A year after ConAgra Foods Inc won the dismissal of a lawsuit claiming that its Hebrew National hot dogs were not kosher, a higher authority has given the case new life.
A federal appeals court in St. Paul, Minnesota on Friday said a trial judge erred in dismissing the lawsuit brought by 11 consumers in its entirety on the ground that the First Amendment barred him from addressing the underlying religious questions.
Instead, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found simply that the case did not belong in federal court, and returned it to the Dakota County, Minnesota state court where it began.
ConAgra has long used the slogan "we answer to a higher authority" to promote Hebrew National products. Hebrew National was founded in New York City in 1905, but the original company was sold long ago and manufacturing was moved out of state.
The consumers had sued Omaha, Nebraska-based ConAgra in May 2012 on behalf of a nationwide class they claimed was misled into paying more for Hebrew National products.
They claimed that a meat processor and kosher supervisor Triangle K failed to follow proper religious procedures, and objected to packaging that touted products that "meet a higher standard," being made with "premium cuts of 100 percent kosher beef" and by people who "answer to a higher authority."
The plaintiffs did not claim to keep kosher, but thought they were buying better products that justified higher prices.
ConAgra moved the case to federal court, where it was dismissed in January 2013 by U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank.
He wrote that evaluating whether the products were indeed kosher was a religious question beyond his jurisdiction, and that evaluating certifications by Triangle K "would necessarily intrude upon rabbinical religious autonomy."
Writing for the 8th Circuit, Chief Judge William Jay Riley said the consumers lacked standing to sue in federal court, calling it "pure speculation" that any Hebrew National products they personally bought were tainted by non-kosher beef.
But Riley added that if it becomes clear a lawsuit does not belong in federal court after a defendant such as ConAgra moves it there, then the solution is to return it to the state court where it came from, not to dismiss it altogether.
Frank did not do that, and as a result his "prejudicial dismissal" needed to be reversed, Riley said.
ConAgra spokeswoman Lanie Friedman said: "Although this decision does not conclude the case, we are satisfied with the outcome to date. We continue to stand behind our kosher status. Hebrew National products are kosher, and this lawsuit is without merit."
Anne Regan, a lawyer for the consumers, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
ConAgra's brands include Chef Boyardee, Gulden's, Healthy Choice, Peter Pan and Swiss Miss, among others. They are not part of the lawsuit.