Answering to a Higher Authority

Wallace v. ConAgra Food, Inc., 2013 WL 375228 (D. Minn. Jan. 31, 2013):

This is an Order granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss this class action lawsuit; accordingly, the facts are as alleged in the operative Complaint.  The defendant produces Hebrew National food products, which are certified as being made from “Premium cuts of 100% Kosher Beef” and bear the Triangle K symbol. The defendant’s website notes that the Triangle K “signifies ‘kashruth’ (kosher) as defined by the most stringent Jews who follow Orthodox Jewish Law.” Plaintiffs alleged that the defendant’s slaughtering and processing did not, in fact, observe the requirements of Triangle K.  Accordingly, the defendant’s advertising and marketing was alleged to be deceptive.  Specifically, the plaintiffs (consumers who alleged injury based on higher prices paid for kosher products) alleged counts for negligence, violation of Nebraska state deceptive trade practices and consumer protection statutes, and breach of contract.

ConAgra moved to dismiss on the ground that any attempt to inquire into its compliance with Triangle K requirements would be barred by the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.  And the court agreed:

The definition of the word “kosher” is intrinsically religious in nature, and this Court may not entertain a lawsuit that will require it to evaluate the veracity of Defendant’s representations that its Hebrew National products meet any such religious standard. Because all of Plaintiffs’ claims derive from Defendant’s alleged misrepresentation that its Hebrew National products are “100% kosher,” all counts of the Amended Complaint are barred by the First Amendment. The Court finds that it lacks the requisite subject matter jurisdiction to preside over this dispute. Therefore, the Amended Complaint is properly dismissed in its entirety.

In other words, the court understood the case to require that it decide what is and what is not kosher, a question that relevant religious authorities have debated for a long, long time.  The court did not understand the case to require that it decide whether or not ConAgra is complying with the certification standards of Triangle K.  Interestingly, the Triangle K mark has been refused registration at the USPTO on grounds of descriptiveness.  The applicant contends that the mark signifies that foods bearing the mark have been certified as kosher.

For more background on the case, see this post and this piece from The Economist (citing, among other sources, work by Tim Lytton at Albany Law School).

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