For years, Hebrew National hot dogs have been marketed with the slogan “We answer to a higher authority.” Their recent television commercials (humorously voiced by the original "Batman," Adam West) tout the product as “100 percent pure kosher beefy.” But the iconic brand now finds itself in hot water.
The company is being sued by 11 customers for false advertising. Put simply, the class-action lawsuit claims the hot dogs are not actually kosher. “The lawsuit contends that ConAgra marketed, labeled and sold Hebrew National according to the strictest standards defined by Orthodox Jews,” lead plaintiffs’ attorney Hart L. Robinovitch told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We allege that it does not meet those standards. We’re certainly not alleging that they’re using pork products, or anything as blatant as that.”
ConAgra, the food conglomerate that produces Hebrew National, contends the lawsuit is without merit. "Hebrew National's kosher status is certified by a well-recognized and authorized third-party. There is close rabbinical supervision of the food preparation process and packaging equipment,” ConAgra said in a statement. “For more than 100 years, Hebrew National has followed strict dietary law, using only specific cuts of beef that meet the highest standards for quality, cleanliness, and safety with no by-products, artificial flavors, or artificial colors.”
Kosher supervision in America is made up of a complex web of hundreds of certifying agencies. Each company has its own unique logo, which is often stamped on kosher products in grocery stores. The Goliath of the bunch, the Orthodox Union (displayed with the popular letter “U” encircled by the letter “O”), is estimated to cover about half of kosher products in America. Some experts estimate the kosher industry to be a $100 million business.
But kosher standards (how meat is slaughtered, how often a rabbi does a factory walk-through) vary wildly among these supervising organizations. Orthodox Jews, who hew to stricter kosher standards than other Jewish denominations, often do not consider products kosher even though they may undergo some sort of kosher supervision — although they usually do accept kosher standards from at least 60 of these organizations.
Hebrew National hot dogs are supervised by Triangle-K, a New York-based kosher company, which has long been looked upon with skepticism for what some Orthodox Jews call lax standards. One complaint often cited is that the Triangle-K’s rabbinic visits are less frequent than other supervising agencies. "It was always a dream that someone would go after them one day," said one kosher industry supervisor, speaking to MNN on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from Triangle-K.
Triangle-K has been supervising Hebrew National products since 2004, when the hot dog maker’s in-house rabbi passed away. Triangle-K has called this latest lawsuit “outrageously false and defamatory.”
Claims that Hebrew National hot dogs were not actually kosher have long percolated in the Jewish community. Rabbi Reuven Stein is director of supervision for the Atlanta Kashruth Commission (AKC), an Orthodox-based nonprofit that supervises close to 150 companies, products, restaurants and event facilities. Each spring, the AKC hosts a Kosher Day at Turner Field where fans of the Atlanta Braves can partake in rabbinically supervised ballpark hot dogs. “Even before this lawsuit, the AKC has not approved Hebrew National for use in any of our facilities,” Stein said.
And a new standard for kosher certification popularized in the last couple of decades — glatt — meant that many Orthodox Jews still wouldn't eat Hebrew National hot dogs even after Triangle-K came onboard.
Rabbi Menachem Genack, the rabbinic administrator for the Orthodox Union, the largest kosher certifying organization in the world, told the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper in a 2004 article about Hebrew National hot dogs that that the O.U. only certifies meat under the new glatt standard, adding that his organization would “probably not” certify a non-glatt operation, if asked to do so. Hebrew National does not claim to be glatt, only kosher. The O.U. declined to comment on the current lawsuit.
Steven I. Weiss, the director of original programming and new media at The Jewish Channel, has spent years as a journalist investigating the kosher industry. He says Hebrew National actually became a preferred brand for the many Orthodox Jews who did not join the glatt movement. “A number of Orthodox rabbis and Jewish leaders specifically endorsed Hebrew National as ‘more kosher’ than various alternatives because it uses a more-humane slaughtering process,” he said.
This is not the first time the kosher meat industry has been mired in controversy. In 2008, federal agents raided the Iowa headquarters of Agriprocessors, the largest kosher meat slaughterhouse in America, for a bevy of indiscretions — including hiring underage workers, falsifying records, writing bad checks and mistreatment of cattle. About 400 illegal workers were also arrested in the raid. The company soon went bankrupt and its CEO, Sholom Rubashkin, was sentenced to 27 years in prison.
As for Hebrew National, the company has until July 13 to respond to the current lawsuit.
Also on MNN: Are hot dogs bad for you?