On February 26, two cheese companies and one of their corporate officers, Michelle Myrter, pleaded guilty in federal court for selling “real parmesan and romano cheese” that contained high amounts of cellulose and other improper fillers. The companies, Universal Cheese & Drying Inc. and International Packing LLC, each pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of conspiring to introduce misbranded and adulterated cheese products into interstate commerce and to commit money laundering. Each company also forfeited to the United States $500,000.1 Myrter pleaded guilty as a responsible corporate officer to one misdemeanor count of aiding and abetting. She faces up to one year in prison and/or a $100,000 fine.

The recipe for parmesan and romano cheeses are standardized (also called a product’s “standard of identity”) and regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The investigation into the two cheese companies was instigated after a fired plant manager tipped off the FDA that the companies’ cheeses contained improper fillers. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) alleged that Myrter and the companies knew that the cheese they sold did not meet the standards of identity for parmesan and romano cheese, but they nevertheless marked the products as real parmesan and romano cheese. Notably, the DOJ acknowledged that the adulterated products never posed a threat to the health or safety of consumers.

The DOJ issued a formal statement in December stating that food safety is a top priority, and that it would pursue cases of food safety issues as well as “outright fraud.”2 For example, last year the DOJ brought criminal charges against the Peanut Corporation of America after nine people died from Salmonellapoisoning and hundreds of others were sickened. The company CEO, Stewart Parnell, was sentenced to 28 years in prison, and other corporate officers received lesser prison sentences.