Judge Throws Out Dozens Of Lawsuits Over Cellulose In ‘100% Grated Parmesan Cheese’

The recent revelation that your grated parmesan cheese might contain some cellulose powder led to dozens of lawsuits against Kraft Heinz, Walmart, Target, Albertsons, Publix, and others, alleging that these companies misled shoppers with labels that declared “100% grated parmesan” or something similar. But today the federal judge overseeing all these disputes dismissed the lawsuits, saying that people should read the labels on the food they buy.

Plaintiffs in these lawsuits, filed in courts all over the country, argued that they believed they were buying containers that contained only grated cheese, and did not know that the stuff they sprinkled on their spaghetti allegedly contained as much as 8.8% cellulose powder, or other ingredients like potassium sorbate, or corn starch.

Since the dozens of lawsuits are all effectively making the same claims, they have all been consolidated into one multi-district litigation overseen by a federal judge Gary Feinerman in Illinois, who today simultaneously dismissed all cases.

Ultimately, Feinerman found that “100% grated parmesan cheese” is an ambiguous statement that is open to multiple interpretations.

“Although “100% Grated Parmesan Cheese” might be interpreted as saying that the product is 100% cheese and nothing else, it also might be an assertion that 100% of the cheese is parmesan cheese, or that the parmesan cheese is 100% grated,” explains the judge [PDF]. “Reasonable consumers would thus need more information before concluding that the labels promised only cheese and nothing more, and they would know exactly where to look to investigate — the ingredient list. Doing so would inform them that the product contained non-cheese ingredients.”

Feinerman points out that each of the products involved in the lawsuit clearly lists cellulose and the other ingredients on the label, and that “Each ingredient list states that the cellulose is added ‘to prevent caking.'”

In his opinion, a reasonable consumer would know that pure cheese is not shelf-stable at room temperature and couldn’t sit in sealed packaging in a grocery store for long periods of time.

“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,” notes the judge.

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, but Feinerman says one need not be familiar with the minutiae of the packaged cheese business to know that there must be something preserving the grated cheese products.

A reasonable consumer, concludes Feinerman, “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.”

Feinerman has given plaintiffs’ attorneys until Sept. 14 to amend their complaints.