Anti-Caking Suppliers Clear Up Inaccuracies Regarding Appropriate Levels Of Cellulose

Madison, WI—Recently filed lawsuits alleging fraudulent and misleading label claims on some grated Parmesan cheese products have implied that excessive use of anti-caking agents and cellulose are the problem.

Leading suppliers of those products, which are used primarily for functionality, have received calls from cheese shredders wondering what cellulose is and what the regulated levels of application are.

In late February, two cheese companies and a Castle Cheese Company executive pleaded guilty to charges relating to their introduction of adulterated and misbranded cheese products into interstate commerce, in violation of provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

“The current CFR regulating ... grated cheeses is so vague that almost any approved ingredient and/or additive can be used with no clear limitations on allowable levels.”
—Jit Ang, Solvaria

The corporate defendants had knowledge of the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) regulations and standards of identity for Parmesan and Romano cheese products and were aware that the products did not conform to FDA standards for real Parmesan and Romano cheese, but represented to customers that the products contained 100 percent real Parmesan and Romano cheese, according to the US Attorney’s Office.

The corporate defendants also knew that the cheese products were misbranded because they did not bear labels that accurately reflected the products’ ingredients, and likewise know that the cheese products were also adulterated in that certain ingredients had been substituted or omitted and other ingredients had been added, the US Attorney’s Office said.

“The FDA is partly responsible for this issue,” said Jit Ang, vice president and general manager of Solvaria Specialties’ fiber business. “They have allowed for changes in the CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) that make the regulations read so vaguely today.”

The levels of application have changed since Ang first started in the cellulose industry back in the early 1980s.

“Back then, FDA made it really clear what was allowed as an anti-caking agent in shredded and grated natural cheese. And they made it very clear what the maximum level of the usage ought to be.”

He said the maximum usage of anti-caking agent in the US and in Canada used to be 2 percent.

“The current CFR regulating shredded and grated cheeses is so vague that almost any approved ingredient and/or additive can be used with no clear limitations on allowable levels of addition,” Ang said.
Cole Johnson, sales manager - cheese ingredients at Agropur Ingredients, interprets the CFR pretty much the same way.

“The CFR regulation 133.146 doesn’t state a specific amount of anti-cake, only that it has to be safe and suitable,” Johnson said.

Johnson did say that the CFR has a calculation for milkfat in the standard of identity cheese, or a combination of cheeses, that has to be met to be considered within the regulation for grated and shredded cheese.

Jon Bodner, vice president of food technology at Sweetener Supply Corporation, said this milkfat calculation was FDA’s way of applying indirect limits on ingredients.

Bodner said the other thing FDA did in the code was to set a minimum for any cheese.

“In no case is the minimum milkfat content to go below 31 percent,” Bodner said

The CFR states that the milkfat content of grated cheese cannot be more than 1 percent lower than the minimum milkfat content of the standard of identity of that cheese.

“Basically what FDA has done to get around not having a hard limit on anti-caking was to set a minimum milkfat threshold,” Bodner said. “That is to be 1 percent lower than the milkfat content for the non-shredded or non-grated version of that cheese.”

The minimum milkfat content for Parmesan is 32 percent on a solids basis. Shredding or grating that product lowers the limit to 31 percent.

Bodner used the typical milkfat content of Parmesan to serve as an example of how much optional ingredients can be added to a shredded Parmesan product.

He said the typical milkfat content in the solids is 36.5 percent.

“Once you shred that product, you can add as much as 5.5 percent of optional ingredients to get you to a 31 percent milkfat.”

If you have blends of two different cheeses you take the arithmetic average of the minimum, Bodner said. “So if you have one cheese with the milkfat content of 35 percent and the other of 32 percent, knowing that in no case shall the milkfat content of the blended cheese be less than 31 percent.”

Optional Ingredients.
“What it does is impose an indirect limit on the amount of optional ingredients which includes anti-cake or antimycotic preservatives or spices, flavors, anything like that,” Bodner said.

One of the problems using vague terms such as “safe and suitable” is that pretty much anything can be used as anti-caking agents or optional ingredients.

