Jonathan Bilyk Jun. 3, 2016, 4:44pm

Even as new cases continue to sprinkle on, the class action lawsuits that have piled up in recent months in federal courts across the country against Kraft, Walmart, Target, the parent company of Jewel Food Stores and others over the contents of their grated Parmesan cheese, will be headed to Chicago, after a federal judicial panel consolidated the cases and selected a Chicago federal judge to preside over the litigation.

On  June 2, the federal Panel on Multi-District Litigation issued an order placing the 16 current class action cases, and perhaps nearly three dozen more “tag-along” actions, into a single docket, and selecting U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman of the Northern District of Illinois to preside over the cases.

“In many situations, we are hesitant to bring together actions involving separate defendants and products,” wrote the MDL Panel, chaired by U.S. District Judge Sarah S. Vance, who also serves as chief judge of the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Louisiana. “But when, as here, there is significant overlap in the central factual issues, parties, and claims, we find that creation of a single MDL is warranted.”

The order was supported by fellow MDL Panel members, judges Charles A. Breyer, of the Northern District of California; Ellen Segal Huvelle, of the District of Columbia; and R. David Proctor, of the Northern District of Alabama.

The lawsuits against the makers and retailers of the grated cheese product have accumulated since February, when Bloomberg News first published a report discussing common ways cheese manufacturers allegedly doctor grated hard Italian cheeses to offset their expense. The article said the news agency sent samples of several brands of Parmesan cheese to “an independent laboratory” for testing. According to the story and the lawsuits that followed, tests indicated the cheeses contained between 4-8 percent cellulose, a common food additive derived from ground wood chips.

This, the lawsuits said, represented consumer fraud, since the products were labeled as containing 100 percent cheese.

Locally, federal court records indicate there are two cases listed among the 16 transferred under the MDL, plus six more “tag-along” Parmesan cheese cases, pending in Chicago federal court against Kraft, Walmart, Supervalu and the other defendants. The local cases were filed from February to mid-May.

Attorneys representing those bringing the local class actions include those with the firms of Pomerantz LLP; Barnow & Associates; Kanuru Law Group; Bock & Hatch; Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll; Wolf, Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz; Zimmerman Law Offices; and McGuire Law, all of Chicago, and attorneys Aron D. Robinson and James P. Batson. The New York-based firm of Levi & Korsinsky is also representing clients in a Chicago cheese lawsuit.

Other class actions over the alleged cheese mislabeling have been brought in federal courts in San Francisco, St. Louis, northern Florida, southern Illinois, Minnesota, and New York, among others.

The MDL Panel’s order noted plaintiffs in eight of the cases asked to centralize the cases against Kraft and Walmart in St. Louis, and also include all of the “tag-along actions,” which involve Target, Supervalu, Albertsons and the ICCO-Cheese Company.

Other plaintiffs asked to consolidate the cases into several groups, against Kraft, Walmart and the other companies, respectively.

The MDL order said the defendant companies generally supported consolidating the actions, but differed on whether all should be handled together, and where the cases should be heard. The order noted Walmart, Target, Supervalu, Albertsons and ICCO-Cheese supported a “single, multi-product MDL.”

But all of the different companies supported different federal jurisdictions to which to transfer the cases. Jurisdictions suggested included the Eastern District of Missouri, Northern District of Illinois, Southern District of New York, District of Minnesota, Western District of Pennsylvania and Southern District of Florida.

The judges said they believed a single, multi-company MDL was preferable, as “there is little dispute that the actions overlap” on the issues of “laboratory testing, consumer perception of the labeling representation, the alleged impact on pricing and ICCO’s alleged role as a common supplier for Walmart and other stores selling house brand ‘100 percent’ grated Parmesan cheese products.”

And the judges said they believed Chicago was the appropriate location, as Kraft, which is headquartered in Chicago’s suburbs, and “plaintiffs in 10 actions support this district, where a significant number of actions are pending.” The judges said Chicago is also “centrally located relative to” Walmart, which is based in Arkansas.

The judges said they also believed Feinerman, who is presiding over an action against Kraft, Target and Supervalu, “will steer this litigation on a prudent course.”

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