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June 19, 2012

Hebrew National’s owner rejects suit’s claim that products are not up to kosher standards

http://www.jewishjournal.com/food/article/hebrew_nationals_owner_rejects_suits_claim_that_products_are_not_up_to_kosh

Hebrew National boasts of “answering to a higher authority,” but several class-action lawyers are hoping to take one of the country’s largest kosher meat producers to an earthly court.

A class-action lawsuit filed recently alleges that Hebrew National’s iconic hot dogs and other meats do not comport with the brand’s claim to be kosher “as defined by the most stringent Jews who follow Orthodox Jewish law.” The suit filed May 18 in a Minnesota state court accuses ConAgra Foods, Inc., which owns the Hebrew National brand, of consumer fraud.

ConAgra, which has rejected the claims unequivocally, asked on June 6 that the suit be moved to the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. The company has until July 13 to respond to the complaint.

Lawyers from firms in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Long Beach, Calif.; and Minneapolis, Minn., submitted the complaint on behalf of 11 named plaintiffs.

The lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Hart L. Robinovitch of Zimmerman Reed, is based in Scottsdale but his firm has offices in Minnesota. Robinovitch would not say how the suit was initiated.

Zimmerman Reed, however, solicited consumers through its website, where a page until recently announced a Hebrew National investigation.

“Our firm has received troubling reports that some slaughterhouse plants supplying Hebrew National with its beef may not be upholding the strict kosher standards Hebrew National promises,” the page stated. “Workers are threatened with losing their job, or demotion, if they speak up and try to point out violations of the kosher food laws.”

The firm advertised a free case review for anyone who purchased Hebrew National hot dogs in the past two years or had information about the preparation of the products.

“The lawsuit contends that ConAgra marketed, labeled and sold Hebrew National according to the strictest standards defined by Orthodox Jews. We allege that it does not meet those standards,” Robinovitch said. “We’re certainly not alleging that they’re using pork products, or anything as blatant as that.”

The lawsuit’s 11 named plaintiffs live in various states, including California, Minnesota, New York and Arizona. JTA was unable to reach any of the individuals.

The suit, which was reported originally by the American Jewish World newspaper, is seeking monetary damages equal to the total amount of monies that consumers in the class paid for Hebrew National meat products.

Triangle-K, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based supervising agency that certifies Hebrew National products as kosher and the company that processes the kosher meat, also unequivocally rejected the allegations and contended that disgruntled former employees might be behind them.

Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag, who owns Triangle-K, said in a statement that the claims in the lawsuit were “outrageously false and defamatory.”

He added, “Those who make the false allegations know full well that because their identities are concealed and their false statements are made in a court pleading, Triangle-K and its principals cannot sue them for defamation.”

AER, which provides the kosher slaughtering services at Hebrew National facilities in the Midwest, including in Minnesota, rejected the charges as well.

“The company intends to defend its reputation and good name,” AER’s president, Shlomo Ben-David, said in a statement.

Teresa Paulson, a ConAgra spokesperson, said she could not comment on pending litigation, but that the company stood by Hebrew National’s kosher status.

Neither AER nor Triangle-K is named as a defendant in the suit.

Triangle-K has been supervising Hebrew National products since 2004. The Conservative movement accepts the Triangle-K kashrut certification.

Kosher consumers choose among hundreds of companies nationwide as to which certifications they trust.

There are about 750 Orthodox kosher certifying organizations in the United States, according to Rabbi Yosef Wikler, editor of Kashrus magazine, which also maintains a website for non-Orthodox certifiers.

“Almost no kosher organization accepts 100 percent of any other kosher organization 100 percent of the time,” Wikler said.

The suit, which does not attribute the allegations to anyone by name, alleges that the Hebrew National brand was not, as the company advertises, kosher “as defined by the most stringent Jews who follow Orthodox law.” As result, plaintiffs, who paid a premium price “believing the kosher title and certification made them a higher quality product than other meat products on the market” were “deprived of the value of the goods they purchased,” the complaint states.

Among the suit’s allegations:

* Knives used in the slaughtering process were nicked, preventing a clean cut mandated by kosher law;

* Organ meat was not consistently inspected after slaughter, as required for kashrut;

* The blood of slaughtered animals was not consistently removed within 72 hours, as required by kosher law;

* Managers took certificates that had been issued to trained slaughterers and replaced their names with individuals who had not been trained;

* Kosher meat was not consistently kept separate from non-kosher meat.

In his statement, Ralbag said, point by point, that all the allegations are false.

The suit also alleges that workers at some AER facilities, including in St. Paul, Minn., kept kosher, but would not eat the Hebrew National products. Those workers, according to the complaint, were allowed to purchase meats from “specifically selected cows [that] would be slaughtered and checked in strict accordance with all kosher laws, unlike the cows that routinely slaughtered for sale to Defendant and use in Hebrew National Products.”

AER said the allegation is misleading. According to AER, employees who eat only glatt kosher were provided meat to comply with their personal preferences.

Glatt is a higher standard of kosher and means that the lungs of the slaughtered animal are free of any blemishes. If the lungs are blemished, the meat is still considered kosher, but not glatt. Triangle-K does not claim that the products it certifies are glatt kosher.

Additionally, the suit alleges that employees involved in the kosher slaughtering process complained to AER supervisor Rabbi Moshe Fyzakov and Ralbag, but those officials “did little or nothing to correct the transgressions. Rather, the persons making the complaints were terminated or otherwise threatened with adverse retaliation, such as job transfers to other facilities or states. In turn, non-kosher meat was delivered to ConAgra and packaged, labeled and sold to the public [including the plaintiffs in the lawsuit] as strictly 100 percent kosher.”

A Triangle-K spokesman said, “Every complaint was followed up on, and no one was disciplined for making a complaint.”

The spokesman also said it is “totally false” that non-kosher meat was delivered to ConAgra to be sold as kosher and that “We have clear distinctions in place to prevent such happenings.”

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