Food manufacturers, take note: You might want to be a little vague on those labels.
At least according to a federal judge in Chicago, who on Thursday dismissed dozens of class actions brought over “100% Grated Parmesan Cheese” labels on containers made by Kraft and sold through private labels at Target and Wal-Mart. Plaintiffs alleged consumers were duped into buying products that said 100 percent parmesan cheese but actually contained fillers made from wood pulp. But the labels, wrote U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman in the Northern District of Illinois, were too “ambiguous” to deceive consumers.
“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,” he wrote. “Reasonable consumers would thus need more information before concluding that the labels promised only cheese and nothing more, and they would know exactly where to look to investigate — the ingredient list. Doing so would inform them that the product contained non-cheese ingredients.”
Then there’s common sense, he wrote. Consumers were unlikely to believe the containers had 100 percent cheese in them because they’re packaged and sold at room temperature, “a quality that reasonable consumers know is not enjoyed by pure cheese. Cheese is a dairy product, after all, 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.”
He gave plaintiffs until Sept. 14 to amend their complaint.
Lead plaintiffs attorney Ben Barnow of Barnow and Associates in Chicago did not respond to a request for comment.
“Kraft Heinz applauds the court’s dismissal of plaintiffs’ complaints today and fully agrees that the labeling of our parmesan cheese is not misleading,” wrote Michael Mullen, senior vice president of corporate and government affairs at The Kraft Heinz Co. in an email. “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.”
A Wal-Mart spokesman said he was pleased with the ruling.
Lawyers for defendants Albertson’s LLC, and Target Corp. did not respond to a request for comment.
Feinerman found that the plaintiffs had standing because they “purchased a product worth less than what they paid.”
But he struck down claims of deception brought under various state consumer statutes. Unlike other food-labeling cases, he wrote, the parmesan labels were ambiguous in what they stated. He also rejected the notion that consumers don’t expect cellulose to be in cans of cheese.
“It does not matter whether reasonable consumers would expect to find cellulose (or any other specific additive) in a container of unrefrigerated, shelf-stable cheese; they would still suspect that something other than cheese might be in the container, and so would turn it around, enabling them to learn the truth from a quick skim of the ingredient label,” he wrote.
Contact Amanda Bronstad at email@example.com. On Twitter: @abronstadlaw.