How do you tell the difference between a block of beloved Italian parmesan and a copycat? Just look for the one with a chip in it.
Producers fed up with phony products flooding the market have begun embedding edible microchips into their cheese wheels. It’s a bid to help consumers distinguish between authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano—or parmesan—and fakes, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The microchips can be scanned by sellers for a unique serial number, which provides information about the provenance and authenticity of the cheese.
More than 100,000 chips made by American firm p-Chip have been embedded into parmesan wheels so far and have been tested to withstand extreme conditions.
The chip, which can be as small as a grain of salt, is the latest in European food producers’ efforts to safeguard original products from mass produced rip-offs. The European Union has protected more than 3,500 products so far, including feta cheese from Greece and a type of vanilla grown in France.
The consortium for the Italian parmesan cheese industry first piloted the program in 2022 in an effort to crack down on knock-offs and make it easier for consumers to pick the real deal.
And it’s no wonder Parmigiano-Reggiano has spawned a phony market, as it is among the most well-known and widely consumed Italian cheeses.
In 2021, the global market for the variety was estimated to be worth $2.7 billion, according to the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese consortium. The value of the fake market isn’t far off though, valued at approximately $2 billion.
The U.S. happens to be the biggest consumer of fake Italian products, with packaged cheese products claiming to be from Italy even though they’ve been produced locally.
Food fights, anyone?
Wrangling over the status of food items is not new in the EU. Croatia has been trying to get protected status for its Prošek wine under EU rules for a decade, which involved a labeling as Protected Designation of Origin or “PDO.”
But the bid was met with pushback from Italy, which produces a similar-sounding Prosecco, a fizzy wine. The dispute has yet to be settled as Croatia continues to call its white-grape wine by a different name, Vino Dalmato.
Even in the cheese universe, the U.S. and Europe have been at loggerheads for years over naming products if produced outside their native regions.
Earlier this year, a U.S. court ruled that producers could use “gruyere” on the labels of such cheeses even if it’s made outside the Gruyère region of France and Switzerland.
The tussles point to a pattern—there were many instances before Parmigiano-Reggiano counterfeits and there may be many after, experts have warned.
“This likely will be a never-ending situation,” said Rita Tardiolo, a lawyer in Italy defending food consortia, told the Journal.