“It was a lot clearer back a few years ago what was allowed and how much was allowed,” Ang said. “All it says is that it needs to be safe and suitable and has to be used in accordance with Good Manufacturing Practices. That tells me that anything can be used as anti-caking agents at any level as long as it meets GMP.”

Bodner says he has talked with several of his customers and some remain confused.
“We talk with the shredders and we get a hodgepodge understanding of what actually are the legal requirements for shredded and grated cheese,” Bodner said.

Spices have to be factored in as well, Bodner said.

“It’s the combination of anti-caking agents, spices and the antimycotic that are going to cause your milkfat content to decrease from what it was in the block form,” Bodner said.

Bodner said if you start with a Parmesan block with a milkfat content of 37 percent, you can actually put more optional ingredients in there.

“If you started with a Parmesan block at the very low minimum milkfat content, you may only have room legally to add 1 percent anti-cake or natamycin in there. It really depends on the cheese you start with.”

Castle Cheese
Neither Ang or Bodner had any first-hand knowledge of the Castle Cheese case.

According to the US Attorney’s Office, the adulterated Romano and Parmesan products were sold under several brand names, the owners of which were unaware of the fraud.

“If you look at the indictment brought upon them from FDA,” Jit Ang said, “the whole problem is not because Castle Cheese put cellulose into their grated Parmesan. It’s because they were using the wrong cheese.”

He hypothized the ratio of the cheeses that they were using was not in accordance with the standards of identity.

“In Parmesan, you are allowed to use certain kinds of cheese to be able to call it a blend. They were using cheeses like Mozzarella and Cheddar. That’s really where the problem began,” Solvaria’s Ang said. “It didn’t have anything to do with the high levels of anti-caking.”

Bodner completely agreed.

“The reporting of ‘this amount of anti-cake or this amount of cellulose’ causes it to be illegal or not suitable for use is really erroneous,” Bodner said. “Those ingredients have nothing to do with it. The criteria the FDA will use to determine compliance with the standards of identity is the milkfat content of the finished cheese.
Measuring the amount of cellulose applied doesn’t give you the answer.”

Bodner said the issue he hears most often about the Castle Cheese case is that it may have been labeled Parmesan cheese but there may have been some “Cheddar in there.”

“I assume the implication is a lesser cost cheese was blended in and called another product.”

Bodner said that in regards to the composition of blended cheese, each cheese ingredient used must be present at a minimum level of 2 percent of the weight of the finished product.

Cellulose Is As Natural As Cinnamon And Maple Syrup
Ang said he has seen the uproar about cellulose being wood or sawdust before.

“In the 1980s, every bakery in the country was using cellulose in bread. Three to five years ago, the meat industry had to face the ‘wood’ tag. It’s not wood.”

Ang said it comes and goes because it’s pretty sensational and warns it won’t be the last time we hear about it.

He said what is important to know is that the cheese industry is not putting wood or sawdust into its cheese products.

“Cellulose is not new or exotic. Plants and trees are the most abundant sources of food ingredients in the world,” Ang said. “Maple syrup is condensed tree sap, cinnamon is purified tree bark. Cellulose is an approved food additive. You can get cellulose from pretty much any kind of plant material. It just happens that trees are economical and abundant.”

Appropriate Levels
Any anti-caking agent that is approved for food use is acceptable Ang and Bodner say.

“You have a lot of latitude of what can be used as an anti-caking agent,” Bodner said. “You have to combine all those so that the milkfat content isn’t decreased below 31 percent.”

The risk to the industry is that you get one bad apple and now it’s kind of dragging everyone else into the quagmire, Bodner said.

“You have most of the industry doing everything above board,” Bodner said.

From his point of view, Bodner said if you are using powdered cellulose on cheese, there is no reason to use it above 2 percent.

“Generally speaking,” Bodner said. “One to one and a half percent on most cheese is adequate.
Solvaria’s Ang said anywhere from one to 4 percent is adequate.

“This is something out of nothing,” Ang said. “What most are doing with cellulose in food is perfectly natural and perfectly safe.”

Both Solvaria and Sweetener Supply have issued separate position papers regarding this issue and they can be found at Solvaria and Sweetener Supply.