Lawsuits over wood pulp in Parmesan cheese tossed by Chicago judge

Remember all those lawsuits last year about the labeling of Parmesan cheese products containing filler material made from wood chips?

They were dealt a heavy blow late last week when a federal judge in Chicago granted a motion to dismiss a consolidated block of class-action lawsuits against Kraft Heinz and Jewel-Osco parent company Albertsons, among other defendants. But the legal battle may not be finished: Plaintiffs in the lawsuit have until Sept. 14 to file an amended complaint.

"We believe honesty in food labeling is important. ... We're going to proceed," said Chris Langone, an attorney representing an Illinois woman named Yvonne Averhart, one of dozens of plaintiffs in the consolidated multidistrict litigation.

Langone said Tuesday he intends to file an amended complaint on behalf of his client.

It's unclear at this point whether Ben Barnow, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, intends to file a consolidated amended complaint. Barnow couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

Last year, more than 50 lawsuits — also filed against Target, Walmart and Supervalu, among other defendants — alleged that the companies violated state consumer protection laws by marketing or selling products as 100 percent Parmesan cheese despite the items containing an anti-clumping agent called cellulose.

In his ruling last week, U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman said the plaintiff's claims were "doomed by the readily accessible ingredient panels on the products that disclose the presence of non-cheese ingredients."

Feinerman continued: "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."

Reasonable consumers seeking to understand the "ambiguous" claim could find more information on the ingredient list, he said.

"Doing so would inform them that the product contained non-cheese ingredients," the judge wrote.

The cellulose concerns last year stemmed from a Bloomberg News story that conducted a test of various cheese products with an independent laboratory. Kraft Heinz cheese, labeled "100% Grated Parmesan Cheese," was found to be 3.8 percent cellulose.

"American families have enjoyed Kraft 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese for decades, and the judge's opinion rejecting all of plaintiffs' claims reinforces the trust consumers have in our products," Kraft Heinz spokesman Michael Mullen said in an emailed statement Tuesday.

gtrotter@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @GregTrotterTrib

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