U.S. judge shreds main claim in Parmesan cheese labeling lawsuits

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By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) - A federal judge on Thursday dismissed the central claim in lawsuits accusing five food producers and retailers of deceiving consumers by using "100% Grated Parmesan Cheese" labels to describe products that contained cellulose, an anti-clumping agent made from wood pulp.

U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman in Chicago found a lack of proof that the labels would mislead reasonable consumers into thinking the products were 100 percent cheese, despite evidence that two linguistics professors and the "vast majority" consumers in a recent survey thought so.

The judge allowed some state consumer protection claims against Albertsons Cos, Kraft Heinz Co and Walmart Inc over ingredient lists that said cellulose was used to prevent "caking," when it was also used as filler.

He dismissed all claims against two other retailers, Publix Super Markets Inc and Target Corp.

The plaintiffs in the proposed class actions said that they overpaid for what they thought was 100 percent cheese, and sought a variety of damages.

Their lawyer, Ben Barnow, declined to comment because the litigation was still pending, according to his office.

Kraft Heinz, in a statement, said it was pleased the judge found reasonable consumers would not be confused "when the ingredient line clearly lists cellulose powder," and said it will defend against the rest of its lawsuit.

The other defendants had no immediate comment or did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Feinerman had dismissed the lawsuits in August 2017, but let the plaintiffs amend their cases.

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In his earlier ruling, he had said "100% Grated Parmesan Cheese" was ambiguous, because it could mean a product contained 100 percent cheese, or that 100 percent of the cheese was parmesan, or that the parmesan was 100 percent grated.

The new evidence did not change his view.

Feinerman called the survey "valueless," in part because it showed that some consumers did not believe the products were 100 percent cheese.

He also said reasonable consumers did not "approach or interpret language in the manner of a linguistics professor."

Some 50 lawsuits had been filed in the litigation, which began in early 2016, before being consolidated.

The case is In re: 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, No. 16-05802.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Grant McCool)

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