James L Kraft
James L Kraft

James L Kraft was an American cheese merchant who wanted to produce a cheese with better keeping qualities. His pasteurised, emulsified Kraft cheese was developed in 1915. The process was patented in 1916 and in 1917 the first batch of canned cheese was supplied to the US Armed forces. Kraft’s invention of a cheese that could be stored indefinitely was an advance in technology, but perhaps not in flavour.

Kraft was born in Canada but moved to Chicago, USA, in 1903, where he bought a horse and wagon and began a wholesale cheese business.  He was soon joined by his brothers and they formed a company, Kraft & Bros., to make and sell various types of cheese.  There was considerable waste, as the cheese was made in large rounds but cut into wedges for sale. To reduce this waste the Krafts experimented with packing cheese in jars or in cans, but there were still problems with shelf-life.

In the innovation that produced Kraft cheese, scraps of cheddar cheese were shredded, pasteurised and mixed with sodium phosphate. Kraft headed his 1916 patent application “A Process of sterilizing cheese and an improved product produced by such process” and described it as follows:

This invention relates to an improved process of sterilizing cheese to render it permanently keeping, and to the-product thereby produced.

The chief object of the invention is to convert cheese of the Cheddar genus into such condition that it may be kept indefinitely without spoiling, under conditions which would ordinarily cause it to spoil, and to accomplish this result without substantially impairing the taste of the cheese. Incidentally, the process has a marked value in that it has the effect of .permanently arresting-the curing or flavors development of the cheese, from which it follows that the cheese may be brought to the precise stage of ripening desired and then permanently arrested and kept in that stage or condition until consumed.

By 1930 over 40 per cent of cheese consumed in the USA was Kraft. Inevitably, other cheese makers protested that the Kraft product was not really cheese. The government introduced new guidelines for how the “cheese-like substance” was described on packaging, defining “American cheese” as “a mild, meltable, and stable concoction of natural cheese bits mixed with emulsifying agents to make a homogeneous plastic mass”.

In 1925, Melbourne businessman Fred Walker gained the Australian rights to make cheese using the Kraft process. Although our Australian Kraft Cheddar lacks the bright orange colouring common in the American product, its definition as a homogeneous plastic mass sounds pretty accurate.