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New Parmesan cure process threatens Italy's producers

By Ahmed ElAmin , 30-Sep-2005

The US is on its way to lowering processing times for Parmesan cheese - a move bound to inflame producers in Italy, threaten their sales and encourage further battles over rights to the name.

The Italian producers are worried about the competition from the big US companies, especially if they can produce the cheese faster, in greater quantities and for a cheaper price thanthey can.

The Italians also worry that reductions in the strict production methods they use would lower quality and harm the image of the cheese.

Plans to begin work on a set of international production rules for Parmesan were shelved earlier this year by the Codex Alimentarius commission, the food safety standards body of the UN's Food andAgriculture Organisation (FAO) and World Health Organisation (WHO).

Instead the EU plans to take the issue of reserving the name for Italian producers, and the wider battle over its geographical indications system or rules of origin, to the World Trade Organisation soon.

Meanwhile the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week said it was considering an application by Kraft Foods to lower the minimum required curing period to six months from the current 10months. In Italy, Parmigiano-Reggiano producers must cure the cheese for at least 12 months.

In 1973 the FDA reduced the minimum curing time of Parmesan cheese to 10 months from 14 months. The reduction was based on the claim that this shorter period increased productivity, improvedproduct consistency and reduced production costs with no material disadvantage to consumers.

Now Kraft Foods claims that technology has continued to improve and Parmesan cheese is now able to be produced within a curing period of six months.

In its petition, Kraft Foods states that its procedure involves the use of an improved enzyme technology but is otherwise consistent with the processing and curing techniques it has followed formany years.

Using commercially-available safe and suitable enzymes and the current procedures, Kraft Foods states that it is possible to produce fully-cured Parmesan cheese suitable for grating in six months, rather than the 10-month minimum curing time currently required by the US' standard of identity.

Kraft Foods states that the modern manufacturing procedures, commercially-available enzymes, and modern equipment that it uses are generally available to enable any knowledgeable processor toproduce the cheese in the same way.

According to its petition, Kraft Foods claims that Parmesan cheese cured for aix months is physically and organoleptically equivalent to current Parmesan cheese cured for 10 months.

In addition, consumer taste panels confirmed that the grated six-month cured product is considered to be equivalent in taste, texture and cooking properties to grated parmesan cheesecurrently available to consumers, the company claims.

Kraft Foods also states that the shortened curing time has no effect on the nutrition profile of the product.

Kraft Foods stated its six-month product is "just as wholesome and nondeleterious as other such cheeses available to consumers''.

Kraft Foods states that the proposed amendment would reduce the cost of inventory and reduce losses from damage during the additional four-month holding


"Therefore, the shorter curing time may also make it possible for manufacturers to devote some of their production resources to the manufacture of other cheese products, thereby maximizingthe use of plant resources and increasing production efficiencies," the company claims.

Kraft Foods also maintains that the substantial curing and holding times required to produce parmesan cheese effectively mean that the cost of entry into

the Parmesan cheese production business is quite high.

"Kraft Foods notes that in the long run, reducing the curing time for this product will significantly reduce the costs of entry into the business, in turn, creating the opportunity forgreater competition, which benefits consumers, who are best served by a marketplace in which there is more, rather than less, competition," according to the FDA document.

Kraft Foods submits that consistent with the 1973 findings, the FDA should, for essentially the same reasons, amend the Parmesan cheese standard to reduce its required curing period to not lessthan six months.

In April 1999 the FDA already gave Kraft temporary permission to lower curing times to six months and test the market for its grated version of the cheese. In November 1999, the FDA issued SartoriFoods a similar temporary permit.

On 28 August 2000, Kraft Foods submitted an application for extension of its temporary marketing permit accompanied by a petition to amend the Parmesan cheese standard.

The extension was granted to allow for more data collection on consumers' acceptance of the products while the agency took action on the petition to amend the standard Parmesan

Italy produces about 2,700,000 tons of 'Parmigiano-Reggiano' every year. The cheese is produced in 650 small factories. Each produces no more than five or six tubs or 'forms' of cheese every day.

The areas of production include the provinces of Bologna (left bank of the river Reno), Mantova (right bank of the river Po), Modena, Parma and Reggio Emilia.

It is a hard cooked cheese of semi-skimmed cows milk. The maturing period stretches to at least one year but two is not uncommon.

Leo Bertozzi, director of Italy's Parmigiano-Reggiano association stated on the group's Internet site that the EU's geographical indications system insures that traditional food brands representthe territory of origin and must be protected at the WTO level.

"Because of their public nature the marks identifying geographical indications must be assured protection by means of international agreements to recognise the efforts of producers whovoluntarily adopt production regulations and to protect the interests of consumers with regards to the true origin of such products," he stated..

The FDA is considering public comment on the Kraft petition before issuing a final decision.

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