Guilty pleas expected in case of wood pulp in grated cheese

PITTSBURGH -- A woman whose family controls a western Pennsylvania cheese-making operation is scheduled to plead guilty -- along with two of her companies -- to charges that their grated cheese had too little cheese and too much wood pulp.

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Michelle Myrter was scheduled to plead guilty Friday morning before a federal judge in Pittsburgh. She'll also be pleading guilty on behalf of International Packing LLC and Universal Cheese and Drying Inc.

The two Slippery Rock-based businesses charged were accused of mislabeling products made by family-owned Castle Cheese. Myrter is vice-president of Castle and an officer in the other firms.

Stephen Stallings, a former federal prosecutor and Pittsburgh-based defence attorney for Myrter and the companies, declined to comment in advance of the guilty pleas.

Myrter faces up to a year in prison and a $500,000 fine. The companies could also each be fined up to $500,000 or up to twice their ill-gotten profits from selling the cheese.

Myrter is charged with aiding and abetting the introduction of misbranded and adulterated food into interstate commerce. The companies are each charged with conspiracy to commit an offence against the United States, a catch-all charge that often covers regulatory violations.

The charges don't specify where the cheese was sold, or how much of it went to stores, and they don't specify what was in the cheese, only that products labeled "100 per cent real Parmesan and Romano" cheeses weren't as required by the Food and Drug Administration.

But according to an FDA report on Castle Cheese reported by Bloomberg News earlier this month "no parmesan cheese was used to manufacture" the company's Market Pantry brand or the Always Save and Best Choice branded parmesan cheese. Instead, they were made with a combination of Swiss, mozzarella and white cheddar cheeses, along with cellulose, which is made with wood pulp. Up to 4 per cent cellulose is allowed as a safe additive in such cheeses, according to standards set forth by the FDA.

The Market Pantry cheese was sold at Target stores. The other brands were sold through 3,400 stores controlled by Associated Wholesale Grocers, Inc., based in Kansas City, Kansas.

Minneapolis-based Target has previously said that Castle Cheese hasn't been an authorized vendor, and the chain was investigating the FDA's findings. Target didn't immediately return calls and emails for comment Friday.


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