Holy wars and hot dogs

Religious squabbling in the booming business of kosher sausages

Hot dogs in hot dog eating contest. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hot dogs in hot dog eating contest.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
My kids tell me it’s pretty hard to get a decent kosher hot dog in Israel, which I find hard to understand.
Hot dogs may be as American as apple pie on the Fourth of July, but they are also consumed around the world, from Australia to Zambia, and have become a major part of the increasingly capitalistic fast-food business in communist China and Russia. Nowadays making and marketing hot dogs is a $4 billion-a-year business. In the United States alone we chomp into more than 20 billion of them a year, some 818 every second from Memorial Day to Labor Day according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. (Yes, there is actually such a group, which also lists even more arcane trivia, such as that Los Angeles residents eat more hot dogs than any other city but that Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport sells more than six times as many as L.A. International and LaGuardia combined.) A big bite of the industry caters to the kosher hot-dog consumer (only a quarter of whom are Jewish), and that number is growing at twice the rate of all other kosher foods.
A question that seldom gets asked, except in Orthodox Jewish circles, is, are kosher hot dogs really kosher? Although they contain no pork, virtually everything else about them is argued with religious fervor. Little wonder, then, that the controversy surrounding the Hebrew National brand – which was rated by Consumer Reports as the best in overall quality of all the hot dogs it last taste-tested – is mushrooming by the day. Oscar Mayer, the world’s largest producer of hot dogs, came in eighth. The other major kosher brands vying with Hebrew National for the top-dog title (oy) are Aaron’s Best, Abeles & Heymann, Fairway All American, Jacks Gourmet Kosher Cured Bratwurst, Lower East Side Premium and Real Kosher.
One of the oldest forms of processed foods, it’s not easy to say from whence the wiener. The common sausage can be traced as far back as the Roman Empire, and evolved into later incarnations as frankfurters, franks, weenies, red hots. The origin of the term “hot dog” remains in some dispute. Visitors to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago consumed large quantities of sausage or “dachshund” sandwiches, which in the same year became the standard fare at baseball parks. They were also current at Yale as early as 1894, when “dog wagons” sold them at the dorms – the name a sarcastic comment on where the meat came from. “A hot dog is a cartridge filled with the sweepings of abattoirs,” wrote H. L. Mencken, who said he first tasted one in 1886.
That was almost a decade before the Hebrew National Kosher Sausage Factory was born in Brooklyn to service New York’s numerous delicatessens in predominantly Eastern-European Jewish immigrant neighborhoods.
By the middle of the twentieth century, Hebrew National had become the largest, most recognized kosher brand in the United States.
In 1975, the company launched its famous “We Answer to a Higher Authority” advertising campaign, a slogan that sold the concept of kosher as if it were an imprimatur of quality. In the process, of course, Hebrew National’s reputation for using pure beef without artificial colorings or flavorings was duly enhanced.
The dramatic increase in sales that followed was not lost on the larger business community. In 1993, the food conglomerate ConAgra bought the company and relocated it in 2004 to a state-of-the-art kosher processing plant in Quincy, Michigan. While that facility may have been cutting-edge, however, it did not seem to impress yeshiva-educated elements of the Orthodox Jewish community. It is a subject of some fascination that many Orthodox Jews wouldn’t touch a Hebrew National hot dog with a 10-foot skewer.
The underlying reason for this irony is a hodgepodge of religious rulings and rabbinic infighting – power, profits and politics – much of which is as juicy and spicy as what goes into the common sausage. More than one observant rabbi has frankly suggested that today’s kosher standards are “two percent religious rules and 98% ego and money and politics” – which might explain why many of the people whom the author interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity. One of them was a small kosher caterer who said, “You’ll never get the full skinny on kosher supervision,” intimating the prevailing business ethic that political and monetary considerations trump candor.
The same year Hebrew National moved to its new Conagra plant it decided to change from its longtime in-house kosher quality control to an independent supervisory authority. It chose the Triangle K, whose major American brands already included Sunmaid, Minute Maid, Wonder Bread, Del Monte, Frito-Lay, Mogen-David, Birds Eye, Ocean Spray, Hawaiian Punch, and Mott’s. As a meat processor, though, Hebrew National presented the agency with much more complicated logistics challenges. To keep the supply of meat rolling would require four slaughtering houses, one salting facility and a central processing plant – all under round-the-clock rabbinical supervision. It took the Triangle K’s rabbinic leader, Aryeh Ralbag, two years to set up Triangle K’s certification process for Hebrew National.
Nevertheless the strictly Orthodox dogma about Hebrew National was that it had become too large an operation to be adequately inspected – and, moreover, that its product is not “glatt kosher.” The term is used to describe a more complicated (and more expensive) form of rabbinical supervision that requires the lungs of a ritually slaughtered animal to be carefully scrutinized for imperfections and declared perfectly smooth (glatt). This has become a subject of considerable controversy – all the more so because a number of knowledgeable rabbis feel that the term “glatt” has been diluted to the point that it is nowadays much more a marketing tool than a guarantee of superior purity. Relatively few animals, in fact, truly meet the original standard.
Such a view was adopted by none other than the late Moshe Feinstein, widely revered as the preeminent decisor of Jewish law in the twentieth century. Although some regard his rulings as too lenient, he apparently didn’t see himself that way. “Do they want me to decide in error? I’m not lenient, I decide the law as it is,” he said. According to Moshe Tendler, his son-on-law, Rabbi Feinstein “refused to buy meat from the glatt butcher.”
In fact the term continues to mean different things to different people.
“What’s glatt in Cleveland might not be glatt in Baltimore,” according to one Orthodox kosher inspector who works for several certification organizations and who requested anonymity. Moreover, there are many Orthodox Jews – especially in smaller Jewish communities around the country – who do not limit themselves to glatt meat but still consider themselves strictly kosher. The Orthodox Union once certified both glatt and non-glatt meat, but in the 1970s “market conditions” caused the organization to limit its supervision only to the former.
“I’d love to make Hebrew National all glatt kosher,” says Rabbi Ralbag, “but there simply isn’t a large enough supply of meat in the world that would satisfy the traditional truly glatt standard and demand.”
Responding to the other naysayers, he makes the point that “all of our supervisors are carefully selected, scrutinized and regularly tested for their knowledge of constantly changing technology. They are all God-fearing men who learn every night; all are well-paid and work three-day weeks, with substantial rest periods.”
Meanwhile the glatt appellation has evolved into a marketing tool, the term now applied to all manner of foods having nothing whatever to do with smooth lungs in kosher cattle. Although technically there is no such thing as glatt-kosher chicken, fish, lamb, or dairy product, such mislabeling is commonplace. Thus can contemporary consumers see a “Glatt Kosher” label on everything from chickens to airline meals that contain no meat, from pizza (“Glatt Dairy”) to fruits and vegetables (“Glatt Parve”).
SOON AFTEr Hebrew National switched to Triangle K, the Jewish newspaper The Forward editorialized that, although the stricter glatt standards “could help put an end to the string of urban legends and sordid explanations for why Orthodox Jews won’t consume [Hebrew National’s products], for a variety of sociological and religious reasons, the decisions are unlikely to translate into a significant increase in sales.” That prediction has proven largely accurate.
Although the top lawmaking body of the Conservative movement issued its seal of approval for Hebrew National products, the number of Conservative customers account for only a small share of the kosher market. Orthodox Jews continued to stay away in droves, for reasons that appear to be largely bound up in rumor, innuendo and ambiguity.
There’s no clear empirical data to support why many ostensibly strict adherents to the dietary laws consider Triangle K to be “unreliable.”
Kosher food processors can also run afoul of their own employees. In May of 2012 ConAgra Foods was sued by a group of former workers, who alleged that the slaughtering floor at a major Hebrew National plant fell short of the standards necessary to be called kosher. According to the complaint, packages with a “Triangle K” symbol represent that the contents are kosher “as defined by the most stringent Jews who follow Orthodox Jewish law.” As a result, said the plaintiffs, ConAgra not only misled consumers but charged premium prices.
“This is an invisible fraud,” said a lawyer for the plaintiffs. “How does a consumer who thinks he is buying kosher meat really know he is buying kosher meat? It’s a very, very difficult thing for a consumer to detect, unless someone investigates.”
ConAgra moved to dismiss the suit. The word kosher is “exclusively a matter of Jewish religious doctrine,” it argued, and under the First Amendment “federal courts may not adjudicate disputes that turn on religious teachings, doctrine and practice.”
In early 2013 a federal court in Minnesota agreed, ruling that because kosher is a religious standard it is a subject for rabbinic debate – not a judicial ruling. The case was revived in April 2014 when the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it did not belong in federal court, and returned it to the Minnesota state court where it began. Five months later the Dakota County District Court granted a motion to dismiss the suit.
“It would be unholy, indeed,” wrote Judge Jerome Abrams in a 43-page decision, “for this or any other court to substitute its judgment on this purely religious question. [The Jewish dietary rules] have been around since time immemorial.... These laws have been debated for millennia by religious scholars, and as argued at the hearing, continue to be debated....
No court in the land can pick a side, interpretation or point of view as to whether those religious requirements are met or unmet in these circumstances.”
Civil courts are not alone in declining to have the last word on what’s kosher and what’s not. A spokesperson for the OU said that “we do not comment on other kosher certifications.” The response was different, however, from the “Kosher Hotline” of the Baltimore-based Star-K agency: “You should not eat Hebrew National.” When asked why, the woman manning the hotline said the Triangle K “is not considered reliable.”
The typical onus placed by Star-K and others on products they deem non-kosher is “Not Recommended” – a term ostensibly used to avoid corporate lawsuits for restraint of trade or defamation of trademark. But consumers relying on such agencies will stay away from “not recommended” purveyors or caterers like the plague. They also are influenced when supervisors take out advertisements in local newspapers declaring that a business is “no longer under our supervision” – without specifying the reasons why or noting that another agency has assumed the certification.
The stigma has already stuck, and tends to stay.
Rabbi Aron Abadi, who publishes an influential website on the dietary laws, speaks bluntly about the multimillion-dollar kosher supervision business: “You want to do business in this industry, you need to follow the rules of the ‘Kosher Mafia.’ Most are just businesses with a touch of religion. Just enough to use it to bully us into following their program.
Ask anyone in the food industry. They know.”
Abadi is likewise dismissive of the case against Hebrew National.
“As long as Rabbi Ralbag or any of his sons are involved there, you can be sure it is no problem. They never wanted [Rabbi Ralbag] to succeed in the kosher industry. This is an old war.”
Indeed it is. Various Orthodox authorities have long cast a negative eye on the Triangle K. Ultimately, it becomes a matter of consumer trust.
But trustworthiness can be very subjective. The OU and Star-K have had numerous disputes over specific products. Each, for example, has had a policy prohibiting caterers under its supervision from using meats certified by the other. Fans of kosher hot dogs might find this policy particularly egregious. Caterers under Star-K are currently forbidden to serve several brands of hot dogs that are under OU supervision.
Strictly kosher consumers who might have a hankering for sauerkraut on their hot dogs are not immune from the internecine squabbles among the supervising agencies. Star-K also bans sauerkraut marketed with the OU seal. Consumers calling the Star-K’s kosher hotline are told that “we don’t have information” on those products. When asked if they can be used, the receptionist says, “I guess not. We don’t recommend them.”
As far as I can tell, though, few Israelis contact the Star-K for recommendations on kashrut. So why do we have to stuff our suitcases with American-made sausages whenever we visit our kids in Israel? Why are good hot dogs so hard to come by in the Holy Land? The author is a law professor at the University of Baltimore. This article is excerpted from his forthcoming book, Sacred Cows, Holy Wars, to be published this spring.