In a request seeking to fit the punishment to the crime, the U.S. is asking that an executive of a company that passed off fake grated Parmesan cheese as the real thing be sentenced to time at a food pantry or soup kitchen.
While jail remains an option, sentencing documents filed Tuesday by federal prosecutors in U.S. District Court for western Pennsylvania are only asking that Michelle Myrter, president of Castle Cheese Inc. in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, receive zero to 6 months in lockup, along with her community service. Her attorney has asked for probation.
Myrter pleaded guilty seven months ago to federal misdemeanor charges involving food adulteration. The prosecutors said her company and two others controlled by her family made and distributed hundreds of thousands of pounds of fake cheese, passing it off as 100 percent Parmesan to stores around the country between 2010 and 2013.
The other two companies charged -- Universal Cheese & Drying Inc. and International Packing LLC -- also pleaded guilty earlier this year to charges of conspiracy and money laundering. Those companies are no longer operating and have been unable to pay $1 million in fines that were part of their plea agreements.
“The motive for doing so was simple – it was less costly for the Corporate Defendants to produce cheap, fake cheese while customers paid premium prices for real cheese,” prosecutors wrote in the sentencing documents. The companies “reaped the benefit of the difference between the lower costs and the higher revenue.”
Agents from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Internal Revenue System raided company facilities in January 2013 after getting a tip about the fake cheese from a former employee. Afterward, the company used real ingredients, causing profits to plunge, according to court documents. Castle Cheese is now in bankruptcy proceedings.
Incorrect or false-label claims in 100 percent grated Parmesan products are a problem in the U.S., with some companies looking to save money by using filler such as cellulose, an anti-clumping additive derived from wood pulp, Bloomberg News reported in a Feb. 16 article. In a test of common 100 percent grated Parmesan brands by an independent lab, Bloomberg News found cellulose levels of as much as 8.8 percent.
While the FDA normally prosecutes cases that harm the health or safety of consumers, rather than simply fraud, in Myrter’s case, “the conduct is no less concerning,” prosecutors wrote in papers filed with the court. Substitution of ingredients can “drastically” alter profits, creating a strong incentive to adulterate food.
Stephen Stallings, Myrter’s Pittsburgh-based attorney, has asked that she receive probation. The government is “sensationalizing a relatively vanilla regulatory offense and inflating the role that Michelle Myrter personally played,” the attorney said in a court filing. The papers describe Myrter as a “selfless and hard-working businesswoman” and a single mother with two teenage children.
The papers also said Myrter has received hate mail and death threats because of the case.
While retailers and other buyers of grated cheese are aware of adulteration issues, there are still “bad eggs” out in the market, according to Dean Sommer, a cheese technologist at the Center for Dairy Research in Madison, Wisconsin.
“People have cleaned up, but this has not been totally eliminated,” he said. “100% compliance isn’t realistic.”
Some parts of the food industry have tried to resolve concerns about adulteration by putting on products a quality mark that’s backed up by third-party certification. That means consumers aren’t just relying on the word of the manufacturer, said John Larkin, research director at the Food Defense & Protection Institute in St. Paul, Minnesota.
To try to combat parmesan fraud, one New Jersey company, Schuman Cheese, introduced a "True Cheese" trust mark. Products with the seal will be randomly tested at grocery stores to make sure labels are correct.