An executive of defunct cheese companies that sold “real parmesan cheese” containing wood pulp instead of parmesan to stores nationwide for three years entered guilty pleas Friday for herself and the companies in federal criminal cases.
Michelle Myrter, daughter of Castle Cheese Co. co-CEO George Myrter, pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor criminal count in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. District Judge Mark Hornak released her on a personal recognizance bond pending sentencing. She faces up to one year in prison and/or up to $100,000 in fines.
She admitted to “aiding and abetting the introduction of adulterated and misbranded cheese products into interstate commerce, in violation of provisions of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.”
The Justice Department filed criminal charges against Michelle Myrter and two corporate entities — Universal Cheese & Drying Inc. and International Packing LLC of Slippery Rock, PA — in October 2015.
Two years and eleven months before that, George Myrter told inspectors from the Food and Drug Administration he knew the companies’ cheeses were being made with fillers. That admission in November 2012 came after a fired plant manager tipped FDA that the companies were using recipes he conceived as part of the conspiracy, according to Bloomberg News.
Universal Cheese & Drying Inc. and International Packing LLC produced the imitation cheeses at Castle Cheese Co. and sold them to retailers and wholesalers nationwide under a variety of brands from January 2010 through January 2013, according to the FDA.
The brands included Always Save and Best Choice, which are sold by Associated Wholesale Grocers Inc. to 3,400 retail locations in 30 states.
On behalf of the two cheese companies, Michelle Myrter entered guilty pleas to one count each of “conspiring to introduce misbranded and adulterated cheese products into interstate commerce and to commit money laundering.”
Each company will forfeit half a million dollars to the federal government, which is the maximum allowed by law for the misdemeanor charges.
Feds on a roll
The guilty pleas mark the latest in a string of criminal prosecutions by the federal government related to adulterated foods. Those cases include brothers Eric Jensen and Ryan Jensen whose cantaloupe caused a deadly listeria outbreak in 2011 and brothers Stewart Parnell and Michael Parnell whose Salmonella-contaminated peanut butter products killed at least nine and sickened thousands in 2008-09.
“The Department of Justice prosecutes people and companies who introduce adulterated or misbranded food into interstate commerce,” U.S. Attorney David Hickton said in a news release about the criminal cheese charges.
“In this case, the fraud was perpetrated on consumers who purchased parmesan and romano cheeses that were inferior to what they believed they were buying.”
Cheese may have had Listeria as well as wood pulp
Although the Pennsylvania cheese cases did not cite food safety issues, inspectors with the Food and Drug Administration found listeria problems at the production facilities according to a July 2013 warning letter that also referenced the imitation cheese products.
“We note that on Nov. 11, 2012, our investigators reviewed records for your environmental listeria monitoring tests from March 22, 2012, through Nov. 9, 2012. These records … show positive Listeria test results,” according to the FDA warning.
“Your firm did not perform speciation testing as a follow-up to these results, to determine if Listeria monocytogenes was present in your facility. Further, from March 22, 2012, to Nov. 9, 2012, your firm continued to manufacture imitation and real cheese products in the area where Listeria was detected.
“… your response states that no undesirable microorganisms have ever been detected in your products. FDA questions this assertion since your firm does not conduct any finished product microbiological testing.”
When the whistle blew
That same warning letter referenced the firing of the plant manager.
“We acknowledge your response to the Form FDA-483, dated Dec. 21, 2012, which states that your previous plant manager was responsible for the substitution of ingredients without authorization, and that this individual’s employment with your firm was terminated in September 2012,” the letter states.
“However, all of the products noted above were manufactured between the dates of October 2012 through December 2012, after the termination of your plant manager. On Nov. 14, 2012, our investigators asked Mr. George L. Myrter, CEO and Co-owner if he was aware that the firm is substituting a mixture of different cheese products and/or imitation cheese products for real cheese. Mr. Myrter acknowledged that he was.”
The FDA noted in the July 2013 warning letter that company officials said they would not recall the misbranded and adulterated products that had been sold and distributed.
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