U.S. judge tosses lawsuits about labels on Parmesan cheese

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Thursday dismissed lawsuits by consumers who had sued food manufacturers and retailers over their “100% grated Parmesan cheese” labels, alleging they were deceiving buyers because the products actually contained cellulose filling.

FILE PHOTO - A Heinz Ketchup bottle and a bottle of Kraft parmesan cheese are displayed in a grocery store in New York, U.S. on March 25, 2015. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/File Photo

Starting in early 2016, companies such as The Kraft Heinz Co KHC.O, Target Corporation TGT.N, Wal-Mart Stores Inc WMT.N and Supervalu Inc were hit with some 50 lawsuits, which were consolidated in a multidistrict litigation in federal court in Chicago.

The lawsuits on behalf of consumers claimed the companies violated various state consumer protection statutes by labeling their products as being 100 percent cheese, when a list on the back of containers clearly showed other ingredients.

But U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman said the plaintiffs’ claims were doomed “by the readily accessible ingredient panels on the products that disclose the presence of non-cheese ingredients.”

The judge said reasonable consumers would know the grated cheese must contain some additives, given that it does not require refrigeration before the container is opened.

“Cheese is a dairy product, after all,” Feinerman said, “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 in their lawsuits pointed to the inclusion of cellulose as an ingredient and said the additive meant they were not getting what they bargained for, alleging financial injury.

A safe and common food additive made of wood pulp, cellulose is described on the cheese ingredient lists as an additive “to prevent caking.”

Feinerman also said the 100 percent claims might be interpreted as other than an assertion that the product contained nothing but cheese. It could also be taken to mean 100 percent of the cheese was Parmesan or that the Parmesan cheese was 100 percent grated, he noted.

Plaintiffs have until Sept. to amend their complaints and reassert their claims.

“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 company said in a statement.

The other companies did not respond to a request for comment.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs did not immediately return a request for comment.

Reporting by Tina Bellon; Editing by Cynthia Osterman