Guilty pleas entered in case of wood pulp in grated cheese

PITTSBURGH -- A woman and two western Pennsylvania cheese firms her family controls have pleaded guilty to mislabeling grated parmesan and romano cheese that contained only other cheeses and filler made from wood pulp.

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A federal judge didn't immediately set a sentencing date for Michelle Myrter, 44, of Harmony, and her Slippery Rock companies, International Packing and Universal Cheese and Drying.

Under the plea, each company will forfeit $500,000 and Myrter's attorney has previously said she'll receive probation instead of up to one year in federal prison called for by the statute.

Myrter pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting the introduction of misbranded and adulterated food into interstate commerce. The section of the law relevant to her case holds a company official responsible whether they knew about the wrongdoing.

The Food and Drug Administration has said the cheese was sold through Target stores and 3,400 stores supplied by Associated Wholesale Grocers of Kansas City, Kansas, according to a report obtained from the agency Bloomberg News.

Despite that, FDA spokeswoman Lauren Sucher, told The Associated Press in an email on Friday that the agency doesn't "have distribution information (in terms of brands, where sold, etc.). That is the company's proprietary information."

"Consumers have a right to expect that products they purchase are what they purport to be," Sucher said in a statement. "In this case, products that were labeled as containing 100% Parmesan or 100% Romano cheese contained no Parmesan or Romano cheese."

Federal prosecutors in Pittsburgh would also not discuss where the cheese was sold.

The cheese labeled and shipped by the companies that pleaded guilty was made by family-owned Castle Cheese, which wasn't charged. 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, didn't immediately comment after the pleas.

Myrter pleaded guilty on behalf of the companies to conspiracy to misbrand and adulterate the products and money laundering.

According to Bloomberg's story on the FDA report, Castle's Market Pantry brand or the Always Save and Best Choice branded parmesan cheeses 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 and the other brands through Associated Wholesale Grocers, Bloomberg reported, citing the FDA.

But Target spokeswoman Joanna Hjelmeland said in an email Friday that "Castle Cheese has never been an authorized Target vendor. There are no Castle Cheese produced or packed Market Pantry parmesan cheese products on Target's shelves."

Associated Wholesale didn't immediately return calls and emails for comment Friday.

As part of its report, Bloomberg had several brands of grated cheese tested for cellulose, and several contained more than 4 per cent.

That's prompted a federal class-action lawsuit in New York against Wal-Mart. The FDA found Wal-Mart's Great Value cheese had 7.8 per cent filler, and the lawsuit contends it has as much as 10 per cent. Wal-Mart has said it takes the allegations seriously and will investigate and respond to the lawsuit.


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