PITTSBURGH (AP) — A former executive will spend three years on probation and pay a $5,000 fine because two Pennsylvania cheese businesses her family controlled sold grated Swiss and mozzarella cheeses that were mislabeled and fraudulently represented as Parmesan and Romano cheese instead.
A federal judge sentenced Michelle Myrter, 44, on Tuesday in Pittsburgh
Although U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspection reports and consumer lawsuits have raised questions about whether the cheeses also had too much cellulose — a filler made from wood pulp — that wasn't an issue in the criminal case.
Defense attorney Stephen Stallings, a former federal prosecutor, told the judge national media coverage linking the two subjects have unfairly tainted Myrter's reputation and even caused her to receive death threats for what he's argued in court papers are a "relatively vanilla regulatory offense."
Myrter pleaded guilty in February to a misdemeanor aiding and abetting charge that carries up to a year in prison. But U.S. District Judge Mark Hornak agreed with Stallings that Myrter deserved less for, essentially, "taking the fall." The FDA and federal prosecutors have identified at least two other officials at the companies who were involved in the mislabeling, but have not charged them nor explained why.
Myrter in February also pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge, related to the mislabeling, on behalf of the companies, International Packing and Universal Cheese and Drying.
The companies, based in the western Pennsylvania village of Slippery Rock, have ceased operations and agreed to forfeit $500,000 each, though the judge has not yet formally signed off on the financial penalties.
The FDA said the imitation cheeses, made by a third family-owned but now defunct firm, Castle Cheese, were sold through a variety of discount retailers and grocers under various brand names in several states.
Though the cheese wasn't unsafe to eat, the FDA and federal prosecutors in Pittsburgh contend customers were being cheated by paying for more expensive Italian cheese while getting cheaper varieties.
The FDA uncovered the issues during 2010 inspections. International Packing and Universal quickly collapsed after they couldn't profit "without using ingredients that were cheaper than the real ingredients necessary to make 100 percent Parmesan and Romano cheese," Assistant U.S. Attorney Tonya Goodman wrote in a pre-sentence memorandum.
Stallings said the cheeses tasted like Parmesan and Romano but weren't aged as long and were made from caseins — proteins found in milk — instead of actual milk.
Myrter didn't acknowledge knowing that was done illegally, but agreed to plead guilty as someone who, in her position, was legally responsible for the companies' actions. Myrter was a trustee with a family trust that gave her "an indirect controlling ownership interest" in both companies, Goodman said.
This story has been corrected to show concerns about cheese filler made from wood pulp are not part of the criminal case.