For­mer exec gets pro­ba­tion, $5K fine over coun­ter­feit cheese

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Joe Man­dak

PITTS­BURGH >> 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.

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