More than 50 class-action lawsuits have been filed against Parmesan producers over the years, alleging consumer deception. Yet the harms are unclear.
The grated Parmesan cheese in the green shaker tube, the kind next to dried pastas and canned tomato sauces on grocery shelves, may not be exactly what’s promised. And no one’s even claiming it comes from cow’s milk in Italy.
Many of these cheese products, including those by leading shredded-cheese maker Kraft-Heinz or those sold as store brands in Walmart and Albertsons, contain up to 9 percent cellulose. It’s a derivative of wood pulp or plant fibers used to stop clumping and help cheese fall freely through the lid’s holes. They also include potassium sorbate, a preservative that stops mold and extends the shelf life of dried fruits, cakes, and wines.
Both are common food additives, and they’re safe to eat. Nevertheless, the two ingredients, and particularly wood pulp, are at the center of a continuing legal battle that will pick up later this month. It’s about product labeling and what constitutes “pure” Parmesan—the American version of the beloved Parmigiano-Reggiano hard cheese.
Cellulose is a fiber derived from plant walls, which means it can be taken from wood and apple pulp or corn cobs.
On December 7, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reopened class-action lawsuits that accuse the cheesemaker and grocers, among others, of false advertising when they sold products with front labels claiming “100% grated Parmesan cheese.” The companies say they did no wrong because federal law says grated cheese can be made with noncheese ingredients.
The Institute for Legal Reform, an affiliate of the Chamber of Commerce, has long held a dim view of these cases. In a 2017 report on food and beverage class-action litigation, the business group noted that grated Parmesan cheese lawsuits, which at one point numbered more than 50 class actions in 10 states, were far more common than those related to any other food product. The attorneys wrote that the suits were designed to “line the pockets of lawyers” and not benefit consumers.
But a lawyer for the plaintiffs told Reuters that the decision to revisit Ann Bell, et al. v. Albertson Companies, Inc., et al., reaffirms the importance of false advertising laws and sends a message that companies “must exercise their significant powers of persuasion in the marketplace responsibly and ethically.”
The idea of eating powdered wood might give you pause, but food scientists say cellulose is a harmless ingredient. It occurs naturally in plant walls, which means it can be taken from wood and apple pulp or corn cobs, said John Coupland, a Penn State food scientist. We eat it whenever we consume broccoli, celery, or any other vegetable.
In the dairy industry, cellulose is used mainly as an anti-caking agent that ensures shredded cheese will “flow and not clump into a ball,” when it’s coming out of a shaker.
To make the additive, the raw fiber is chemically treated until it’s refined to a microcrystalline powder or reconstituted as gum. That, in turn, is sold to food manufacturers, and companies from McDonald’s to Sargento use it to thicken foods and replace fat or flour.
In the dairy industry, cellulose is used mainly as an anti-caking agent that ensures shredded cheese will “flow and not clump into a ball,” when it’s coming out of a shaker, said John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, which represents about 110 dairy manufacturers.
The case combines class-action lawsuits filed by more than a dozen shoppers who said they purchased the products “believing that they contained only cheese.” They said the front-label claims are deceptive and violated false advertising laws. In 2018, a federal court in Chicago dismissed the cases, saying that the front-label modifier of “100 percent” was ambiguous, and that if there was any confusion, it could be remedied simply by reading the ingredient list on the back.
Judge David Hamilton, in an opinion reversing the lower court’s decision, said those were unreasonable expectations. A “plausible reading” of the label, he wrote, would infer that the products were “all cheese, all the cheese is Parmesan, and it’s all grated.” He additionally cited Food and Drug Administration (FDA) research that found front-label claims make shoppers less likely to check the nutrition facts.
“Many reasonable consumers do not instinctively parse every front label or read every back label before placing groceries in their carts.”
“Many reasonable consumers do not instinctively parse every front label or read every back label before placing groceries in their carts,” Hamilton wrote, noting that grocery shoppers spend only a few seconds to select a product. “What matters most is how real consumers understand and react to the advertising.”
It’s legal for grated cheese to be made with cellulose—and has been for a long time. The additive was approved for food use by FDA nearly five decades ago, and regulators noted that even in large amounts, it does little more than provide dietary bulk and possibly “a laxative effect.” To this day, federal law also allows food manufacturers to add anti-caking agents and anti-mycotics, which are mold inhibitors, and still call their product “grated cheese.”
But because cellulose has no taste and in its powdered form actually resembles grated cheese, cheesemakers may be tempted to use more of it than necessary. In 2016, an executive at Castle Cheese, a Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, company, was fined and sentenced to probation for selling grated Parmesan that had been doctored with the powder, along with trimmings from other cheeses.
In his latest opinion, Judge Hamilton wrote that if companies could lawfully claim to sell 100 percent grated cheese that contained additives, it would put their competitors at a disadvantage.
“It takes more money, time, and thought to do it the right way.”
Lauren Dykes, a spokesperson for Schuman Cheese, a Fairfield, New Jersey-based company, agrees. She says her company’s Cello brand grated Parmesan, which isn’t made with cellulose, costs more to produce. As a result, her company can’t sell the cheese at lower prices, and she claims the higher price point has led some retailers, such as Albertsons and Stop & Shop, to decline to carry it.
“Our cheese is real cheese,” she said. “It takes more money, time, and thought to do it the right way.”
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Some time in the last four years, after the lawsuits were filed, Walmart pulled the “100 percent” claim from the front labels of its store-brand grated cheese. A company spokesperson told The Counter that he “didn’t have the date” for the change and that Walmart believes “the labeling on all of our private-brand products meets the required guidelines.”
Walmart’s cheesemaker, ICCO Cheese, which is also a defendant in the litigation, did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Kraft-Heinz or Albertsons. The case has since returned to U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Illinois for proceedings, and a public hearing is scheduled for January 29.