By CHRIS FRY
MORRISTOWN, N.J. (CN) – A Ph.D. in food science claims in court that Pinnacle Foods Group fired him for protesting its “illegal, fraudulent” production policies, telling him that “Pinnacle’s products were ‘trailer park food’ and that if the company were to make those products with good ingredients, the trailer trash would stop liking them.”
Jareer Abu-Ali sued Pinnacle Foods Group and its vice president Stephen Gunther, in Morris County Court. Pinnacle is a Delaware LLC owned by the Blackstone Group, which is not a party to the complaint.
Pinnacle’s products include Aunt Jemima Frozen Breakfast, Bird’s Eye Vegetables, Duncan Hines, Hungry Man, Lender’s Bagels, Log Cabin Syrup, Mrs. Butterworth’s and Vlasic pickles.
Abu-Ali claims Pinnacle hired him in May 2011 and put him in charge of its Vlasic brands.
“Shortly after joining Pinnacle, Dr. Abu-Ali was asked to develop a solution to address the millions of pounds of baby whole pickles that had been stored in salt stock tank storage. The company had spent millions of dollars to acquire and store these pickles which were about a year beyond their shelf life end date,” the complaint states.
It continues: “When Dr. Abu-Ali inquired about the state of the products, he was told that they had failed the company’s liberal specifications for texture and oxidation but that he needed to determine a way for Pinnacle to use the products. He soon confirmed that the products were beyond salvageable and that it would be illegal, improper, and unethical to attempt to use them.
“Dr. Abu-Ali believed that the company’s use of these baby whole pickles would be illegal, fraudulent, involved deception and misrepresentation, and was incompatible with a clear mandate of public policy involving public health, safety, or welfare. Dr. Abu-Ali disclosed his concerns and shared his objections to using the baby whole pickles with Mr. Gunther and Mark Schiller, Pinnacle’s Executive Vice President and Division President. Plaintiff’s concerns were dismissed and he was instructed to figure out a way to use them. Although he did his best to steer the company away from selling the products, the company finally instructed him to transfer the project to Quality Assurance.”
Abu-Ali claims the deception didn’t end there. About a month later, he says, he “was directed to remove 10 percent of the cucumbers being placed in pickle jars.”
He continues: “Upon investigation, Dr. Abu-Ali discovered that Pinnacle was actually already including significantly less product than what was required by its product specifications and what was being represented on its product labels.
“Dr. Abu-Ali shared his findings with Pinnacle plant officials who confirmed that this was indeed true and that for many years the company had instructed to deliberately include 20-25 percent less product in the jars than what was called for in the specifications. In addition, Dr. Abu-Ali learned that this practice had been done with Quality Assurance’s consent and ‘off the books’ after Product Development had objected.”
Abu-Ali claims that these and other “illegal, fraudulent” policies “involved deception and misrepresentation” incompatible with “public health, safety or welfare.”
He says he “provided alternatives to these practices that could enable Pinnacle to realize the same cost savings it sought to achieve by removing cucumbers from the jars.”
“Following the presentation, Mr. Gunther advised Dr. Abu-Ali that he would have to transfer the project to the Quality Assurance group which would now handle the task of identifying the areas where product could be reduced. In addition, Mr. Gunther told Dr. Abu-Ali that he was not to inquire or talk about the issue any further.”
Abu-Ali claims that food quality issues came up again in August 2011, when he received a call from a manager at the company’s Millsboro, Del. plant informing him that a pickle product called Farmer’s Garden, which Pinnacle was developing, “did not taste right.” (22)
Abu-Ali claims he “discovered that the plant had knowingly used expired carrots (over two years old) in the product that were naturally rancid and giving off bad flavor. When Dr. Abu-Ali asked the plant personnel why they were using the expired product, they informed him that it was a common practice and they produced a waiver/variance from Quality Assurance that allowed them to do so. Specifically, the directive was to never to throw away any ingredient.
“Dr. Abu-Ali would later discover that there were significant supplies of expired materials at the plant that had been slated for use and he subsequently ordered their destruction. Unfortunately, he has no confirmation whether the expired ingredients were destroyed and suspects that they may have been used in manufacturing future product.”
Also, he claims, Pinnacle used a jar cap despite his warning that it was prone to rusting, and that he “was criticized for raising the issue so close to launch.” Several weeks later, he says, “the product had to be recalled due to rapid rusting of the caps.”
Sometime after this incident, Abu-Ali claims, he got a call from Pinnacle’s director of meat procurement, Myron Welton, who asked him to approve a shipment of “suspect meat.”
