Probably the most famous of all cheeses and an emblem of world cuisine. In Italy, they call it The King of Cheeses. But, like for every famous product, it has copycats, which in this case, we know as Parmesan.

Parmigiano Reggiano has been produced for nine centuries in the Italian provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Piacenza and parts of Modena and Bologna. It is a very old cheese and its production remained almost unchanged from the beginning. 

However, since ancient times that fame has brought producers of Parmigiano Reggiano PDO more than one headache.

Parmigiano Reggiano is the most imitated cheese in the world. 

Today it is said that the production of imitation cheese has already surpassed that of the original PDO cheese. This means the equivalent of about 200 million tons per year in the world.

In this article you will learn:

Parmigiano Reggiano VS Parmesan: What is imitation cheese?

What is the difference between Italian Parmigiano Reggiano PDO and Parmesan?

How to recognize a Parmigiano Reggiano PDO?

Why is it important to consume the original product?

How was imitation Parmigiano Reggiano born?

Is Parmigiano Reggiano PDO better than Parmesan?

Does Parmesan cheese harm or benefit the Parmigiano Reggiano PDO market?


Parmigiano Reggiano imitation cheese

Coldiretti, an organization that defends the interests of agriculture in Italy, denounces that the market of false Italian cheeses is stealing market space from ‘Made in Italy’ products.

For instance, in the cheese market of allegedly ‘Italian brands’ in the United States, only one per cent actually comes from Italy. This market is constantly expanding: in the last decade, it has grown by about 70 per cent.

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In recent years, the phenomenon of imitating Parmigiano Reggiano PDO has also taken hold on the Internet. To give an example, on the online sales platform Alibaba, a 5 thousand ton of imitation Parmigiano Reggiano was stopped in 2017. This amount is equal to half of the monthly production of the authentic product.

What is the difference between Italian Parmigiano Reggiano PDO and Parmesan?

Parmesan, Parmesano, Reggianito and Parmesão are generic names, not protected by intellectual property law with a Protected Designation of Origin. So they do not have a regulation or a specific production region like Parmigiano Reggiano PDO. 

Parmigiano Reggiano PDO can only be produced in the defined production region, following strict production regulations. These regulations determine the ingredients, do not allow the addition of additives or preservatives, describe the tools to be used in the process, and define the maturation times. This is done to obtain a cheese that is the same as it was nine centuries ago. 

Parmesan, Reggianito and Parmesano don’t have a production standard

In the case of the generic name ‘Parmesan’, ‘Reggianito’ or ‘Parmesan’, as there are no standards of production, it is all up to the producer. So, a Parmesan producer in the United States can choose whether to add additives or preservatives to their cheese, how long it will age and even the type of milk they will use.

It is not that an ordinary producer cannot make cheese the way he likes, even in the same way as Parmigiano Reggiano PDO cheese is made. Hence, the problem lies in the use of the name Parmigiano Reggiano or any name that alludes to it or remembers it. Or even misleads the consumer into thinking that it is that product. In such cases, it is a usurpation of the name.

But before we can recognize the imitation Parmesan cheese, we must first know the original.

Therefore, if you want to know about the history and production of Parmigiano Reggiano PDO, read this article.

And if you want to know more about what it is and the different types of Parmigiano, read this article.

How to recognize a Parmigiano Reggiano PDO?

It’s very easy.

We know that it is forbidden to sell the wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano PDO cheese, therefore the original cheese is sold in pieces generally heat-sealed. This plastic must have logos printed on its surface. Look for the logos of the Denomination of Origin and of the Consorzio di Tutela, if it is original it must have them.

On an organoleptic level, it is more difficult to recognize Parmigiano Reggiano PDO. Also, depending on the maturation of the cheese, the flavours and aromas change a lot. However, it is possible to try to recognize the characteristic straw yellow colour and the calcium crystals when cutting the cheese. This could be done by a cheese taster or sensory analyst specialized in cheese.

If we are an average consumer it is better to look for the logos. 

And if the logos are not there, be suspicious that it is probably not an original Parmigiano Reggiano PDO.

Why is it important to consume the original product?

Parmigiano Reggiano has a unique taste, like milk, nuts, grass from the Padana plain, and a history that few traditional products can demonstrate. By consuming a product with a Protected Designation of Origin, we help producers to continue producing with that age-old excellence and we ensure the product’s permanence for future generations.

Also, we help combat the market of imitation cheeses, which take advantage of the fame of Parmigiano Reggiano DOP to promote their cheeses.

How was imitation Parmigiano Reggiano born?

The imitation was born almost at the same time as the product. 

When someone succeeds, what happens around them?

People want to copy the success formula and the imitation begins. That happened with our cheese when it started to become famous in Europe in the 15th century. Then the Duke of Parma passed a law saying that only cheese produced in his region could be called Parmesan. 

At the European level, the law was respected. But the wars and famines in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries generated waves of migration to the so-called ‘new colonies’ of Europe in the world. Millions of immigrants from Europe and other continents came to these new colonies in search of a better life.

little Italy in New York, one of the possible birthing places for Parmesan
Mulberry Street, along which is centered Little Italy in New York City. Lower East Side, 1900

And as is to be expected in every new place, one tries to replicate the living conditions in his place of origin. Hence, when the Italians from the area of Parma, Bologna, Reggio Emilia and Modena arrived in American countries such as the United States, Brazil and Argentina, they began to produce cheese, like the one they knew how to make. 

Why didn’t they call it Parmigiano Reggiano?

They didn’t call it Parmigiano because Italians used to call it the cheese Parmesan at that time. Until the 19th century in Italy Parmigiano Reggiano was known as Parmesan. 

They were not going to imagine that by that simple name they were going to generate serious international problems between Europe and the United States in the next centuries.

It was not until 1938 that the Parma and Reggio Emilia regions came together to call it Parmigiano Reggiano.

Is Parmigiano Reggiano PDO better than Parmesan?

We don’t know, it is up to the consumer. One thing about Parmigiano Reggiano is that its production rules are much stricter than those of Parmesan, which has no specific standards.

In some cases, by following certain quality rules, a similar product could be obtained. 

Tip: buy and try both. Both products can be bought online and even in several Italian or regular markets.

Does imitation Parmesan harm or benefit the Parmigiano Reggiano DOP market?

Parmesan in the United States, Australia, South Africa and Russia, Parmesan in Uruguay, Reggianito in Argentina, Parmesan in Brazil, all variations of the same name. 

In fact, these countries could not use these names to designate their cheeses, since it leads the consumer to confusion as to whether or not it is the Italian product.

But by intellectual property law, the name Parmesan, Parmigiano or Reggiano is not protected, only that of the Parmigiano-Reggiano duo. Moreover, the use is deeply rooted in the culture, and for some small producers, this would be huge damage to the promotion of their products. This is why some exceptions are made.

Is it really a usurpation of the Italian market?

Or does this imitation product on the one hand damages and on the other hand serves as free advertising for the market of Parmigiano Reggiano DOP?

The numbers speak for themselves, and the fact is that the market for PDO Parmigiano Reggiano in the world does not stop growing.

Sales of PDO Parmigiano Reggiano are on the rise and it is a gourmet product with a higher margin.

Some numbers…

In 2019, Italy accounted for just under 60% of total PDO Parmigiano Reggiano consumption, compared to an export share of 41%. 

France is the main market (21% of total exports), followed by the United States (20.9%), Germany (17.8%), the United Kingdom (12.3%), and Canada (3.9%). 

The reason for this phenomenon may be because today consumers want to know more about the products they consume and prefer more original and local products 

The average consumer is more and more informed. Then it is expected that by knowing the history of real Parmigiano Reggiano, he or she will want to have a better culinary experience and will go for the original cheese.

Consumption habits are rooted in the culture 

Parmigiano Reggiano arrived in America through migratory flows and that is also how the consumption habit was born in these countries. The immigrants probably produced a very handmade imitation and far from judging it, it can be considered the way of subsistence of the newcomers.

Therefore, at first, there would not be an implicit intention to imitate the product, but the consumption habits of the society that was accustomed to the Parmesan cheese possibly facilitated the entry of the product in the international market.

But there is also a malicious imitation

One cannot defend the real and conscious usurpation and use of the name when one is already aware of its value but also of the legal problems that the use of the name for advertising purposes can bring. 

But on the other hand, Italy defends Parmigiano Reggiano PDO, even though it seems that imitations enhance its fame and indirectly increase its sales. 

How fascinating is the world of the intellectual property of food!

This story teaches us that migratory currents generate changes in food, new consumption habits, products are born and thus world gastronomy is enriched.