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Pulp fiction and fact: Wood, cellulose and Parmesan cheese

Opinion

In recent lawsuits and media reports about the FDA’s prosecution of a manufacturer of grated Parmesan, plaintiff’s lawyers and reporters claim some Parmesan varieties have unsafe levels of certain ingredients, including “wood pulp.”

grated-parmesan-cheese

Let’s separate fact from the pulp fiction — starting with one prominent Bloomberg report, “The Parmesan You Sprinkle on Your Penne Could be Wood,” which has sparked at least one lawsuit against Kraft.

Bloomberg reported that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had caught Pennsylvania-based Castle Cheese Inc. “doctoring its 100% real parmesan with cut-rate substitutes and such fillers as wood pulp and distributing it to some of the country’s biggest grocery chains.”

When they say “wood pulp,” they mean cellulose. The problem is, the type of cellulose most commonly used in food products is a common plant derivative with uses ranging from adding fiber to food to preventing clumping.  And because wood pulp, also technically a plant derivative, contains cellulose, these outlets have concluded, or at least drawn readers in with headlines, claiming Parmesan with cellulose contains wood pulp.  That isn’t a fair conclusion, but it makes for catchy headlines — and, unfortunately, fodder for a new wave of food mislabeling class actions against other companies singled out in some media reports, Kraft and Walmart.

So, cellulose is not necessarily wood pulp. Nor is it inherently “unsafe,” as another media outlet, “Women’s Health,” reports in a story with a another alarming headline: “The Parmesan Cheese in Your Pantry May Contain Unsafe Levels of Wood.”

The story reports that “according to the Center for Dairy Research (CDR) in Madison, WI, cellulose is an inherently safe additive. But the problem is, it’s gotten out of control. According to the CDR, two to four percent is a generally accepted safe level of the additive, but many brands are far exceeding that measure.”

Is it really out of control? Not if you ask the FDA

Cellulose is a common ingredient, and it’s not “unsafe.”  In fact, the FDA officially classifies it as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) and FDA opinions highlight that “consumption of large amounts appear to have no effect other than providing dietary bulk.”

This official position — from the federal agency charged with regulating food safety — is a far cry from summaries of reports from lobby groups like the Center for Dairy Research.

In short, the evidence is that Parmesan is not going to leave you swallowing splinters.

And when we do have unsafe food, it’s up to the FDA — not lobby groups, the media, or the courts — to address those issues.

Take Castle Cheese Inc., which faced prosecution by the FDA over its “100% grated Parmesan Cheese.”  The FDA discovered Castle’s Parmesan cheese failed to comply with the regulatory definition and barred further sale.

The FDA, under its exclusive authority to enforce its regulations, filed criminal charges.

But it wasn’t a class action that led to FDA enforcement, and that’s the right result, because these violations are the responsibility of the FDA and not consumer lawyers trolling the news for a quick payout.

As the federal agency charged with protecting the food supply, the FDA has the science, resources, and knowledge to understand the often-complicated interplay between food safety, cost, and public health.  But remember that the FDA responds to facts and science, not fads and tacky headlines.

Jacob M. Harper has handled myriad consumer class actions and is an expert in food mislabeling claims — and especially early dismissals — for clients, some of the country’s largest grocers, retailers, and distributors. He is a graduate of The University of Chicago Law School and a member of TroyGould PC in Los Angeles.

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