Walmart, Kraft, and Others Named in Revived “100% Grated Parmesan” Deceptive Labeling Lawsuit

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Walmart, Kraft, and Others Named in Revived “100% Grated Parmesan” Deceptive Labeling Lawsuit
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A 2016 lawsuit regarding the alleged “unlawful, deceptive, and misleading business practices” of Walmart in regard to their “Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese” product has been revived to include Albertsons and the food manufacturers Kraft Heinz and the ICCO-Cheese Company in a multi-district litigation (MDL).

These false advertising claims revolve around the significant inclusion of an anti-clumping agent in products otherwise labeled as 100% parmesan cheese.

Cellulose is an anti-clumping agent made from wood pulp, and it is included in certain food products to prevent the product from sticking together. The original claim was dismissed when the product labels were proven to have listed the cellulose as an ingredient.

However, a federal district court recently revived the lawsuit, citing the misleading nature of the front labels on these products, reading simply “100% Parmesan Cheese”. In the initial lawsuit, the defendants argued that the front label only intended to communicate that the cheese in the container was entirely parmesan, not that the sole contents of the container were parmesan cheese.

The primary question of this lawsuit seems to revolve around what a company can and cannot reasonably expect of their customers.

However, in a unanimous decision by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the panel ruled that expecting customers to rely solely on the fine print of a product’s packaging to disclose what is in the package is unreasonable. Additionally, the panel pointed out that expecting consumers to parse the fine print on the back of a package’s label to figure out whether or not they can trust the implications on the front of the label is not reasonably-expected behavior from the common consumer, and is instead the kind of expectation only attributed to judges and lawyers. According to the original complaint, this very phenomenon would seem to constitute a willful attempt to mislead consumers by the defendants in question.

In addition to the potentially deceptive nature of the front label on these products, the actual amount of cellulose included has come into question.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has published certain regulations in regard to how much of the anticaking agent can be included in a product labeled as 100% of anything. According to the original complaint, at least 7% to 10% of the product in question allegedly consists of fillers and additives. If this is true, the allegations of false advertising may carry significantly more weight than the allegations of mere deceptive labeling. Regardless, implying that any product is 100% of something when it isn’t would seem to constitute misleading a consumer.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs in this MDL points out that companies like Walmart and Kraft have significant influence over their customers and should be required to use that influence responsibly rather than using it to take advantage of trusting consumers who believe they are getting what the front label reasonably implies. On the same topic, Circuit Judge David Hamilton wrote that, “Consumer-protection laws do not impose on average consumers an obligation to question the labels they see and to parse them as lawyers might for ambiguities, especially in the seconds usually spent picking a low-cost product.”

Depending on the outcome of this long-awaited lawsuit, it seems likely that similar litigation will arise in the future in regard to other ambiguously-labeled products.

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