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Italian cheesemakers microchip parmesan in bid to fight copycats

One of the world's most famous cheeses is also one of the most counterfeited dairy products on the planet. 

Competing manufacturers have for years produced cheaper imitations of Italy's parmigiano reggiano, a favored topping for pasta and salad.  

FILE PHOTO: A storage area for Parmesan cheese wheels is pictured at storehouse shelf at 4 Madonne Caseificio dell'Emilia dairy cooperative in Modena
A storage area for Parmesan cheese wheels is pictured at storehouse shelf at 4 Madonne Caseificio dell'Emilia dairy cooperative in Modena, Italy, February 16 2016. Alessandro Bianchi / REUTERS

Now, the producers of parmigiano reggiano say they have innovated a way to prevent any pretenders from ripping off their product. 

Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium (PRC), the association that oversees production of the cheese, says it has been putting microchips in its product as part of a technological trial which would allow consumers to trace parmesan cheese back to its place of origin. 

Under special protections designated by the European Union, parmigiano reggiano is the only kind of cheese which can be called parmesan within Europe and it must be made in a small part of northern Italy, including in the provinces of Parma and Reggio Emilia.

PRC are hopeful that their new technology will help to enforce that protected status. Their microchips are about the size of a grain of salt and have been inserted into the labels found on the rind of about 120,000 wheels of parmigiano reggiano. The chips work as scannable food tags with a QR code label. 

In an e-mailed statement sent on Friday, Nicola Bertinelli, president of Consorzio Parmigiano Reggiano, told CBS News that "by being the first to incorporate these secure digital labels onto our cheese wheels, we can continue to ensure consumer safety."

"Since the establishment of our Consortium in 1934, we have worked to convey the value of our product globally and distinguish it from similar-sounding products on the market that do not meet our strict requirements for production and area of origin," Berintelli said. 

In the United States, Parmiano Reggiano does not have protected status and American manufactures in states like Wisconsin make different forms of 'parmesan' cheese. 

Outside of the United States, the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium successfully blocked the US food giant Kraft Heinz from registering the name "Kraft parmesan cheese" as a trademark in Ecuador in 2022. 

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