(I am going to eschew cheese jokes in this post, and I expect some credit for it.)
We recently learned that grated parmesan cheese often contains cellulose powder. This icky fact spawned dozens of lawsuits against Kraft, Heinz, Walmart, Target, Albertsons, Publix, and others, alleging consumer fraud by selling products with labels claiming that the contents were “100% grated parmesan cheese,” or words to that effect.
Since the lawsuits all made the same claims, they were consolidated into one multi-district litigation overseen by a federal judge Gary Feinerman in Illinois. Judge Feinerman dismissed the litigation last week, ruling that “100% grated parmesan cheese” is an ambiguous statement that is open to multiple interpretations.
Judge Feinerman doesn’t understand deceit.
“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 in his ruling. “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.”
Each of the products involved, the judge noted, listed cellulose and the other ingredients on the label, along with the fact that the cellulose is added ‘to prevent caking.’”
“100% Grated Parmesan Cheese” might also mean “I did not have sex with that woman,” I guess. The companies didn’t put that legend on the packages to let consumers know that the cheese is “100% grated.” They put it there to mislead consumers, and try to ensure that they didn’t read that there were wood chips in their cheese. This is classic deceit, and the judge is letting companies get away with it.
The judge smugly asserts that a reasonable consumer would know that pure cheese is not shelf-stable at room temperature and couldn’t sit in sealed packaging in a grocery store for long periods of time. “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 refrigerated for an extended period of time,” he writes, and thus “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.”
Except that the labeling was designed to hide the truth, mislead buyers, and gull them into believing that it was “100% grated parmesan cheese,” like the package said.
The judge is coming perilously closed to the old, discredited “let the buyer beware” standard that opened the door for outrageous and often dangerous consumer fraud. I guess the judge is saying I’m an idiot: when I saw a label that said “100% grated parmesan cheese,” I didn’t assume that it mean “8% other crap.” I assumed that it meant “100% grated parmesan cheese.”
I always wondered how that Kraft box stayed in my mother’s cupboard so long, though. But my mom also kept catsup, mustard and other condiments for decades.
We used to get sick a lot, now that I think about it…
The ruling isn’t a breach of judicial ethics, just a bad ruling that encourages deception by excusing deceit.