive of Castle Cheese, Inc., Slippery Rock, Pa., who admitted to “aiding and abetting the introduction of adulterated and misbranded cheese products into interstate commerce, in violation of provisions of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.” Specifically, Castle’s grated cheese labeled as “100% Parmesan cheese” contained wood pulp disguised as grated Parmesan. Castle is likely not alone in the practice of using unwarranted levels of starches, fillers and even vegetable oil-based processed cheese without proper label declaration.

The True Cheese label will mean the verified product is made only with milk, cultures, salt and enzymes. It also will ensure the cheese was aged as required and that any use of an anti-caking ingredient is at or below industry accepted levels and properly labeled.

To confirm credibility of the True Cheese label, Schuman Cheese has partnered with Covance Food Solutions, Princeton, N.J., to test True Cheese labeled products. Periodic testing of randomly selected products taken from retail locations will be performed at Covance’s Madison, Wis.-based lab to ensure the guarantee the trust mark makes.

Apart from the seal and related testing of items displaying the mark, there’s no way for consumers to self-determine exactly how a cheese is made or if excessive fillers may be included in the package. To learn more about the issue and the program, Food Business News spoke with Neal Schuman, the chief executive officer of Shuman Cheese.

Neal Schuman, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board
Neal Schuman, c.e.o. of Shuman Cheese. 

Food Business News: How long has the industry and government known about the adulteration of domestic Italian cheese and why has so little action been taken to rectify the situation?

Neil Schuman: Adulteration has existed in the hard Italian cheese segment for decades. Only recently has attention to this condition brought the issue forward from virtual obscurity. Economic conditions favoring adulteration gained momentum during the great recession starting in 2009.

During this time, retailers, food service companies and their suppliers felt pressure to reduce costs. With a tight lid on price points, many were tempted to meddle with cheese-making practices in order to deliver a cheaper product. Without public pressure to change, these practices continue virtually unchecked. Regulatory agencies such as F.D.A. do not have unlimited resources and, appropriately, focus their available assets on health and safety.

Cheese block, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board
Schuman Cheese estimates that approximately 20% of the hard Italian cheese category volume is misrepresented and mislabeled.
Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board

How big is the problem?

Mr. Schuman: Some food industry studies report that economic adulteration impacts at least 10% of the U.S. food supply. In the case of hard Italian cheese, the problem is more acute; industry and Schuman Cheese estimates that approximately 20% of the category volume is misrepresented and mislabeled. That amounts to at least 90 million lbs of adulterated product sold each year at a dollar value of approximately $375 million.

Are consumers catching on?

Mr. Schuman: Recent media attention to the presence of economic adulteration has started to create change by raising the specter of risk as these practices are being discovered and reported on. More importantly, the consumer has changed. More than at any other time in the modern food industry, we find consumers demanding transparency, genuineness, higher quality and accurate labeling on the foods they buy.

There is very little tolerance now for products or manufacturers who misrepresent the truth about the products they are selling. In a national quantitative consumer study conducted by Schuman Cheese in June 2014, 95% of respondents indicated they are concerned that adulterated cheese is being passed off as the real thing. Seventy-eight per cent signaled companies making adulterated products should not be allowed to label them as Parmesan or Romano. Consumer preference for real, properly labeled and made cheeses will help drive improvements to these conditions.

Variety of cheeses, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board
In a recent study, 78% of consumers said companies making adulterated products should not be allowed to label them as Parmesan or Romano.
Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board

Why was the time right to introduce The True Cheese verification and seal program?

Mr. Schuman: With increased consumer awareness and scrutiny, for the first time adulterated product conditions are getting widespread attention. In fact similar moves in the olive oil, honey and seafood industries are also occurring for the same reason. Consumers want to know the truth about the products they are buying. Schuman Cheese has been quietly leading by producing high-quality and properly labeled products for decades.

It is not really possible for a consumer to know by looking at an ingredient statement exactly how a product is made. While laboratory tests can reveal what’s in a cheese product, the consumer has the right to know at the point of purchase if the product is compliant to federal standards and properly labeled.

In many respects, True Cheese is also a new and more relevant way to talk about quality, craftsmanship and commitment to integrity in cheese-making traditions. It offers a natural bridge to the conversation around transparency and ingredient sourcing. The time is right to bring a trust mark to the cheese business.

Cheese wheel, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board
In Italy, the cheese industry labels wheels of Parmesan cheese to verify their terroir and authentic type.
Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board

Are there similar programs elsewhere in the world for Italian cheese or for any cheese?

Mr. Schuman: True Cheese is the first trust mark in the cheese industry, designed to verify faithfulness to the Code of Federal Regulation for these types of cheese. Thus, for consumers and trade buyers it is a direct answer to the prevailing conditions of economic adulteration. In Italy, the cheese industry labels wheels of Parmesan cheese, for example, to verify their terroir and authentic type.

Until now, in the U.S., cheese companies have been content to assert quality rather than verify it. True Cheese is a step in a new direction to validate honesty and convey the cheese consumers are buying is made and labeled correctly.

Is the verification program and seal available to all domestic Italian cheese marketers or is it exclusive to Arthur Schuman brands?

Cheese popcorn, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board
Schuman Cheese welcomes other cheese companies to participate in the True Cheese verification program.
Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board

Mr. Schuman: Schuman Cheese welcomes other cheese companies to participate in this verification program. At the current time, True Cheese will be deployed by Schuman Cheese and our customers.

We believe this is a healthy step for the industry and further emphasizes our commitments to integrity and quality in an environment where less than honest practices have existed for some time.  

How will the program be supported with consumer education?

Mr. Schuman: The value of the True Cheese trust mark is related directly to awareness and understanding of its meaning. We are committed to a consumer and trade education program intended to promote the mark. Our program will address all touch points in the path to market, from packaging to retail shelf communication to trade information to media tools, including social, content and earned media outreach.

Cheesy pizza, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board
The integrity of the U.S. Italian cheese category is at stake, Mr. Schuman said.
Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board

Our goal is to raise awareness and understanding of the True Cheese mark and to help consumers who increasingly want to know more. Today consumers want visibility to the supply chain. They are interested in how ingredients are sourced. They care about animal welfare and sustainability practices. In sum, they want to know how the foods they eat are made. True Cheese offers a platform for that understanding. You can find out more at www.truecheese.com.

What are your goals for the program? For the domestic Italian cheese industry?

Mr. Schuman: The integrity of the U.S. Italian cheese category is at stake here. Schuman Cheese is a four-generation, family-owned company devoted to this sector. We care deeply about quality and best practices. We believe consumers prefer real, properly made and labeled products. This is also their assurance of quality in ingredients and cheese-making practices.

Cheese Platter, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board
Mr. Schuman said real, authentically made cheese tastes better and provides a richer and more satisfying food experience.
Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board

In the end, real, authentically made cheese tastes better and provides a richer and more satisfying food experience. So we expect consumers will embrace this, and as we invest in awareness building, we anticipate consumers will look for products bearing the True Cheese mark. We also believe this will serve as an example to the rest of the industry that proper labeling and assurance of standards compliance are good things for business and growth. No one argues that there will continue to be a market for cheaper cheese products. They just need to be properly labeled. If this move to more fully embrace truth in labeling sets a precedent that others follow, we believe it will create incremental growth opportunities in the category as consumers find their eating experiences improve.

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