Cheese Grading, Labeling & Packaging

​​​​​​​​​​​​<< Return to Dairy Services page​​

Cheese and Wisconsin go together. W​e all have our favorite Wisconsin cheese, but did you know that Wisconsin cheese is traded worldwide as a commodity? Wisconsin cheese can be eaten as-is or used as an ingredient in making a staggering range of foods. 

When cheese enters the marketplace, it must be accurately described. Traditional, name-based descriptions are often fine for conveying what is being sold, but sometimes a more technical description of cheese is needed before it is sold. That’s why we have a system of cheese labeling and grading. ​​

Cheese basics

Wisconsin regulations define cheese as a dairy product prepared from the pressed curd of milk. The basic components of milk — cheese’s basic ingredient — are moisture, lactose, various proteins, and milk fat. In the process of cheese making, several of the proteins are coagulated and, along with the milk fat, are concentrated into a curd mass. Moisture, other proteins, and any lactose remaining after culturing, are drained away from the curds as whey. Typically, sodium chloride (​salt) is added to the curd which is processed further with a variety of steps and converted to a finished cheese.

Many types of cheese have large numbers of favorable bacteria present, which is why cheese is often referred to as a living food. The number and types of bacteria can change as a cheese is processed or ripened. 

Along with the characteristics of the milk used to make it​, it’s the processing and ripening steps that make a particular type of cheese unique. Some varieties are so unique that they are defined in Wisconsin statute: Brick or Muenster, cheddar, Colby, granular, Monterey, Swiss and washed curd. Federal standards of identity go farther — there are 72 standardized cheese types or products, ranging from Asiago to Swiss.

Return ​to top

​Broad cheese categories and related labeling requirements

Cheeses can be broadly grouped into the categories of natural cheese, process cheese, pasteurized process cheese, cheese food, and cheese spreads. Each of these broad categories must be labeled with an accurate product name and ingredient list.

A natural cheese does not have ingredients added after the curd-salting step and, with the exception of the pulled-curd types such as Mozzarella and Provolone, undergoes no high-heat processing after the curds are formed. The name of a natural cheese will appear as the variety, such as “Cheddar cheese,” “Swiss cheese,” or “Blue cheese.”

Process cheese, pasteurized process cheese, and related products are mixtures of various cheeses and emulsifying agents which are generally melted to combine the ingredients and provide good shelf life. There are federal standards of identity for several of these products; these standards specify which additional dairy ingredients and emulsifying agents are permissible, what fat and moisture contents are allowed in the finished product, and the minimum time and temperature allowed when the product is pasteurized.

Each of these types of product has specific labeling requirements. For example, pasteurized process cheese labels will include the words “pasteurized process,” together with the name of the variety or varieties of cheese used — for example, “pasteurized process American cheese” or “pasteurized process Swiss and American cheese.” For any process cheese or related product, all the ingredients are listed on the respective labels along with the kinds or varieties of cheese used in the mixture. Also, the milk fat and moisture content may be shown.​

— Return ​to top 

Further classification of natural cheeses

Natural cheeses can be classified a number of ways, the most common of which are: milk type (cow, goat, sheep, etc.); state, country, region, or place of origin; hardness; and whether / how the cheese was ripened.

Categorizing cheese by degree of hardness is the most universal and logical method used. It is also related to legal standards. Many cheese varieties have federal Standards of Identity that dictate allowable percentages of maximum moisture and minimum milk fat, and sometimes the age of the product. You will see examples of Federal Standards of Identity in the individual varieties we will cover. Since the amounts of moisture and milk fat in a cheese significantly affect its functional properties, the hardness category can be related to how a cheese performs in cold and hot cooking applications.

The following are basic guidelines for how moisture, milk fat level, and age can interact and affect cheese hardness.

Soft and fresh cheeses are more perishable because they have higher moisture content and, in many cases, bacterial cultures are not added during the cheese making process. Hard cheeses have lower moisture content and often have large numbers of bacterial starter or adjunct cultures present in them. 

Cheese hardness can be affected by level of fat in the milk used as a starting ingredient. Some cheeses are made with whole milk, and some are made from partially skimmed milk. Cheeses that are made with whole milk have a creamier more buttery texture. Cheeses that are made from partly skimmed milk have a firmer more plastic texture.

As firmer cheeses age, their texture at first becomes somewhat softer. In the cases of firm cheese like cheddar it has a dense, almost rubbery body as a young mild cheddar, a creamier texture as a medium aged cheddar, and a crumbly texture with more aging.  Hard Italian-type cheeses such as parmesan undergo a lengthy aging process during which moisture levels in the cheese decrease and complex flavors develop.​​

— Return ​to top 

Cheese grading and the professionals who do it

The presence of a Wisconsin grade mark on cheese allows the buyer and seller of that cheese to have a mutual understanding of its properties and thereby avoid conflict. The Wisconsin grade mark means that the cheese has been inspected and graded by an experienced and highly trained grader licensed by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). 

