Hebrew National & Kosher Politics
What’s kosher about answering to a higher authority?
Kenneth Lasson • Baltimore Jewish Times
“No one should see how laws or sausages are made.”
— Otto von Bismarck
Barbecued hot dogs are as American as apple pie on the Fourth of July — and as universal, for that matter, as Israeli cookouts on Yom Ha’atzmaut or Lag B’Omer. In fact, they’re 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.
But nowhere are as many hot dogs eaten as in the United States. We bite 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 & Sausage Council. (Yes, there is such a group, which also lists things like the biggest hot dog-selling cities — Baltimore/Washington is third behind New York and Los Angeles — as well as even more arcane trivia.)
It’s a $4 billion-a-year business, a large share of which is the kosher dog market (preferred by 6 million Americans, according to the NHD&SC, only a quarter of whom are Jewish). And that number is growing at twice the rate of consumption of all other kosher foods.
Little wonder, then, that the controversy surrounding the Hebrew National brand — which was recently rated by Consumer Reports as the best in overall quality among all hot dogs (Oscar Mayer, the largest producer, came in eighth) — is mushrooming by the day.
But the most fascinating fact may be that many Orthodox Jews will not eat any Hebrew National meat products. The underlying reasons for this irony are a hodgepodge of Halachah (Jewish law) and rabbinic infighting — power, profits and politics — much of it as juicy and spicy as what goes into the common sausage.
Here’s the story, in a variety of casings.
From Whence the Wiener?
One of the oldest forms of processed food, the common sausage can be traced as far back as the Roman Empire. (It was mentioned in Homer’s “Odyssey” in the ninth century B.C.)
According to food historians, the edible “dachshund” or “little dog” was created in the late 1600s by Johann Georghehner, a butcher in Coburg, Germany, who later traveled to Frankfurt-am-Mein to promote it. (In 1987, Frankfurt celebrated the 500th birthday of the frankfurter in that city, although the good burghers of Vienna (Wien), Austria, point to the term “wiener” as proof of the concoction’s true birthplace.)
Bruce Kraig, a professor emeritus in history and humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago, writes that although many lay claim to the hot dog roll as their own invention, it is likely the Germans introduced the practice of first eating their dachshund sausages on warmed buns.
The American version probably made its first appearance in the 1860s, when German immigrants sold sausages with milk rolls and sauerkraut from pushcarts in New York City’s Bowery neighborhood.
In 1871, Charles Feltman, a German butcher, opened up the first Coney Island stand, selling some 3,684 dachshund sausages in rolls during his first year in business. (Nathan’s Famous Frankfurters, which didn’t start until 1916, sold more than 360 million in 2008.)
Another German peddler named Antonoine Feuchtwanger began selling hot frankfurters during the St. Louis “Louisiana Purchase Exposition” in 1904. He provided a white glove with each purchase so that his customers’ hands would not be burned. His wife suggested that he cut costs by putting the sausages in an elongated bun, which his brother-in-law, a baker, dutifully supplied.
The origin of the term “hot dog” is in some dispute. Visitors to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago consumed large quantities of the sausage 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,” H. L. Mencken said years later. “I devoured them in Baltimore way back in 1886, and they were then very far from newfangled.”)
Various urban legends link the first hot dogs to baseball games — at either Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis (home of the Browns) or the Polo Grounds in New York. The latter is said to be where a sports cartoonist named Tad Dorgan was covering a Giants game there on a cold day in 1902, when he heard a vendor cry out, “Get your dachshund sausages while they’re red hot!” He hastily sketched some barking dachshunds tucked into warm rolls and captioned the drawing with a simpler reference to “hot dogs.” The cartoon, however, has never been found — so the story might be little more than, well, baloney.
