In 2016 America discovered that cheese wasn’t cheese. Cheese was really wood, or maybe cotton.
Not all cheese. That particular discovery was about the yellow powdery stuff labeled Parmesan Cheese and, in particular, made by Castle Cheese Inc. of Slippery Rock, Penn.
By the time you and I started wondering what we were really sprinkling on our pizza, the Food and Drug Administration had already forced the company to change its deceptive ways. In response, Castle Cheese went bankrupt, reorganized, and kept making cheese, now including actual, you know, cheese.
Parmesan is expensive to make because it has to have low moisture. The drying process takes a long time and as the milk evaporates the cheese, eventually sold by the pound, loses weight. It’s cheaper and easier to substitute other cheeses or, as Castle discovered, cellulose. Cellulose, which comes from the small cells in green plants, is used in all kinds of things, including cellophane, rayon, cardboard and paper. For industrial purposes, it most often comes from wood pulp or cotton, which have high cellulose content.
The FDA found out about Castle’s shenanigans in 2012; the bankruptcy was filed in 2014. You and I found out in 2016 that we’d been eating wood pulp, or maybe cotton, on our pizzas, which is sort of like taking a frozen pizza out of the box, then pulverizing the box and putting back on the pizza.
In 2016, Bloomberg News learned about the no-parm parmesan by requesting records from the FDA. As Bloomberg’s ensuing investigation showed, there was a lot of unsavoriness in the cheese business and when it came to yellow stuff labeled parmesan cheese it was just pulp fiction.
Bloomberg was able to tell that story thanks to the federal Freedom of Information Act, which has made it possible for anyone to peek behind the curtain and expose governmental misdeeds or, if a government agency was involved, the misdeeds of others.
In Oklahoma, sunshine comes through the Open Records Act and the Open Meetings Act. Unlike the federal government, Oklahoma lawmakers have been more inclined to weaken the law, making it harder to keep an eye on what they’re doing and how they’re spending our money.
Freedom of Information Oklahoma’s mission is to keep the public’s business public. On Wednesday, FOI Oklahoma held its annual awards banquet on the UCO campus. Ironically, the dinner was held in the Nigh Center, named for former governor George Nigh, who in 1982 was the defendant in one of the state’s first assaults on the Open Records Act. The governor didn’t want to show how much had been spent on the governor’s mansion and the Oklahoma City News Broadcasters Association had to sue to try to find out how much taxpayer money had gone, perhaps literally, into the toilets. The Oklahoma Supreme Court held in 1984 that expenditures did not have to be made public or even recorded. The legislature changed that after the fact, but the opaquing had begun.
In 2015 The Center for Public Integrity rated each state. Oklahoma got an F in integrity, coming in 40th overall, and an F specifically in public access to information, ranking 44th. They cited rampant cronyism, barriers to access, and weak enforcement provisions.
There are bright spots, as FOI Oklahoma celebrated Wednesday night. But they also give an annual Black Hole Award for the most flagrant efforts to keep the public’s eyes off public business. This year it went to the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents.
It’s easy to ignore what happens behind closed doors. But that’s how we end up with cardboard on our pizzas.
© 2019 Ted Streuli