Italians call Parmigiano Reggiano – or, simply, parmesan – the king of cheeses. Once a staple in the royal courts of Europe during the Renaissance, today it represents a $2.6 billion industry. To better satisfy growing global demand and improve quality, Parmigiano Reggiano producers have turned to data analytics. Using an IBM system, producers are tracking the production cycle and for the first time have a new real-time view of inventory. Simone Ficarelli of the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano, which represents the 350 Italian dairies authorized to make the cheese, says the goal is to track the entire supply chain from the cow to store shelves to protect the brand and stand out amid a confusing cast of knock-offs. The Smarter Planet recently caught up with Ficarelli for more.
Smarter Planet: We witnessed the cheese production at the Caseificio Scalabrini dairy farm outside Reggio Emilia. For a centuries-old production tradition, it was pretty high-tech.
Simone Ficarelli: Little has changed in the cheese making philosophy; we want to be faithful to the 1,000-year-old monk’s recipe, after all. But of course there have been advancements in the production. First it was electricity and the switch from wood fire to steam. The second big push came in the deployment of data analytics. If a cheese maker from a previous generation were to travel forward in time to see how the dairies today are using analytics to track the production cycle, and sensors and biometric readers to track everything from the cows’ movements and diet, they’d think it was science fiction!
SP: Producers can use only milk, salt and a natural enzyme called calf rennet to make the cheese. But that doesn’t mean there are only three variables to measure, does it?
SF: Precisely. The process is complicated. The condition of milk changes every day, depending on the weather. These changes have to be measured and understood to determine how to best use today’s milk to produce the best wheel of cheese. Even the best cheese masters could benefit from more insight into the production, and that’s where data analytics come in. The cheese masters now record where the milk originated, how much was used and other factors, including the amount of salt and rennet used.
SP: Each Parmigiano Reggiano cheese wheel faces a famously strict inspection regimen. Can data analytics help producers achieve even higher quality cheese?
SF: We think so. Last year, dairy farms within the consortium produced over 3 million wheels and each will be inspected by one of our experts after 12 months of aging. If there are any defects, the cheese is rejected. Rejected wheels do not get branded Parmigiano Reggiano and so cannot be sold to consumers as such. So, it’s very important that cheese masters understand why some cheeses pass and others fail. Their livelihoods are at stake. With IBM’s help, we now have a system to track every stage of production and the cheese makers understand better what works, what doesn’t and why.
SP: And the results?
SF: A hundred years ago, the ratio of success was, more or less, 50 percent. It was really like flipping a coin. Now, it’s roughly 92 percent. The data can inform technique and, the hope is, data can continue to improve the success ratio.
SP: Where else can data be applied?
SF: We’re looking to extend trackability into the marketplace. For centuries, Parmigiano Reggiano has had to compete with imitators who claim their hard cheese is the same as ours. We have to educate consumers about the vast difference, that our cheese is an artisanal and additive-free according to a centuries-old tradition. Maybe this could be done with a smartphone. Maybe the consumer scans the cheese at the store and learns the day it was made, where and by whom. This is very important because in our sector the strength of a product is proportional to the knowledge that you, the consumer, has of the product. Knowing better means spending better. It means eating better. And it also means living better.
Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano is one of several organizations featured in IBM’s WildDuck series of podcasts and videos that celebrate the innovators of tomorrow, today. A version of this story appeared on the IBM Smarter Planet Voice, in Forbes in June.
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