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Butler County woman gets probation, $5K fine for mislabeled cheese

| Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016, 3:22 p.m.

The cheese executive stood alone.

Michelle Myrter, 44, of Harmony, Butler County, was president or an executive at Slippery Rock-based Castle Cheese when two of its subsidiaries, Universal Cheese & Drying Inc. and International Packing LLC, sold a combination of Swiss, mozzarella and white cheddar cheeses falsely labeled as “100 percent” Parmesan and Romano cheeses between 2010 and 2013. The federal Food and Drug Administration said the cheeses also contained more of the anti-clumping ingredient cellulose — derived from wood pulp — than the 4 percent maximum allowed, though that was not formally made part of the final criminal information.

“I can't change it. I take full responsibility for it,” Myrter told U.S. District Judge Mark Hornak on Tuesday at her sentencing. “I don't know how to express the amount of sorrow I have for what transpired.”

Myrter pleaded guilty in February to a misdemeanor charge of introducing misbranded and adulterated food into the marketplace under a federal law that allows corporate officers to be held strictly liable for violations by their companies, regardless of whether they knew about the violations.

She also pleaded guilty on behalf of the two subsidiaries — which with Castle since have gone out of business — to conspiring to violate FDA regulations. She agreed to have the companies pay a total of $1 million in restitution and forfeitures as part of her plea.

Hornak sentenced Myrter to three years of probation, a $5,000 fine and 200 hours of community service at a food bank or similar program.

“The government didn't believe it was sufficient for these two defunct companies to be held accountable alone,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tonia Sulia Goodman said at Myrter's sentencing hearing. “The fact that there may have been other people involved does not take away from the fact that this took place at a time when she held a position of responsibility.”

Defense attorney Stephen Stallings said the restitution of $500,000 from each of the subsidiaries was already in the process of being paid as the companies were liquidated. The official sentencing for each company was postponed to a later date.

Stallings said the misbranding charge stemmed from the fact that not all of the cheese was being aged and dried for the 10 months required by the FDA to be labeled “Parmesan cheese,” even if some of it originally had been chunks of cheaper cheeses.

“You can do that,” he said. “If it's been aged 10 months and tastes like Parmesan, it's Parmesan.”

He said the Castle Cheese case was unfairly lumped in with an ongoing national debate and civil lawsuits over the cellulose content of Parmesan cheeses and how it should be identified in the labeling.

Because of the accusations Castle and other companies had added “wood pulp” to their cheese, people had made death threats against Myrter — often in the comment sections of online articles, Stallings said.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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