The news last February that grated Parmesan cheese contains more wood powder than you probably bargained for understandably got angry consumers up in arms. They filed dozens of lawsuits, arguing they’d been cheated by deceptive labels suggesting the products sold by Kraft Heinz, Walmart, and others were definitely “100% Parmesan.” (Target’s Market Pantry 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese was reportedly the most egregious, at no percent Parmesan.) Yesterday, though, the federal judge overseeing the cases dismissed all of them, telling the plaintiffs that they need to read labels before buying packaged food.
The lawsuits — about 50, all nearly identical — were consolidated into one multi-district litigation overseen by U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman in Chicago. The group was furious that the stuff they were sprinkling over their spaghetti was actually almost one-tenth cellulose in some cases, but Feinerman ultimately felt the labels were ambiguous. While the plaintiffs had argued “100% Grated Parmesan Cheese” means grated cheese that’s made entirely of Parmesan, Feinerman saw more nuance: “It also might be an assertion that 100% of the cheese is parmesan cheese, or that the parmesan cheese is 100% grated,” he wrote. Nobody needs to understand the anti-caking properties of cellulose and its derivatives, he added, to surmise that something in Kraft’s Parmesan is preserving that product. “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,” Feinerman explained further. As most people have discovered firsthand, the pre-grated Parmesans sold by places like Kraft, Walmart, and Target seem unfazed by mold, even years after the technical expiration date.
It also probably didn’t help that all these wood-pulp cheeses list cellulose as an ingredient, usually with the disclaimer that it’s been added “to prevent caking.” The plaintiffs have until mid-September to try to amend their complaints.