ConAgra Foods has been sued by a group of 11consumers in Minnesota who are arguing that the Omaha, Neb.-based food company’s signature Hebrew National hot dogs and other products sold under the Hebrew National brand are not certified kosher, according to a story in the American Jewish World publication.
The complaint, which was filed in May in Minnesota state court and moved last week to federal district court in St. Paul, Minn., described “negligence and violations of state consumer fraud laws.”
The lawsuit alleged that the processing services provided to ConAgra by privately held AER Services Inc. fall short of the standards necessary to properly label Hebrew National products as kosher. As a result, the suit alleged, ConAgra is misleading consumers and unfairly benefitted by being able to charge premium prices for the hot dogs.
Famously, the company’s advertising was based on the slogan “We answer to a higher authority” to promote Hebrew National products.
According to the complaint, Hebrew National packages are marked with the so-called “Triangle K” symbol representing that the contents are kosher, “As defined by the most stringent Jews who follow Orthodox Jewish law.”
According to AJW, the plaintiffs stated in the complaint that AER supervisors “did little or nothing” to address employee complaints that the meat processed for ConAgra was non-kosher. They also said Skokie, Ill.-based AER fired or threatened retaliation against the workers who complained to management.
“While we can’t comment on pending litigation, we stand behind the quality of Hebrew National and its kosher status,” said company spokesperson Teresa Paulsen in a statement.
Interestingly, AER Services is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
“The allegations in the complaint regarding AER are completely and utterly false,” Shlomoh Ben-David, AER’s president, said in an interview posted at Ynet.com, a Jewish news site. “There is no basis for them, and they are without any merit.”
More serious than it seems
According to the news stories, the plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages, but they are demanding the court issue an injunction against ConAgra that would halt what was termed “further mislabeling.” The lawsuit seeks class-action status for all U.S. consumers who purchased Hebrew National products over the last four years.
That may strike many people as overkill, but here’s the problem with dismissing such concerns.
As Hart Robinovitch, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, told Ynet.com, “This is an invisible fraud. How does a consumer who thinks he is buying kosher meat really know he is buying kosher meat? It’s a very, very difficult thing for a consumer to detect, unless someone investigates.”
There is truth to that statement, in that virtually all kosher food products are certified by independent companies who employ rabbis on site to assure that all the proper protocols are followed. Most of the products that receive their blessing are marketed to Jews for whom observing kosher strictures is an important part of their faith, and they must have total trust that the kosher services whose authority allows the kosher labeling is absolutely honest.
For ConAgra, Hebrew National hot dogs are marketed at a mainstream audience, non-Jewish consumers who choose kosher not because of the Old Testament but because they perceive “kosher” to mean “quality.”
This little lawsuit, while invisible to mainstream media, is actually quite serious. That’s because every food company that markets kosher products to non-Jewish consumers walks that fine line of implying—but not actually declaring—that their brands are better because they’re kosher.
It’s not illegal, although it’s ethically questionable, but if the certification process loses its integrity, then the product’s entire brand equity also disappears.
For a market leader like Hebrew National, that’s serious business.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.