The enormous wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, which weigh up to 40 kilos and are ideal to finish off pasta dishes, soups or rocket salads, are one of the most valued jewels of Italian gastronomy around the world. And also one of the most falsified. The manufacturers of these ancient delicacies have found an ally in technology to protect their products. They are testing a new security system that consists of inserting a microchip, smaller than a grain of salt, into the rind of the cheese, which works as a kind of identity card and allows the entire production process of the piece to be traced, from its origin until maturation, in addition to certifying its authenticity.
Riccardo Deserti, the director of the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium, the association that oversees production and that has spent more than a century fighting against cheaper imitations, which do not follow the demanding requirements to make the real thing, explains to this newspaper that tests of This experiment, which has been underway for a year, will conclude in the coming months, with the aim that from 2024 all production, close to four million pieces, include the microchip, manufactured by the American company p-Chip Corporation . “We are the first cheese that is working on this technology, when we complete it, other cheeses such as Grana Padano or French or Spanish cheeses will also be able to benefit from this system to guarantee their authenticity”, he points out. And he explains that the microprocessor is inserted into the rind and that it is totally harmless to the consumer, “in addition, it can be removed before starting to grate the cheese”, he points out.
Deserti clarifies that since 2002 cheeses already have an authentication system that consists of a casein plate, made from milk proteins, integrated into the Parmigiano Reggiano rind and that contains a unique alphanumeric verification code that collects all the information necessary for its follow-up, something similar to clothing labels. “But this system is analog and sometimes touching it or using the plate can be erased, the microchips are the only instrument that guarantees the total readability of the information at all times”, he points out. “It’s a leap in quality,” he sums up.
Parmigiano Reggiano is one of the oldest and most precious cheeses known. Today it continues to be produced as it was done a thousand years ago, with an artisanal technique that has undergone few changes over the centuries, using the same basic ingredients as always: milk, salt and rennet and requiring no additives. In 1996 this cheese obtained the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) from the European Union and since then it is the only one that can be called Parmesan in Europe. Due to its distinctive characteristics and its link to its area of origin —it can only be produced in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua to the east of the Po River and Bologna to the west of the Reno River, an area of approximately 10,000 km2— it enjoys the protection of the EU, and must be produced following strict specifications contained in an official regulation. The same thing happens with French champagne, Portuguese port, Spanish Rioja, Jabugo ham or Greek kalamata olive oil.
Due to the strict standards that must be met to become certified, these delicacies often command higher prices, making them an attractive market for imitators. In fact, producers estimate that global sales of counterfeit cheese are around €1.6 billion a year, a number not far removed from sales of the authentic product, which last year reached a record €2.9 billion — almost half comes from exports—, 7% more than in 2021.
The main association of farmers and ranchers in Italy, Coldiretti, has denounced that the sale of fake food products has grown exponentially in the last 30 years. According to their data, Parmigiano Reggiano is the second most counterfeited Italian product, behind mozzarella.
These Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses.
The association has explained that in Brazil they have created a copy of the Parmigiano Reggiano called Parmesao, in Russia there is the Russkiy Parmesan and in Argentina, the Reggianito, an imitation created by Italian emigrants. “Due to the continued rise of Italian-sounding brands, more than two-thirds of the world’s Italian food products are now counterfeits,” Coldiretti said. According to his calculations, in the United States alone, the production of imitation Italian cheeses reached a record 2.6 billion kilos in 2021. In addition, there, the sale of counterfeit products has even surpassed that of the great local classics such as Cheddar, Colby, Monterrey or Jack. “90% of the cheese that is sold as Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano, mozzarella or gorgonzola in the United States is actually produced in states such as Wisconsin, New York and California,” Coldiretti explains in a report.
Last year, the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium succeeded in blocking US food giant Kraft Heinz from registering the trademark “Kraft Parmesan cheese” in Ecuador, calling it a notable victory given that EU PDO status is not recognized in all countries. parts outside of Europe. For Italian producers, this decision was transcendental because with it “the fundamental importance of the link between product, territory and Denomination of Origin is reaffirmed”.
Now, with the digitization of the verification process through microchips, they intend to “transmit the value of the product worldwide and distinguish it from other similar products on the market that do not meet the strict production and area of origin requirements”, as he explains. Deserti.
Any Parmesan cheese made outside the production area is considered a counterfeit, where the milk must be obtained, processed into cheese and later matured for at least 12 months and then packaged and grated. For example, the milk from that area is particular and is characterized “by a singular and intense bacterial activity of the autochthonous microbial flora, influenced by environmental factors, especially by the fodder, herbs and hay of the territory that constitute the main food of the cows dedicated to this particular production”, they explain in the Consortium. And they point out that additives are not used in the production of cheeses, such as bacteria selected in the laboratory that are used in other dairy products to modify the activity of bacteria that are naturally found in raw milk. “Only the cheesemaker, during the transformation into cheese, thanks to the caseification technique, manages to value and make prevail the lactic bacteria that operate in the positive and expected lactic fermentations so that the cheese turns out well,” they point out.
The origin of Parmigiano Reggiano dates back to the Middle Ages. At that time, the monks, who were looking for a cheese that would last over time, became the first producers. The first written testimony about the existence of this delicacy dates from 1254, in a notarial deed from the Genoa State archive, where caseus parmensis is mentioned. The best-known literary testimony is from 1344: Giovanni Boccaccio in his Decameron describes the Bengodi region and mentions a mountain of “grated Parmigiano” where “macaroni and ravioli” were rolled, which offered an indication of the use that could be made of it. him in the kitchen.
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