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November 16, 2009

How Cheesy Can You Get?

Filed under: Food/Groceries,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 7:12 am

MrConsumer found a lactose-free parmesan cheese substitute at his local supermarket, and decided to try it.


Beside bearing more resemblance to sawdust in flavor than grated cheese, the package contained another surprise. Had MrConsumer been Superman, he could have used his x-ray vision at the store and discovered that the container was only about 60% filled.



Regulations of the Food and Drug Administration call this “slack-fill.”


Subpart F–Misbranding for Reasons Other Than Labeling

Sec. 100.100 Misleading containers.

In accordance with section 403(d) of the act, a food shall be deemed to be misbranded if its container is so made, formed, or filled as to be misleading.
(a) A container that does not allow the consumer to fully view its contents shall be considered to be filled as to be misleading if it contains nonfunctional slack-fill. Slack-fill is the difference between the actual capacity of a container and the volume of product contained therein. Nonfunctional slack-fill is the empty space in a package that is filled to less than its capacity for reasons other than:
(1) Protection of the contents of the package;
(2) The requirements of the machines used for enclosing the contents in such package;
(3) Unavoidable product settling during shipping and handling;
(4) The need for the package to perform a specific function (e.g., where packaging plays a role in the preparation or consumption of a food), where such function is inherent to the nature of the food and is clearly communicated to consumers; [(5-6) omitted; 21 CFR 100.100]

A check of another container revealed a similar slack fill. It is unclear whether the contents did or did not weigh the labeled eight ounces. Without more facts, one cannot determine whether this package violates the law, but it sure might annoy most purchasers.

[Note: The next new Mouse Print* story will be published on Monday, November 30.]

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  1. Do potato chip bags come to mind???
    (But I suppose that would fall under “product settling” OR “protection
    of the contents”…)

    Comment by Cathy Burns — November 16, 2009 @ 10:17 am
  2. Nuts! I think this is the same one I just purchased on Saturday, now I’ll have to check when I get home tonight.

    Comment by Ron — November 16, 2009 @ 10:46 am
  3. I thought this was going to be about how could a cheese product be fat-free.

    Edgar replies: Dave, there actually is no cheese in this. Just casein and other ingredients.

    Comment by Dave — November 16, 2009 @ 11:29 am
  4. 100% Grated? What exactly does that mean?
    Edgar replies: No lumps… kinda link Heinz gravy.

    Comment by Shawn — November 16, 2009 @ 12:22 pm
  5. as an American of Italiano descent I find it humerous that the description on the jar is “for Classic Italiano cooking” I’m sure Mario Batali uses this product all the time. LOL

    Comment by myra — November 16, 2009 @ 12:45 pm
  6. I just bought Safeway brand garlic pills, and the jar was more than “half empty” or less than half full, depending on your perspective. It was buy one get one free and I combined both jars into one, with plenty of room to spare. Opaque white plastic. What a ripoff!

    Comment by rebecca — November 16, 2009 @ 1:10 pm
  7. I was going to make a similar comment as Dave and Shawn. The “100% grated” strikes me as quite dishonest – the presence of “100%” could certainly make a less-astute consumer think that Stop & Shop had somehow discovered the secret of fat-free cheese, as a percentage like that is usually used to indicate the percentage of the marquee ingredient (in this case, cheese). Yeah, it just says “topping”, but it’s in the same style container as parmesan/romano cheese, and they’re certainly not going out of their way to point out that it’s not cheese.

    Regarding the actual topic of the post, I think that parmesan and “topping” are prone to settling – I don’t have any experience with the fake stuff like this, but most of the similarly-packaged cheese I’ve purchased is pretty far from the top of the container when I first open it. I’d guess that the opaque bar intentionally disguises hides the top of the cheese/topping (I think other brands do that too), but I wouldn’t be surprised if they can’t prevent the settling.

    Comment by Jarid — November 16, 2009 @ 1:56 pm
  8. Wonderful. It’s not cheese. It’s not full. It has no taste.

    The funniest thing actually is that they describe it as “fat-free topping”. So it could be a banana. Or soy. Or 7-up. It could be anything.

    In fact, the packing only defines what the product is not. How can you know what’s in there?

    They tell you to check the ingredients. Can you imagine what would happen if all food would do this? People wouldn’t be able to distinguish coke from cheese!

    Comment by Jasper — November 16, 2009 @ 2:02 pm
  9. So you bought it, researched an article about slack fill, took photos and THEN couldn’t be bothered to weigh it?!? Seems like a simple kitchen scale would’ve solved the mystery pretty quickly.

    Comment by jim — November 16, 2009 @ 2:03 pm
  10. @jim: I imagine that some of the contents had already been consumed. I envision this scenario:

    MP1: “Hey, honey, can you put away the fake parmesan we just sprinkled on our spaghetti?”

