Parmesan cheesemakers fight fakes with microchips

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Parmigiano Reggiano, Italy’s renowned cheese cherished for enhancing pasta dishes and salads, faces a significant issue with counterfeit, being among the most replicated cheeses globally. In response, its producers have adopted a novel approach: the incorporation of microchips.

This marks the latest development by the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium (PRC), the governing body overseeing production. Over the past century, they’ve relentlessly battled against imitations that don’t adhere to production standards. Parmigiano Reggiano, which boasts a historical lineage dating back to the Middle Ages, achieved the prestigious Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status from the European Union in 1996. According to these regulations, only cheese produced in a specific region in northern Italy, encompassing the provinces of Parma and Reggio Emilia, can be rightfully called Parmesan in Europe. Additionally, these 40-kilogramme cheese wheels must mature for a minimum of 12 months in a mountainous area and undergo expert evaluation for two years of post-production to ensure they meet quality standards.

PDO status is conferred upon food products that are “processed and prepared in a specific geographical area, using recognized know-how.” This designation covers esteemed items like French champagne, Portuguese port wine, and Greece’s kalamata olive oil. Due to the rigorous requirements for certification, these delicacies typically command higher prices, making them an enticing target for counterfeiters. The PRC estimates that counterfeit cheese sales worldwide amount to roughly $2 billion annually, not far from the legitimate product’s earnings, which reached a record €2.9 billion last year.

To combat counterfeit, producers have embraced cutting-edge authentication methods, such as micro transponders the size of a grain of salt, embedded into labels adhering to the cheese’s rind. These microchips, safe for consumption, are unlikely to be ingested, as they are located within the hard cheese rind made from milk protein casein. They serve as durable, scannable food labels, enabling consumers to trace their product back to its source. Developed by the US-based company p-Chip Corporation, these microchips are integrated directly into a QR code tag, functioning as “tiny digital anchors for physical items.” This cheese-tracking innovation emerged from a collaboration between the PRC, p-Chip, and Dutch and French cheese producers Kaasmerk Matec.

Despite Parmigiano Reggiano’s claim to be a “unique and inimitable cheese,” as asserted by the PRC, the previous origin marker wasn’t sufficient to deter counterfeiters. Under the former system, every cheese wheel, crafted from 550 litres of milk, carried a piece of casein featuring a distinct, sequential alphanumeric code. Operating like an identification card, this code constituted a distinctive dot pattern encircling the wheel, including the month and year of production.

Producers now recognize the necessity of incorporating new technologies, especially as Parmesan exports to international markets continue to rise, with nearly half of last year’s production heading beyond Italy’s borders. Digitizing the tracking process aims to convey the value of the product globally and distinguish it from similar products on the market that do not meet the strict requirements for production and area of origin.

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