To acquire a license, an individual must take and pass an exam administered by DATCP that measures their knowledge about cheese and its attributes. And it means the cheese was produced in a licensed plant, under sanitary conditions. It is your guarantee of consistent and dependable quality.​​

— Return ​to top 

Factory labeling of cheese

Cheese grading regulations require that the cheese be labeled at the dairy factory with the following information:  the name of the cheese, state identification, dairy plant identification, date of manufacture and vat identification.

Examples of such labeling are as follows:

1402 VAT A​​
May 15 12

1402 VAT A

55-1402 VAT A

55-1402 VAT A


State regulations expressly prohibit the application of a Wisconsin grade mark or Wisconsin grade label to cheese that originates from outside the state or from a foreign country.​

— Return ​to top 

Cheese grades and marks

​Examples of grading marks

Cheese manufactured and sold in Wisconsin must be placed in one of seven grading categories as described in the categories below.

Grades AA, A or Wisconsin state brand, a​n​d B are evaluated based on four standard characteristics: flavor, body and texture, color, and finish and appearance. ​Standards for Swiss or Emmentaler cheese are slightly different from other cheeses in that they are evaluated against five characteristics: flavor, body, eye and texture, finish and appearance, and color. The criterion upon which cheese is evaluated varies depending upon what type of cheese it is. Evaluation criteria will differ for cheddar, monterey (Jack), colby, brick, and muenster.

​​​Wisconsin Certified Premium Grade AA Cheese

Certified Premium Grade AA is the highes​t quality cheese. This means the product garnered the maximum score based on Wisconsin grading standards. For example, a top-grade cheddar cheese, granular or washed curd cheese is characterized by a fine and highly pleasing cheddar flavor, solid texture and a smooth and fine body consistency. 

If the cheese is colored, though it is not required to be so, the coloring should be uniform and not dull or faded. To protect the cheese surface, a covering of wax or paraffin may fully envelope the cheese without unevenness, wrinkling or tears. A rindless cheese must be wrapped or covered securely; the surface can be slightly wrinkled, but it must still be fully protected.​

Wisconsin Grade A or Wisconsin State Brand 

A cheese bearing the Wisconsin Grade A or Wisconsin State Brand shield is still of good quality, but the texture and flavor are slightly below what is found in a Grade AA cheese. For instance, there may be a bit of the bitter and acidic flavor associated with aging of the cheese; however, this deviation from the preferred taste is not readily observable by untrained palates. 

The texture is reasonably solid, compact and close and appears translucent. If the cheese is colored, though it is not required to be so, the coloring should, as with Grade AA cheese, be uniform and not dull or faded. This grade, however, may possess numerous tiny white specks associated with aging and may also possess seams and waves to a slight degree. To protect the cheese surface, a covering of wax or paraffin may fully envelope the cheese with slight unevenness and wrinkling, but without any bursts or tears. A rindless cheese must be wrapped or covered securely and can be slightly wrinkled, but the surface must still be fully protected. 

The marks used to designate Wisconsin Certified Premium Grade AA cheese and Grade A or Wisconsin State Brand cheese consist of a miniature outline map of the boundaries of Wisconsin with the cheese grader’s license number and the name of the applicable grade.​

Wisconsin Grade B Cheese

Cheeses marked as Grade B often have visual differences when compared to Grade A and AA cheeses. Aside from this, their taste differs markedly compared to Grade AA and even non-professional tasters will notice the difference. Feed flavor is still apparent, along with some acidic, bitter, old milk tastes that are of tolerable level. The texture is a bit pasty and coarse while the body may be crumbly with sweet holes. The cheese can be colored or uncolored, but there are no requirements for color uniformity. To protect the cheese surface, a covering of wax or paraffin may fully envelope the cheese; this covering may be slightly weak, but it must be free of soft spots, rind rot, cracks and openings. A rindless cheese must be wrapped or covered securely and can be slightly wrinkled, but must still fully protect the surface. 

The mark used to designate Wisconsin Grade B Cheese consists of a diamond-shaped figure with the cheese grader’s license number and the name of the applicable grade.

Wisconsin Grade C for Swiss or Emmentaler Cheese

Grades C and D are designated specifically for Swiss or Emmentaler cheeses by DATCP; they should not be considered as the lowest type of cheese in all aspects because DATCP adheres to very strict standards. Grade C cheeses often have uneven coloration, with areas having molds and other evidence of soiling. Grade C Swiss or Emmentaler cheese has a pronounced feed flavor. If you draw a plug from such grade cheese, you will find the texture is weak.

The mark used to designate Wisconsin Grade C Cheese consists of the words “Wisconsin Grade C” with the cheese grader’s license number and the name of the applicable grade contained within a 1 inch square.

Wisconsin Grade D for Swiss or Emmentaler Cheese

Grade D is reserved for any damaged Swiss or Emmentaler cheese which is marketable for use as human food except for the damage, and does not qualify for a higher grade.


Ungraded cheese is simply marked with the word “Undergrade” accompanied by the grader’s license number and is not enclosed within any figure.​

Not Graded​

Any cheese that has not been graded under this chapter should be plainly designated as such in prominent or conspicuous type size. This designation can be applied to the cheese, the cheese wrapper or container or to a tag attached to the container.​​​

​— Return ​to top