Microchipped parmesan hopes to combat $2B counterfeit market

Italian cheese makers fight back against $2 billion fake cheese industry with tiny microchips in cheese wheels to validate authenticity.
John Loeffler
Parmesan cheese on a reflective surface
Parmesan cheese on a reflective surface


Believe it or not, counterfeit cheeses are a major headache for cheesemakers globally, and makers of Italian parmigiano cheese are fighting back with an unlikely tool: microchips.

The Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium (PRC), an oversight body in Italy that certifies cheese authenticity, has been striving for a century to combat cheaper imitation cheeses that fail to meet the stringent criteria for authentic production.

The cheese achieved coveted Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status from the EU in 1996. Under these regulations, parmigiano reggiano (the only cheese legally allowed to be sold as parmesan within the bloc) must be crafted in a specific northern Italian region that encompasses the provinces of Parma and Reggio Emilia.

The cheese wheels must undergo maturation for at least a year in a mountain climate, as well as be assessed by experts two years post-production to ensure their quality.

PDO status designates food products to be produced in a specific geographical region using “recognised knowhow”, according to The Guardian. This classification includes items like French champagne, Portuguese port, and Greek kalamata olive oil.

Given the high bar for certification, these products are often priced at a premium. As such, counterfeiters are drawn to these products in the hope of making a quick buck while banking off the prestige of these protected names. In fact, the PRC estimates that annual global sales of fake cheese amount to about $2 billion, not far from the authentic product's sales, which reached a record $3.1 billion last year.

“We keep fighting with new methods,” the PRC’s Alberto Pecorari told the Wall Street Journal. “We won’t give up.”

This new method of tracing authentic cheese wheels is the product of a collaboration between the PRC, microchip maker p-Chip Corporation, and Dutch/French cheesemark producers Kaasmerk Matec.

Earlier efforts were not enough to thwart counterfeiters

The previous system used by cheesemakers labeled all cheese wheels—produced from 550 liters of milk—with a casein plate containing a unique alphanumeric code, almost like a serial number on a currency. This code formed a distinct dot pattern encircling the wheel and included the production month and year. Unfortunately, this method has not been sufficient to deter counterfeiters.

Producers now believe that modern technology is essential, particularly as exports of parmesan to international markets are growing, with just under half of last year's production making its way beyond Italy's borders.

The digitization of the tracking process aims to "convey the value of our product globally and distinguish it from similar-sounding products on the market that do not meet our strict requirements for production and area of origin," PRC president Nicola Bertinelli said previously, according to The Guardian.

The rise of counterfeit cheeses first emerged after World War I, when a South American cheese called reggianito surfaced, developed by Italian immigrants in Argentina.

Last year, the PRC succeeded in preventing US food giant Kraft Heinz from registering the "Kraft parmesan cheese" trademark in Ecuador—a significant triumph, considering that the EU's PDO status is not universally recognized outside Europe.

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