Answering To A Higher Authority
A true immigrant success story, the Hebrew National saga began in 1905, in a six-story walk-up on East Broadway in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
The Hebrew National Kosher Sausage Factory processed kosher meats for New York’s numerous delicatessens. In 1928, a Romanian immigrant butcher named Isadore Pinckowitz (later Pines), who had begun peddling meat from the back of a horse-drawn wagon, bought the Hebrew National plant and landed a contract with Waldbaum’s, the city’s largest grocery chain catering to Jewish households.
At first primarily aimed at the growing number of Eastern European Jews filtering through Ellis Island, the company gradually expanded its product line and consumer base. In 1935, Isadore’s son, Leonard, took over the business and began to take advantage of the newly booming supermarkets. By the middle of the 20th century, Hebrew National had become the largest, most recognized kosher brand in the United States.
In 1965, the company launched its famous “We Answer to a Higher Authority” advertising campaign. The slogan quickly achieved its purpose, morphing into a symbol for quality and appealing to both Jews and non-Jews alike. After a series of corporate buyouts, Hebrew National became National Foods and moved its headquarters and distribution center to a large processing plant in Indianapolis.
In 1993, National Foods was acquired by huge food conglomerate ConAgra, which sought to capitalize on the Hebrew National reputation for using pure beef and disdaining artificial coloring and flavoring additives. By now, Skip Pines, Leonard’s son, had taken over. In 2004, Hebrew National closed the Indianapolis operation and moved into a state-of-the-art kosher processing plant in Quincy, Mich.
Today, with a work force of 500 people in the U.S., Hebrew National is the largest kosher meat processor in the world, producing 720 million hot dogs a year. It’s the leading brand in Baltimore, San Diego, Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Denver and San Francisco.
Although Hebrew National also makes salami, bologna, knackwurst, polish sausage, deli meats — even its own brand of sauerkraut and mustard — it’s best known for its beef franks, which do a big business at ballparks around the country. Most of the hot dogs sold by Aramark, the Orioles concessionaire, are the Esskay brand (up to 15,000 at a single game and an estimated 750,000 a season), but Hebrew National dogs are also available at the concession stands (where they’re cooked on non-kosher grills).
Don’t look for them, though, at the kosher stand at Camden Yards; never have been there, probably never will be.
The Politics of Kashrut
More than one prominent Orthodox rabbi has suggested that modern kashrut “is 2 percent Halachah and 98 percent ego and money and politics,” which might explain why many of the people interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity.
Over the past half-century, kosher certification has become big business, and is not limited to food processing. The largest among them, certifying close to a half-million products, is the Orthodox Union. But there are at least a hundred other companies, many of them privately owned and operated, each with its own distinctive symbol, offering supervision for a price.
They come in all shapes (Circle K, Diamond K, Heart K, Triangle K) and from far and wide (California K, Florida K, Earth K). They apply their seals of approval to everything from hidden ingredients that need supervision (like chemicals and colorings) to products that, according to most rabbinic authorities, don’t (like aluminum foil, bottled water and peaches). They cover specialty confection stores (like the local Cinnabon in Towson Town Center) to franchises of international restaurant chains (like the two Dunkin’ Donuts and a Subway sandwich shop on Reisterstown Road).
Kosher meat is probably the most complicated food to supervise, with the simple strictures provided in the Torah to the detailed practices and processes interpreted and promulgated by rabbinic scholars over the centuries. Although disputes among Orthodox authorities about precise interpretations of halachic parameters have existed for ages, most will agree that there is a well-defined objective standard. Meat below this baseline is un-kosher; above it, kosher.
By the 1930s in Baltimore alone, there were more than 300 kosher butchers — at least, they called themselves kosher. According to a recent article by Rabbi Dovid Katz, a respected historian, this was also “a golden era for cheaters” — so much so that the local rabbis took out an ad in the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES appealing to Jewish housewives not to rely on the Hebrew sign on a butcher shop that read “Kosher.”
At the bottom of the notice was a message in Yiddish: “Koift nisht fun die chislers!” (“Don’t buy from the cheaters!”). In one incident, “genuine” kosher hot dogs were imported from New York and widely consumed, until it was discovered that they were not kosher at all.
