Switzerland Puts Secret Bacteria in Cheese to Catch Knockoffs

In parts of Europe, where cheese is taken seriously as a source of national pride, entire labs are devoted to spotting knockoff Emmental and Gruyere. Switzerland has what may be the most impressive strategy yet: secret cocktails of bacteria, sent only to licensed cheesemakers, that work as living biological tracers.

Cheese is, after all, the byproduct of milk and bacteria (and lots of time). But the bacteria in Switzerland's secret cocktail were especially chosen to not affect the flavor or texture of the cheese. They have one purpose and one purpose only: Presence of their DNA is proof of an authentic Emmental.

The secret bacteria is sent out to registered Emmental cheesemakers, who have to adhere to strict rules like what the cows are fed and how long the cheese is aged. Cheese in supermarkets are regularly DNA fingerprinted to spot (possibly inferior) fakes.

Swiss scientists developed this bacterial blend for Emmental back in 2011 from 10,000 strains of milk bacteria now kept in a freezer in Bern, according to Bloomberg. There are actually three separate DNA markers, so a counterfeiter who gets ahold of one sample will still be found out. Bacterial tracers for another Swiss cheese, Tete de Moine, were developed last year, and Gruyere and Sbrinz will be getting markers, too.

Why use bacteria as tracers in the first place? The strict rules for making certain protected Swiss cheeses also prohibit any additives, so a synthetic tracer wouldn't work. In the end, bacteria were an elegant, all-natural solution to fighting fake cheese.[Bloomberg]

Top image: Emmental being judged at a cheese competition. KEYSTONE/Photopress/Yoshiko Kusano