Class action lawsuit argues that Hebrew National hot dogs are not completely kosher

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UPDATED WITH ADDITONAL INFORMATION ON 6/24 | A lawsuit filed in May alleges that Hebrew National, the famous manufacturer of hot dogs and other products throughout the United States, is not living up to its self-proclaimed standard of kosher “as defined by the most stringent Jews who follow Orthodox Jewish Law.”

Hebrew National products are certified kosher by Triangle K, and a firm called AER provides the kosher slaughtering services at facilities in the Midwest, according to a class action complaint filed last month in the Dakota County district court of Minnesota.

The lawsuit filed against ConAgra Foods, doing business as Hebrew National, a Delaware corporation, alleges that employees of AER complained to their bosses that they witnessed procedures at slaughterhouses that “rendered the meat being processed not kosher.”

AER leased space from American Foods Group, LLC, which brought cattle to its facilities — including the Dakota Premium Foods plant in South St. Paul — “to be slaughtered, inspected and certified.”

On its Web site, Hebrew National touts its products for adhering to the strictest standards for kosher meat.

 

Update — and threats

This is a story republished from American Jewish World, one of our media partners. AJW has since revised this story to incorporate new information, including news of a lawsuit threat against AJW regarding their coverage of this case. Here’s a partial description of what happened, from AJW’s updated story:

“In an unusual occurrence, on [June 18], a lawyer representing AER Services sent a letter to the American Jewish World, threatening a lawsuit against the newspaper for publishing what he claimed were “false and defamatory allegations” against his client.

“The letter from the lawyer, Michael L. Puklich, of the Neaton and Puklich law firm in Chanhassen, came with a “draft” of a lawsuit, which alleges that the AJW knowingly published “false and/or misleading” statements about AER Services. …

“In the face of threatened legal action, the AJW stands behind the truthfulness of its stories about the class action lawsuit against ConAgra Foods/Hebrew National.”

The complaint, which runs to about 65 pages, notes that employees hired to conduct the kosher slaughtering complained to AER supervisor Rabbi Moshe Fyzakov, and to Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag, co-owner of New York City-based Triangle K, with Rabbi Jehoseph Ralbag, but the higher-ups “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% kosher.”

Hart L. Robinovitch, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, told the American Jewish World, that ConAgra Foods has asked that the class action complaint be moved to federal court. Robinovitch, who is a partner in the Zimmerman Reed law firm, based in their Scottsdale, Ariz., office, said that he has not decided whether or not to move to have the case remanded back to the Minnesota district court.

Regarding the substance of the complaint, Robinovitch said today: “Don’t get me wrong here: We’re not saying that they’re passing off pork as kosher products… but in the complaint, as you can see, we went through the different elements and the different requirements for meat to be considered kosher, in terms of the way the cows are slaughtered, and the meat is prepared; and based on our investigation, there were certain things that weren’t conducted properly, in a systematic way, from the way cows were slaughtered, to the way the lungs were inspected or not inspected for imperfections, as is required to meet the standard that the meat is 100 percent kosher,” as defined by the most stringently observant Orthodox Jews following kashrut (Jewish dietary laws).

Robinovitch would not say how many AER employees he has spoken with or who they are. He allowed that his firm did their “due diligence” and spoke with people at various plants that supply meat to Hebrew National.

In fact, the American Jewish World has been hearing complaints from AER employees, and former employees, for more than two years, about deficiencies in the kosher slaughtering operations. It has been difficult to write a conclusive story, because many of the AER employees did not want to go on the record and risk losing their jobs. Former employees even expressed fear for their personal safety, if they were identified in a story.

AER has been hiring men in Israel to work as kosher slaughterers and checkers. One such person, who visited the AJW offices in August 2010, said that AER was treating its employees “like dirt,” housing them in apartments where they slept four to a room on mattresses on the floor. AER “would cheat on the kashrut issue,” said this employee, who displayed IDs from the Dakota Premium Foods plant, and the PM Beef Holdings slaughterhouse in Windom, Minn. The photo IDs both identified him as “rabbi.” AER also did kosher slaughter at plants in Green Bay, Wisc., and in Nebraska.

The Israeli employer of AER also stated that he was paid partial wages in the U.S., and collected most of his wages by sending a friend or family member to the town of Bnei Brak, Israel, where an AER associate doled out the money.

Regarding the class action lawsuit, Robinovitch explained that the plaintiffs thought they were buying products that were 100 percent kosher. Forcing Hebrew National to stop deceiving consumers about the kosher status of their products is “probably our primary reason for filing the lawsuit,” he said.

A secondary aim of the lawsuit, according to Robinovitch, is to seek recompense for the plaintiffs who overpaid for Hebrew National products, which carried a premium price tag based on their reputed kosher quality.

“We will prove that there was a standard overcharge on these products and therefore we will seek monetary relief” for whomever the court determines deserves money back, he said.

Teresa A. Paulsen, ConAgra vice president for communication and external affairs, responded to the AJW’s request for comment on the class action lawsuit. “While we can’t comment on pending litigation, we stand behind the quality of Hebrew National and its Kosher status,” she stated in an e-mail.

The American Jewish World will publish an expanded version of this story in the June 22 print edition.