Class action lawsuits against Kraft Heinz and Walmart have begun to accumulate in the aftermath of a February news investigation turned up evidence of wood-based fillers in the companies’ grated Parmesan cheese products.
On Feb. 26, in a case docketed in Chicago federal court as No. 16-cv-02626, plaintiff Yvonne Averhart brought the first action locally against Chicago-based Kraft Heinz over the controversy, saying she paid a premium price for Kraft grated Parmesan cheese on multiple occasions, including as recently as January, because the product’s label says “100 percent Parmesan.” But on Feb. 16, Bloomberg News published an article 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 lawsuit, tests indicated the Kraft cheese contained 3.9 percent cellulose, a common food additive derived from ground wood chips.
Averhart’s complaint was joined Feb. 29 in Chicago federal court by a similar class action complaint, docketed as 16-cv-02687, filed by plaintiffs Janine Hechmer and Elizabeth Bidgood, both of Florida, who also included Walmart with Kraft in their complaint. Their lawsuit noted the Bloomberg article indicated the Walmart store brand Parmesan contained as much as 7.8 percent cellulose.
The FDA has approved the use of cellulose as a filler, in quantities up to 4 percent. The lawsuits conceded Kraft’s product may contain a legal amount of cellulose, but argued the company misleads consumers by advertising the product as pure Parmesan cheese.
“Defendant has consistently marketed the product as consisting of a single ingredient: 100% Parmesan cheese,” Averhart’s lawsuit said. “However, the product is not 100% Parmesan cheese. Rather, a significant percentage of the product consists of filler material that not only isn’t Parmesan cheese, but isn’t cheese at all.”
The plaintiffs said they bought the product and paid the premium price for the brand because they believed it was a higher quality product than other cheeses on the shelf that were not labeled 100 percent Parmesan.
The Chicago lawsuits closely followed the filing of similar lawsuits against Kraft Heinz and Walmart in New York, California, Missouri, southern Illinois, Minnesota and Florida.
The lawsuits have estimated a potential class of additional plaintiffs who similar purchased the Parmesan cheese products in the last five years likely numbers in the thousands and could seek millions of dollars in damages.
The lawsuits all alleged Kraft Heinz and Walmart violated state consumer fraud law, were willfully negligent, were unjustly enriched and breached implied warranties with consumers, among other claims.
The Illinois fraud and deceptive practices charges argued Kraft and Walmart deliberately misled consumers by marketing the product as 100 percent cheese, even going so far as to include the claim on the packaging.
The breach of warranty charges claimed the description on the product packaging amounts to a binding agreement between the manufacturer and the consumer, and if that description is untrue, the manufacturer has broken that contract.
The unjust enrichment charges claimed that, by using cellulose as a filler while advertising the product as pure cheese, Kraft reduced its manufacturing cost while convincing consumers to pay a premium price for a lower quality product. This combination of cost savings and increased profits resulted in “ill-gotten revenue.”
Averhart is being represented by attorneys James P. Batson and Christopher V. Langone, each of Chicago.
Attorneys with the firms of Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz, with offices in Chicago and New York, and Levi & Korsinsky, of New York, filed the action on behalf of Hechmer and Bidgood.