Unlabeled Wood Pulp in Cheese Triggers Gov’t and Consumer Lawsuit

Unlabeled Wood Pulp in Cheese Triggers Gov’t and Consumer Lawsuit
Food Ingredients

When you sit down to a spaghetti meal with your family, you might reach for the Parmesan cheese shaker almost instinctively. But in addition to some Parmesan, did you know that you might be shaking out unsafe levels of wood pulp all over your sauce? And the label wont’ even tell you.

Look at the nutrition label on your Parmesan bottle. If you see “cellulose” listed as an ingredient, the product contains wood pulp.

And what is wood pulp, anyway? In simple terms, it’s plant fiber. Cellulose is extracted from wood when manufacturers grind it up. Powdered cellulose is made by cooking wood in various chemicals to separate the cellulose. In the food industry, it’s typically used as an anti-caking agent, and to give low-fat and no-fat foods a creamy texture. It’s not just in your parm; it’s in lots of shredded cheeses, too, not to mention salad dressings, and even ice cream.

Even organic companies use cellulose, including Organic Valley, which says it uses it in its shredded cheeses to keep them from clumping. Whole Foods 365 brand contains traces of cellulose, though the label does not list it as an ingredient. An independent investigation by Bloomberg found that some brands, such as Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese, from Jewel-Osco, contain unsafe levels of cellulose.

Last week, Jewel-Osco pulled the product from its 185 stores, and plans to phase out the brand and replace it with is Jewel-Osco Signature Brand. [1]

Bloomberg wrote:

“Of all the popular cheeses in the U.S., the hard Italian varieties are the most likely to have fillers because of their expense. Parmesan wheels sit in curing rooms for months, losing moisture, which results in a smaller yield than other cheeses offer. While 100 pounds of milk might produce 10 pounds of cheddar, it makes only eight pounds of Parmesan.” [2]

Photograph: Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel

However, the government is finally cracking down on companies that use wood pulp in Parmesan cheese products labeled “100% Parmesan.” Last week, a woman and 2 western Pennsylvania cheese firms controlled by her family pleaded guilty to mislabeling grated Parmesan and Romano cheese that contained only other cheeses and wood pulp filler.

According to the FDA, the cheeses produced by Michelle Myrter’s family-run companies were sold at Target stores, and at 3,400 stores supplied by Associated Wholesale Grocers of Kansas City, Kansas. The cheese brands – Castle’s Market Pantry, Always Save, and Best Choice – were made with a combination of Swiss, mozzarella, white cheddar cheese, and cellulose. 

Myrter pleaded guilty on behalf of the companies to conspiracy to misbrand and adulterate the products and money laundering. Under a plea deal, each company will have to forfeit $500,000. Myrter will receive probation instead of up to a year in federal prison. [3]

Additionally, a customer recently filed a lawsuit against Wal-Mart, accusing the big box retailer of defrauding customers by selling Parmesan products labeled “100% Parmesan” in its New York stores, despite tests that show the grated cheese contains up to 10% cellulose. Up to 4% cellulose is permitted by the FDA in Parmesan cheese.

The plaintiff, Marc Moschetta, claims he opted to purchase Wal-Mart’s Great Value “100% Grated Parmesan Cheese” at a premium price based on the label’s claim that Parmesan cheese was all he was getting. On Tuesday, Moschetta filed a complaint alleging that Wal-Mart employed misleading business practices because the Parmesan he purchased actually contains between 7 and 10% cellulose.

Moschetta says in the lawsuit that he wouldn’t have purchased Wal-Mart’s Great Value “100% Grated Parmesan Cheese” if he had known if contained the wood chip-derived ingredient. [4]

The suit states:

“Consumers reasonably rely on the label and believe [Walmart’s] statement that the product consists of ‘100%’ Parmesan cheese means no substitutes or fillers are present in the container. Because the product does in fact contain fillers and substitutes, the ‘100%’ Parmesan claim is literally false and is also misleading to consumers.”

The man claims he suffered injury and lost money as a result of the retailer’s deceptive, misleading, false, unfair, and fraudulent practices.

The lawsuit seeks class action status for the fraud claims.

Experts say that cellulose is cellulose, whether it comes from broccoli or some other vegetable, or from wood pulp, but that’s not really the point. Some may choose to eat it, but it should be on the label – correctly. And others may not be into eating a substance chemically pulled from wood? [5]

Don’t we deserve to know what we are eating?


[1] Consumerist

[2] EcoWatch

[3] Morning Call

[4] Time

[5] USA Today

Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel

Featured image source and credit: Daily Record / Photo: AP