In fact, there seemed to be a never-ending series of kashrut scandals at the time, many involving leading rabbis. Much of this was reported in the New York Times and later catalogued in a book by Harold Gastwirt titled “Fraud, Corruption, and Holiness: The Controversy Over The Supervision of Jewish Dietary Practice in New York City, 1881-1940,” which is a kosher version of Upton Sinclair’s classic 1906 muckraking of the meatpacking industry, “The Jungle.”
Which kosher supervision is considered the most reliable? It’s hard to get a definitive answer from anyone who has a stake in the business — but most will agree that what it boils down to is a matter of trust. The faith that many strictly Orthodox kosher consumers rely upon is that vested in their local rabbis, many of whom in turn appear to be more subject to peer pressure than knowledgeable about the technicalities of kashrut.
It’s been five years since Hebrew National decided to change from its longtime in-house kosher quality control to an independent supervisory authority. It chose the Triangle K, under the direction of the Ralbag family, to put into place the strict standards required by Halachah.
Rabbi Jehoseph H. Ralbag, the chief kosher supervisor of the organization, was born in Jerusalem, where he studied at the Yeshivas Etz Chaim and Merkaz Harav. For the credential-minded — who seem to make up a large part of the observant Orthodox community — he is proud to note that he received rabbinical ordination “with the highest honors (Yore Yore Yodin Yodin),” by the most pious rabbis of the Holy Land: Rabbi Iser Zalman Meltzer (rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Etz Chaim); Rabbi Yacov Moshe Charlap (rosh yeshiva of Merkaz Harav); and Rabbi Hirsh Pesach Frank (chief rabbi of Jerusalem).
Rabbi Ralbag is presently the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Israel in New York City. He is the author of the “Sefer Imre Yehosef,” a scholarly book on Jewish law, and has published numerous articles on various Torah subjects. He is also the kashrut consultant of the magazine The Synagogue Light, and is an executive member of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada.
The everyday operations of Triangle K Kosher Supervision and Certification are currently overseen by Rabbi Aryeh L. Ralbag and his two sons (Rabbis Eliezer and Tzvi Ralbag). Like his father, Aryeh Ralbag received a high-order ordination in Jerusalem. He heads the beit din (rabbinical court) on the Agudath HaRabbonim, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, and is also chief rabbi of the Orthodox community in Amsterdam.
Of the major brands under Triangle K supervision (which include Sunmaid, Minute Maid, Wonder Bread, Del Monte, Frito-Lay, Mogen-David, Birds Eye, Ocean Spray, Hawaiian Punch and Mott’s), Hebrew National is easily the most complicated.
It took Rabbi Ralbag two years to set up Triangle K’s certification process for Hebrew National. It’s a huge operation. To keep the supply of meat flowing requires four slaughtering houses, one salting facility and a central processing plant — all under round-the-clock rabbinical supervision.
“Our mashgichim [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,” he said.
Soon after Triangle K took over in 2004, the top lawmaking body of the Conservative movement issued its seal of approval for all Hebrew National meat products. The decision was supposed to have a large impact on religiously observant Conservative Jews, especially those living in smaller communities with limited access to kosher food.
Orthodox Jews, however, continued to stay away in droves, for reasons that remain unclear but appear to be largely bound up in rumor, innuendo and ambiguity. Many ostensible adherents to strict Halachah consider Triangle K to be “unreliable.”
Others refrain from buying Hebrew National because its meat is not “glatt kosher.” That term is used to describe a more expensive and complicated form of rabbinical supervision that requires the lungs of a ritually slaughtered animal to be carefully scrutinized for any imperfections.
If none are found, the animal is considered “glatt.” Minor imperfections, however, do not render it unkosher. This, too, is a subject of some controversy.
A number of rabbinic experts feel that the term glatt is overused — that is, relatively few animals truly meet the standard, which has become more a marketing tool than guarantee of superior purity.
