June 25, 2012

Hebrew National Accused of Being The Wurst

Seller Beware: Consumer Protection Insights for Industry

Nothing says summer in America like a freshly-grilled hot dog and a newly-filed consumer class action case. ConAgra Foods, Inc., maker of Hebrew National brand hot dogs, faces a lawsuit in Minnesota by consumers who claim that its hot dogs were falsely labeled as 100% kosher. The suit, now removed to federal court, claims the meat in Hebrew National hot dogs was not made pursuant to kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws. The plaintiffs seek to represent a class of all U.S. consumers who purchased Hebrew National hot dogs as far back as the statute of limitations will allow.

Under kashrut, kosher meat must be slaughtered by a shochet, who uses a special method of slaughter called "shechita". This involves carefully inspecting the animal to determine whether it is ill or injured. If the cow is in good health, it is killed with a quick incision along the throat with a knife that is sharp and free of nicks. The animal organs must then be inspected, all blood is removed from the meat, and the meat is thoroughly washed.

ConAgra Foods itself does not slaughter cows for its kosher hot dogs. According to the complaint, ConAgra outsources the kosher meat processing and inspection services to AER Services, Inc., who in turn leases meat processing facilities from American Foods Group, LLC. Although the meat is processed at American Foods' facilities, AER hires the shochet who conducts the slaughter and the mashgiach who supervise the process. Another company, Triangle K and Associates, supervises the entire process and certifies Hebrew National's meat as kosher.

The lawsuit against ConAgra Foods alleges that AER employees cut corners and did not observe kosher rules. For example, the lawsuit alleges that the knives often had nicks and that labor shortages did not allow for proper inspection and washing. As a result, the plaintiffs claim that Hebrew National hot dogs were not 100% kosher as claimed in ConAgra Foods' advertisements. The complaint raises claims for negligence, violations of Nebraska's Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act and Consumer Protection Act (ConAgra Foods is headquartered in Nebraska), violation of other states' consumer protection laws, and breaches of express and implied warranties about the hot dogs' kosher status.

In some cases, consumers are not just buying a product, but may also be concerned about the manufacturing process. This extends to consumer goods as well. For example, people paid attention when claims of worker abuse were alleged against Apple's Chinese assembler, Foxconn, because consumers wanted to know that their iPhones and iPads were not contributing to poor working conditions abroad. Even though some of those allegations turned out to be false, Apple responded forcefully to reassure users that it was serious about supplier responsibility.

How a product is made may matter to consumers. Companies responding to suits about their manufacturing process or supply chain will therefore need to coordinate their legal and public relations strategies as they seek to rebut such claims and protect their images.

© Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP 2012 All Rights Reserved. This blog post is intended to be a general summary of the law and does not constitute legal advice. You should consult with counsel to determine applicable legal requirements in a specific fact situation.

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