(Editor’s note: This is a revised version of a story that was posted on AJWNEWS.com on June 13. That story broke the news of the class action lawsuit against ConAgra/Hebrew National.)
By MORDECAI SPECKTOR
A lawsuit filed in May alleges that Hebrew National, the famous manufacturer of hot dogs and other products sold 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 Services, Inc., 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 — Melvin Wallace, et al. vs. ConAgra Foods, Inc., 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 several of its facilities — including the Dakota Premium Foods plant in South St. Paul — “to be slaughtered, inspected and certified.”
Both Triangle K and AER have denied the allegations in the lawsuit.
On the Web site of the American Jewish World last week, an article was posted that described the lawsuit against Hebrew National, and also included some background information based on the AJW’s reporting. In an unusual occurrence, on Monday, 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.
The letter from Puklich and the draft copy of the lawsuit — which names this writer and Minnesota Jewish Media, LLC, doing business as the American Jewish World, as defendants — apparently also were sent out to other news outlets, including JTA. The documents appeared Monday on the Failed Messiah Web site.
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 class action 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 moved the class action complaint to the federal court in St. Paul. Robinovitch, who is a partner in the Zimmerman Reed law firm, of Minneapolis, 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.
On Monday, Robinovitch told the AJW that ConAgra must respond to the lawsuit, which is before U.S. District Judge Donovan W. Frank, by July 13. ConAgra could file an answer to the allegations in the complaint, or file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Robinovitch explained, and added that there could be pretrial hearings where witnesses would testify in open court about the allegations in the lawsuit.
Regarding the substance of the complaint, Robinovitch said: “Don’t get me wrong here: We’re not saying that [Hebrew National is] 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).
The class action complaint lists various deficiencies in the kosher slaughtering process under the purview of AER and the Triangle K supervisors. The lawsuit charges, among other things, that “unclean cows” were slaughtered; knives with nicked blades were used in the slaughtering process, “due to time, quota pressures” and labor shortages; and the organs of animals were not “consistently inspected after the slaughter,” in a way consonant with kosher practices.
The lawsuit alleges that because of the “transgressions and the unreliability of the kosher certifications on meat regularly processed at AFG facilities for sale to [CongAgra/Hebrew National], AER workers at certain AFG facilities, including the South St. Paul, Minn., facility, who actually kept kosher, would not consume Hebrew National products. Instead, workers were permitted to have specific cows slaughtered, marked and segregated in a more exact fashion for their families’ personal consumption. The plant offered these workers the opportunity to purchase this meat. Thus, specifically selected cows would be slaughtered and checked in strict accordance with all kosher laws, unlike the cows that were routinely slaughtered for sale to [ConAgra] and use in Hebrew National products….”
In a JTA story released on Tuesday, as the AJW was going to press, AER said that this allegation “is misleading. According to AER, employees who eat only glatt kosher were provided meat to comply with their personal preferences.”
The JTA story, by Debra Rubin, added: “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.”
Robinovitch would not say how many AER employees he has spoken with or who they are — he said that was “privileged” information. He allowed that his firm did their “due diligence” and spoke with people doing the slaughtering at the 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 shortcomings in the kosher slaughtering procedures. It has been difficult to write a conclusive story up to this point, 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 come to the Midwest and work as kosher slaughterers (shochtim) and checkers (bodekim). One such person, an Israeli shochet, 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. Both photo IDs identified him as “Rabbi.” AER also did kosher slaughter at plants in Green Bay, Wisc., and in Nebraska.
The Israeli employee 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.
On this latter point, Shlomoh Ben-David, the proprietor of AER Services, spoke late last week to Shmarya Rosenberg, who runs the Web site called Failed Messiah. Rosenberg reported that Ben-David “pointed out that Israeli tax law allows Israelis working overseas to get $100 in per diem. That money is not taxed. And it is that money [Ben-David] says was paid to the family of the schochet in the American Jewish World story.
“I asked him about the legality of this arrangement vis-Ã -vis the IRS, and he told me that his attorney had approved it and promised more documentation early next week.”
The AJW is investigating the legality of this type of compensation arrangement.
Hart Robinovitch explained that the 11 named 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 whoever the court determines deserves money back.
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.
Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag, the Triangle K supervisor, sent an e-mail to the Jewish World and called last week’s online story “false and slanderous.”
Ralbag’s e-mail stated: “Let me emphatically state that we thoroughly investigate and seriously look into, any and all Kashrus complaints which come to our attention. Over the years, we have enacted various precautions, regulations, and enhancements, to insure the Kashrus of the Hebrew National brand. This includes unexpected oral tests and exams of the Halachic material required to be mastered, and the constant scrutiny of the level of piety and fear-of-heaven of our slaughterers and lung inspectors. Anyone found not to be up-to-par with our standards, has been terminated. All these are documented facts. Clearly these lies are coming from persons found to be below-par, and consequently were duly removed.”
The e-mail concluded: “These disgruntled and frustrated workers are now attempting to make themselves righteous, by making bogus Kashrus claims. We strongly stand behind our Triangle K Kashrus symbol, on the Hebrew National brand, to be 100 percent strictly Kosher.”
Likewise, AER Services branded the allegations in the class action lawsuit about its transgressions as coming from “certain individuals” who were terminated from their employment with AER “as a result of their disregard and violation of the rabbinical supervision’s rules and procedures as well as directives enacted by the Company.” AER stated that the allegations come from “certain embittered former employees with their own personal agenda of retaliation.”
AER stated that the company is “committed to defending itself against all false allegations and remains confident and prepared to initiate and/or respond in a court of law to protect the Company’s name.”
The AER statement was posted on the Web site of MSP Kosher, which supervises local kosher facilities and products, including the kosher hot dog stand at Target Field. Rabbi Avi Olitzsky, of Beth El Synagogue, is the firm’s kosher supervisor. The MSP Web site stated: “We at MSP Kosher stand behind Hebrew National and its Kosher status until it is proven otherwise.”
The Conservative movement accepts Triangle K’s kashrut certification.
(American Jewish World, 6.22.12)