Rabbi Yitzchak Abadi, who studied in Lakewood, N.J., under the famed Rabbi Aaron Kotler and was once the exclusive halachic authority in the Haredi (fervently observant) stronghold of Lakewood, N.J., founded a popular Web site called kashrut.org . Rabbi Abadi’s son, Aharon, who now runs the Web site, declared that Hebrew National’s meat “is certainly kosher for all who do not eat only glatt.”
Although it is preferable to eat glatt when available, says Rabbi Abadi, it is a chumrah, a voluntarily accepted restriction. Those who don’t limit themselves to glatt are still keeping kosher.
At the time 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 accurate.
The number of Conservative customers account for only a small share of the kosher market. For many of the Orthodox, the main problem remains that Hebrew National is not glatt kosher.
Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the Orthodox Union’s kashrut department, told The Forward that while the OU once certified both glatt and non-glatt meat, in the 1970s “market conditions” caused the organization to limit its supervision only to the former.
But glatt continues to mean different things to different people.
“What’s glatt in Cleveland might not be glatt in Baltimore,” says Rabbi Don Moskovitz, a locally based mashgiach who works for several kosher certification organizations. Moreover, there are many Orthodox Jews — especially in smaller Jewish communities around the country — who do not limit themselves to glatt kosher meat but still consider themselves strictly kosher.
“Many people follow the higher glatt standard,” says Rabbi Moskovitz, “but there’s nothing wrong with Rabbi Ralbag’s hashgachah [endorsement] on meat. Hebrew National has to overcome some problems with its historical reputation.” He adds that he’s more concerned with the kashrut of everyday milk than he is about people eating Hebrew National.
“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.”
Queried about the kashrus of Hebrew National, a spokesperson for the OU said that “we do not comment on other kosher certifications.”
The response was different, however, from the “Kashrus Hotline” of the Baltimore-based Star-K organization. “You should not eat Hebrew National.” When asked why, she said the Triangle K “is not considered reliable.”
Rabbi Aharon Abadi 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 ‘Kashrut Mafia,’” he said. “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. Try getting an outside hashgachah in an area that is already someone’s turf.”
As to Triangle K, Rabbi Abadi wrote on the kashrut.org Web site, “Rabbi Ralbag is a G-d-fearing man and if he says it’s kosher, you sure can eat it. I can’t say the same for many of the other labels out there.”
“Do you remember when Drakes [a widely marketed brand of snack cakes] was under Rabbi Ralbag?” asked Rabbi Abadi. “It was treife [unkosher] according to some of these guys. Then the establishment organization got the account, now it’s kosher. Do you think they went out and kashered the whole plant, changed all the ingredients and so on? Please!”
According to Rabbi Ralbag, various Orthodox authorities summarily banned Coca-Cola when it was supervised by Triangle K in the early 1990s — but immediately accepted it as kosher the moment it was taken over by the OU (without any change in formula or processing). He says that Triangle K follows the traditional rules set down in the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law, and that its seal of approval is accepted categorically by the chief rabbi of Israel, where a large number of its products are widely distributed.
No Full Skinny
One local caterer who requested anonymity said, “You’ll never get the full skinny on kashrut supervision” — intimating that political and monetary considerations are paramount to candor.
Trustworthiness can be very subjective. The same Orthodox Baltimoreans who believe that Triangle K is not reliable because of past indiscretions broadly accept Star-K, even though it once certified a local non-Jewish caterer that served treife food on a “kosher” cruise.
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 two brands of miniature hot-dogs-in-blankets, as well as 999 kosher hot dogs, all under the OU.
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.”)
For his part, Rabbi Ralbag has nothing negative to say about other kosher authorities. Instead, he refers obliquely to those who do with an old quote: “I think it’s sometimes more important what comes out of someone’s mouth than what goes into it.”
Kenneth Lasson, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, is a frequent contributor to the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES.