Hold on to your blue boxes and your viscous yellow liquids! This blog series will take you on a wild ride through the history, politics, science, and culture of processed cheese, including the origins of factory cheese, the rise of James L. Kraft, and the miracle of milk protein concentrate.
The past couple decades have witnessed a sharp rise in consumers paying attention to what goes into the food they eat. The slow food movement, organic agriculture, locally sourced meat and produce—these trends and ideals seem to mark a revolution in the human relationship with food. But, as this journey down the rabbit hole of process cheese and artificial foods is constantly attesting, things are not what they seem: the current popular uproar over ingredients in our food is not a unique or new phenomenon. Ladies and gentlemen, I direct your attention to the greatest food scandal of the 1880s: filled cheese, or the practice of substituting lard for milkfat in the cheesemaking process in order to cut costs and increase profits.
Remember last week when I was saying how cheese exploded in the 1800s? Well, trading cheese in the West Indies for sugar to make rum back in the States gave the dairy trade a substantial kick, and the demand for cheese from surging North American urban populations helped augment an already substantial industry, but one of the biggest markets for American cheese was in England.
Since the 1840s, the Industrial Revolution had sparked a population explosion in England—to the point that England could no longer grow the food needed to feed its people. To address this pretty sizeable problem, England reduced a bunch of tariffs on food imports. One of the most lucrative food items out there was the increasingly popular Cheddar cheese, and American cheesemakers stepped up to fill the need. American cheese exports to England jumped from an all-right 5 million pounds in 1859 to a pretty astounding 50 million pounds in 1863 to (WOW!) 100 million pounds in 1874.
The sharp rise in cheese exports and the enormous production gains made possible by the cheese factory seemed like a great deal, but because it was so easy Americans ended up making a lot more cheese than consumers wanted to buy. Cheese prices declined accordingly, and then the only way for cheesemakers to make a profit was to make even more cheese, which in turn dropped the price even further. Soon, cheese factories were resorting to whatever cost-cutting means they could come up with to keep on making money. It was only a matter of time before Americans saw the pinnacle of shady cheesemaking in the form of filled cheese.
French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès had patented “oleomargarine” (which replaced expensive milkfat with much cheaper beef lard) as a cheap butter alternative in 1869, and Americans were soon taking it a step further, using lard not just in the production of butter but also for the production of cheese—this “imitation cheese” became known as filled cheese. Dairies in New York began making filled cheese by 1871, and factories around the country caught on and started churning it out en masse.
The outcry against this false cheese was vehemently negative. Filled cheese was surely made from the fat of sick and dirty livestock—the San Francisco Call claimed that “of course it is only to be expected that the more unscrupulous class of manufacturers will use rancid lard and suet from diseased beeves,” and the New York Times reported how “a great deal of the lard used in the manufacture of this imitation cheese was from diseased hogs.” And even more than the filled cheese itself was its impact on trade. One witness testified before the New York Assembly Committee on Public Health in 1881 that filled cheese was “destroying all confidence in our cheese, and ruin[ing] the magnificent export trade which it has taken so much time and labor to build up.”
A big problem with the filled cheese–haters’ strategy was that it looked and tasted so much like the real deal. Experts at the Assembly Committee called it “a very successful imitation, and very deceptive,” and tales were spun of unsuspecting cheesemongers selling filled cheese and believing it to be the genuine article. An 1882 piece on “Imitation Cheese” from the British journal Nature argued that, “indeed, so excellent is the imitation, that competent judges in the City and elsewhere… [agreed] that unless they had been told, they could not distinguish the oleomargarine cheese from ordinary American cheese.”
Efforts to come up with a law requiring filled cheese to be labeled as such were slow to gain momentum, and by the time Congress passed legislation in 1896, the damage had been done. English consumers, told that this was a fake, gross cheese (even though it tasted pretty much the same as “real” cheese), refused to buy the stuff. England turned to Australia and New Zealand for its dairy needs, and an American cheese export high of 148 million pounds in 1881 dwindled to barely a trickle by the dawn of the twentieth century.
So there we have it, gang—unless consumers know about it, they will happily buy and eat anything that looks and tastes good. But as soon as the food item is revealed (or is painted as) a gnarly adulteration of true cheese that is made from diseased pig fat, people are going to start caring.
What’s next in the saga of process cheese? While it may seem like the forces “natural,” “real” cheese have won the day, they are unaware that in a few short decades a man by the name of James Kraft will pick up the process cheese torch and forever change American eating habits. Stay tuned!