A Minnesota court is hearing an appeal of a lawsuit arguing that Hebrew National is falsely labeling its products as “100 percent kosher.”
The original lawsuit, filed in May 2012 by 11 plaintiffs claiming fraud and breach of contract, was dismissed in January by U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank on the grounds that the issue is religious in nature and therefore not for the courts to decide.
The appeal of the case, Wallace et al v. ConAgra Foods Inc., was heard in St. Paul on Dec. 19 before a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.
According to the plaintiffs’ brief, ex-employees of AER Services, which did the slaughtering for Hebrew National, testified that they were pressured to certify as kosher at least 70 percent of the beef they slaughtered, according to the American Jewish World, the Minnesota newspaper that broke the original story.
The plaintiffs contend that the U.S. court does not have to resolve any Judaic religious issue, because ConAgra employed a production quota system, where a predetermined percentage of cows would be labeled as kosher.
Anne Regan, attorney for the plaintiffs, told the panel of judges that ConAgra was well aware of the problems with AER, and with Triangle K, the firm that provided the hechsher, or kosher certification, for the meat. She reiterated the argument that the quota undermined ConAgra’s claim that it was producing kosher meat to the highest standards.
Judge James B. Loken pressed his question about what makes meat kosher or not, and suggested that if an animal “wasn’t well enough” to meet a “rabbi’s standard, you can’t go there.” In other words, the U.S. court can’t sort out what constitutes a kosher product.
Regan said that if the case was sent back to the district court, attorneys for the plaintiffs could file discovery motions and try to prove that ConAgra was defrauding consumers. The plaintiffs’ brief noted that consumers view kosher food as the “new organic.”
Judge William Jay Riley, chief judge of the 8th Circuit court, also expressed skepticism about how meat could be considered kosher, if the employees of the kosher slaughtering firm “just passed on the cows.”
AER Services, ConAgra and Triangle K have denied the allegations and blamed disgruntled former employees for trying to sully Hebrew National’s reputation. Their attorneys reiterated their argument that a U.S. court cannot constitute what qualifies as kosher, the American Jewish World reported.
“A secular court simply cannot second guess a religious determination by a religious authority,” said Corey Gordon, representing the defendants.
The judges said they would rule on the appeal “as soon as possible,” the paper said.
JTA and AJWNews content was used in this report.