Judge Rules Labeling on Parmesan Cheese is Not Misleading
In early 2016, companies including big names such as The Kraft Heinz Co, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corporation Supervalu Inc., Albertsons, and Publix began fighting 50 lawsuits, which were eventually consolidated into a multidistrict case in federal court in Chicago. The lawsuits were filed on behalf of consumers who claimed the high profile retailers violated numerous state consumer protection statutes by using misleading advertising on parmesan cheese products indicating the products are 100 percent cheese even though the labels clearly list a slew of other ingredients, including cellulose filling.
However, on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman dismissed the lawsuits. The judge said the claims couldn’t be upheld due to “the readily accessible ingredient panels on the products that disclose the presence of non-cheese ingredients” and stated that common sense would suggest that grated cheese would contain additives that keep it from having to be refrigerated. A reasonable consumer, Feinerman said, “would still suspect that something other than cheese might be in the container, and so would turn it around, enabling them to learn the truth from a quick skim of the ingredient label.”
The judge stated further, “The products are packaged and shelf-stable at room temperature, a quality that reasonable consumers know is not enjoyed by pure cheese. Cheese is a dairy product, after all, and reasonable consumers are well aware that pure dairy products spoil, grow blue, green or black fuzz or otherwise become inedible if left unrefrigerated for an extended period of time.” The plaintiffs’ attorneys disagreed, arguing that reasonable consumers should not be expected to understand “intricacies relating to the shelf life and processing of” grated cheese. Therefore, the labels are misleading.
Cellulose, a safe additive, is made of wood pulp and is included in the ingredient list to prevent caking. Bloomberg News conducted a test with an independent laboratory on Kraft’s Heinz cheese, labeled “100% Grated Parmesan Cheese,” and found it to contain 3.8 percent cellulose. Between 2 and 4 percent is considered to be an “acceptable level”. Spokesperson Michael Mullin stated on behalf of the company, “We are committed to the quality of our products, and we are also committed to listening to our consumers. We know the top complaint people have about grated Parmesan cheese is clumping of the cheese.” Therefore, he said, the cellulose is added to take care of this issue.
Judge Feinerman claimed that labeling the products as 100 percent cheese could also hold different interpretations. Rather than meaning the product is made from 100 percent cheese, it could mean it includes 100 percent of cheese that is Parmesan.
Feinerman is giving the plaintiffs until September to amend their complaints. In a statement issued by Kraft, the company responded, “Kraft Heinz applauds the Court’s dismissal of plaintiffs’ complaints today and fully agrees that the labeling of our Parmesan cheese is not misleading.” The other companies involved have yet to comment. Whether the case will be amended and return to court is yet to be determined.