“Dr. Abu-Ali questioned Mr. Welton about the meat and learned that it was old or otherwise damaged and had failed the industry standards for rancidity and Pinnacle’s own standards of quality. Dr. Abu-Ali also learned that the producer could not and would not certify the meat as being ‘fit for human consumption’ and that the producer therefore refused to provide any guarantee or warranty for the meat,” according to the complaint.
Abu-Ali says that when he complained to Gunther, the vice president “told Dr. Abu-Ali that he agreed with his conclusion and directed him to refer the matter to Quality Assurance. Dr. Abu-Ali never found out what happened to this proposed shipment of suspect meat.”
While working on the company’s Cornstock and Wilderness pie filling products, Abu-Ali says, he “noticed a discrepancy on the nutritionals, namely that the vitamin contents for the regular version of the filling had more vitamins than the version that contained more fruit. This was incorrect since these particular vitamins were derived from the fruit. In addition, the nutritional calculations appeared to be random.”
When he spoke up, he says, a company regulatory director told him it was a mistake. “At first, Dr. Abu-Ali believed this to be a mistake. However, when he inquired further he realized that it was not a mistake but rather that the plant had deliberately removed the materials and changed formulas to cut costs, all without changing the labels or the specifications for the products. Dr. Abu-Ali further learned that senior individuals within the company were aware of what was being done,” according to the complaint.
Abu-Ali says he also found that the company’s Imlay City, Mich. plant “had secretly been removing sweetener from a product, which was now at or below the minimal level of solids considered safe in the product. Dr. Abu-Ali further confirmed that the plant and Quality Assurance had been covering this up.” When he reported this to Gunther, he says, Gunther told him that he “should drop it and that he [Gunther] would handle it going forward.”
Abu-Ali claims there were other issues at the Imlay City plant, including “running damaged, moldy, and fermented product,” “allowing high fructose corn syrup to mix in the liquid sucrose used for the product” and “underfilling ingredients.”
“Dr. Abu-Ali also learned that the plant and Quality Assurance were seeking ways to sneak the damaged product out onto the market despite these issues,” according to the complaint.
He claims that Pinnacle also mislabeled its syrup products, claiming that they had half the calories they actually did. He adds: “On some of the main brands, the declared salt content was nearly half of what it actually was.”
He claims that a scientist who formerly had been responsible for syrups but had been moved to production told him, “that these discrepancies had not been missed but rather he had caught them prior to product launch. Nevertheless, upper management had instructed him to move forward with the wrong labels since Pinnacle was trying to gain an advantage against its main competitor which claimed its product had lower calories.”
Abu-Ali claims he developed a new, accurate label for the syrups, but that Gunther “authorized continuing to use the old labels.”
He claims that Pinnacle sent a fraudulent letter to a Costco store claiming that a salad dressing product the store wanted to pull from the shelves was fine to sell, thought there was “a serious issue that made the product illegal to sell.”
He claims Pinnacle misrepresented its financial state, “specifically that there were a large number of savings projections that lacked any basis as well as an absence of records for certain projects.” When he reported this to Gunther, he was told that he “must have made a mistake in his review and calculations,” according to the complaint.
Abu-Ali says he studied the subject again and found similar discrepancies.
“Dr. Abu-Ali believed that this practice was illegal, fraudulent, and involved deception and misrepresentation,” the complaint states. “When he disclosed this finding and objected to this practice, Mr. Gunther became upset with Dr. Abu-Ali and shared that individuals in the Procurement group had complained about Dr. Abu-Ali’s ‘style’ and that he needed to start getting along with them and align with them on the numbers.”
In the 23-page complaint, Abu-Ali cites a number of other problems, and says that after Pinnacle grew tired of complaints, it demoted him.
He says he told his bosses “that he would not accept the demotion.”
Whereupon, he says, Pinnacle executive vice president Mark Schiller told him “that he was very smart and creative but that ‘he had higher standards than the organization and that was the problem.'”
He claims: “Dr. Abu-Ali had heard throughout his tenure at Pinnacle from marketing directors and vice presidents that Pinnacle’s products were ‘trailer park food’ and that if the company were to make those products with good ingredients the ‘trailer trash’ would stop liking them.”
Abu-Ali says he was fired after refusing to accept the demotion.
He seeks punitive damages for wrongful firing and violations of the state’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act.
He is represented by Damian Shammas of Morristown.
Pinnacle Foods states on its website claims that “Our trusted brands can be found in more than 85 percent of American households.”
The discipline of food science developed rapidly after World War II, when the U.S. Army sought better ways of feeding the troops. Food scientists, heavily funded at first by Uncle Sam, developed new ways to preserve food, such as freeze-drying, and began unraveling the chemistry of flavors.
California’s wine industry developed into a multibillion-dollar, world-class business after food scientists, above all Maynard Amerine at the University of California at Davis, applied mass production, sterilization and quality-control methods used in the dairy industry to wines.