One of the most basic functions of government should be to require accurate descriptions of products in the market. I am a big believer in the free market and tend to resist government regulation whenever possible. However, the free market functions best when the government enforces the rules to prevent misleading and fraudulent practices. This week is an example of how labeling continues to mislead consumers. While parmesan cheese is often advertised as “100%” pure, it can include wood pulp and cheaper cheeses such as cheddar, Swiss, and mozzarella. One manufacturer, Castle Cheese, supplying Target actually had no parmesan in its “100 percent” parmesan cheese product.
The FDA is thankfully prosecuting Castle Cheese (though not apparently Target) for the fraud on consumers. One honest cheese supplier has called for tighter controls on its own industry because of an estimated 40% misleading or fraudulent labeling.
In the case of Castle, its president is expected to plead guilty this month to criminal charges. It is still unclear how this situation could have been allowed to get so bad. Bloomberg ran its own tests on “100 percent” grated Parmesan products and easily found fraud. It found that Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese, from Jewel-Osco, was 8.8 percent cellulose while Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese registered 7.8 percent cellulose. Even more surprising for some who shop at Whole Food to get better products, the testing found that Whole Foods 365 brand didn’t list cellulose as an ingredient on the label, but still tested at 0.3 percent. Kraft had 3.8 percent.
The prosecution is welcomed but it represents the most extreme possible case. We need to be prosecuting more companies for augmenting their products while claiming 100% purity. When you sell someone 100% pure parmesan and then add wood or other cheeses, it would seem to me to be a case of simple fraud or misleading labeling. That would seem the least we can expect from the FDA since, as Bloomberg showed, testing is relatively easy and there are a relatively small number of major suppliers.