    MP2: “Sure …. hey, just how much of this stuff did we use, anyway? This thing’s only about half full!”

    MP1: “How can you tell? The label is covering 99% of the jar.”

    MP2: “Well, when I went to put it on the shelf it was backlit by the fridge light. We either ate about ten servings of this sawdust-y stuff, or they didn’t fill the container all the way. Wonder how much air we paid for ….”

    Either that, or MousePrint’s kitchen scales are not working. 🙂

    Edgar replies: The truth is not too dissimilar to your musings. I had used some of the cheese, so could not get an accurate weight of the remaining amount. If I can, I’ll take a scale to the store and weigh a new jar. The problem with that, I don’t know how much the jar weighs versus the contents! (I returned the open one for a refund.)

    Comment by Editormum — November 16, 2009 @ 4:48 pm
  11. Edgar, no offence but WHY would you buy that stuff anyway? Real Parmesano Reggiano cheese can be purchased almost everywhere. If a store in your area doesn’t carry it there are many places online that do.

    Edgar replies: Gert, as can be inferred from the first sentence, I am lactose intolerant, and there are very few inexpensive lactose free alternatives available. Veggie whatever brand has gone up close to $5 a bottle, so I thought I would try this for half the price. As an aside, when I returned the “sawdust”, I got one of the real parmesan jars for the same price to see if I would have a negative reaction to it. Parmesan is very low in lactose, but I generally do not like to take chances.

    Comment by Gert — November 16, 2009 @ 5:16 pm
  12. Edgar comments: I am amazed by the number of comments being generated by this story. (You all have been quiet for weeks.) What I was hoping someone would say is how clever the “x-ray” picture is.

    Comment by Edgar — November 16, 2009 @ 5:27 pm
  13. Now a real x-ray picture would have been clever, but all that radistion probably would have congealed the sawdust product into a sold lump of wood and it would cease to be 100% grated.

    Comment by Shawn — November 16, 2009 @ 5:43 pm
  14. Being a former FDA Investigator, I can tell you that the manufacturer is going to say this jar is not slack filled because of exceptions 2&3 regarding machine fill and settling in shipping. It is virtually impossible to prove them wrong. The contents are probably full weight as jars are electroniclly weighted when they are being filled. I have no doubt the opaque bottle is being used for the express purpose of hiding the excessive head space. I know if I were to report this type of packaging to my supervisor it would be shot down. FDA would claim they do not have the resources to pursue this type of problem.

    Edgar replies: John, thanks for the expert insight into this issue. I will tell you that I shook the container that I photographed to see if it fluffed up to the top or even near the top… and it didn’t.

    Comment by John P. — November 16, 2009 @ 5:46 pm
  15. I checked mine last night before opening it and there is enough space above the label to see how full the jar is. However, you do have to be specifically looking for it and wouldn’t otherwise notice. Has anyone checked the name brands like Kraft yet? You can’t even see inside their container, IIRC. I’d never think to stop every time I’m at the store and check a jar like that. Now I’ll be doing it all the time. Check the nutrition labels, check to make sure the size hasn’t been reduced, check the expiration date to be sure employees haven’t ‘forgotten’ to take away expired items, now check to see how full the container is. I thought my grocery shopping was taking longer and longer.

    And before anyone asks why I buy the fake stuff, I live by myself so I know fresh would go off loooong before I ever used it all and just wanted to save money with a store brand.

    Comment by Ron — November 17, 2009 @ 10:54 am
  16. Casein is a milk protein so it’s not even dairy free. Make your own fake Parmesan – grind a few almonds with nutritional yeast (not brewer’s yeast)and a pinch of salt.

    Comment by Nancy — November 17, 2009 @ 6:58 pm
  17. Someone mentioned chip bags in one of the previous comments: Yes the manufacturers often claim this “slack” fill protects the chips from turning into dust in transit, but I wonder this – “kettle” chips are notorious for filling only half the bag, yet their chips are some of the hardest on the market and are commonly found on completely opaque bags. At least many tortilla chip makers have clear bags so you can see the product (though many cleverly cut the window at the top of the fill level so you dont see the excess).
    Increasingly I also notice “99 cent store” name-brand bagged products being filled even less than their traditional grocery store counterparts. It’s cheaper for a reason I guess.

    Comment by ryan — November 19, 2009 @ 4:41 am
  18. You know, it’s sad that the FDA even has to worry about “slack-fill”. People don’t realize that they aren’t constantly scammed day in and day out because of the heavy regulation that exists to keep companies honest.

    Comment by Marc — November 22, 2009 @ 10:22 pm
  19. Some companies will find a way to get around the regulations no matter how heavy they are and as a matter of fact people are scammed day in and day out all the time. The point is that slack-fill is sometimes used as a deceptive way to get consumers to buy the product. Most of the time it is justified but I hardly think this one is.

    Comment by Peter — November 23, 2009 @ 8:02 am

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