Sunday, July 04, 2010

Hebrew National Hot Dogs: Questioning Higher Authority

A 2004 article in the Jewish Daily Forward proclaimed that "Hebrew National became the unchallenged king of the kosher meat industry by marketing its product to non-Jews with the help of several catchy advertising slogans, including the famous, 'We answer to a higher authority.' But its success masked a bizarre twist: Most kosher consumers won’t eat the company‘s products."

The article went on to explain that following the death of Hebrew National's in-house Rabbi Tibor Stern and the decision to get kosher supervision from the Orthodox Triangle K, under the auspices of Aryeh Ralbag, the company is regaining the confidence of the Orthodox community.

In my final year as a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, I sat in on a discussion of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which ruled that it would approve Hebrew National meat products. The Forward article stated that "Members of the committee say the decision will have a large impact on religiously observant Conservative Jews, especially those living in smaller communities with limited access to kosher food. Law Committee members said that the status of Hebrew National is one of the most common questions they field regarding kashrut. Due to the perceived significance of the question, the committee veered from its recent policy of not issuing statements on the acceptability of various kosher certification agencies for fear of law suits."

Sue Fishkoff, in a New York Times op-ed (Red, White and Kosher) yesterday, took on the issue of Hebrew National's kosher acceptance. Of course, Fishkoff's timing was perfect since it is 4th of July weekend when millions of families will be grilling hot dogs.

What I liked most about her op-ed was her explanation of why Kosher is the fastest-growing segment of the domestic food industry. She writes:
Today, a majority of Americans believe that kosher food is safer, healthier, better in general than non-kosher food. And they’re willing to pay more for it. Kosher is the fastest-growing segment of the domestic food industry, with bigger sales than organic. One-third to one-half of the food in American supermarkets is kosher-certified, representing more than $200 billion of the country’s estimated $500 billion in annual food sales, up from $32 billion in 1993.

Given that Jews make up less than 2 percent of the population, and most of them don’t keep kosher, it’s clear that the people buying this food are mostly non-Jews. While some consumers probably aren’t aware that their pasta or cookies are kosher, many are folks who believe that “higher authority” promise.

I couldn't agree more. This month, my kosher certification company, Kosher Michigan, adds several new businesses that will be certified kosher under my supervision. In addition to another bagel bakery (New York Bagel), Kosher Michigan will also certify Schakolad Chocolate Factory -- a handmade European style chocolate franchise in Downtown Birmingham started by Israeli chocolatier Baruch Schaked. Kosher Michigan now certifies four production lines at Dunn Paper, a parafin wax paper manufacturer. Last month, we certified the bakery, pre-ordered fruit trays, and candy/dried fruit/nut tray department at a popular Metro Detroit supermarket, Johnny Pomodoro's Fresh Market.

My goal is to bring more kosher options to the marketplace. Sue Fishkoff articulates the delight that Jewish Americans feel each time another product becomes certified kosher. "It’s not just hot dogs. Every time a major American food product goes kosher, observant Jews are delighted. Coca-Cola in 1935. Oreos in 1997. Tootsie Rolls last year and two Gatorade drinks earlier this year. Häagen-Dazs ice cream, Smucker’s grape jam, Tropicana orange juice — every new item brought into the kosher pantry is a sign of fitting in the American mainstream while being observant."

Just last week I was introduced to a Florida man who had never met a rabbi before. He confessed that he knew absolutely nothing about Judaism, but that only a few months prior he had eaten a "kosher dog" for the first time. Now that he'd had a "kosher dog," he told me, he would never eat just a regular hot dog again..


Larry K said...

As a Sue Fishkoff fan, I rarely question her journalism or the accuracy of her Jewish knowledge. But I wonder if she chose the right term when she described "glatt kosher" as a higher standard. Might not "a different standard" or even "a stricter standard" have been more accurate?

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Larry, I would probably define "glatt" as a stricter standard, but I wish she took the time (or rather, words) to give a fuller definition of glatt than you normally see in print. Glatt means that the lungs of the animal are smooth.

Unfortunately, in popular parlance it has come to mean "super kosher" leading to uneducated people to ask me if I only eat or certify pizza that is glatt. Tongue in cheek, I want to say that yes, I only eat pizza with very smooth lungs!

Marc said...

The more opportunities to keep Kosher the better if you ask me. Great work.

hotdog_guy said...

Hebrew National makes a mighty fine hot dog.

Read all of the latest hot dog news as well as reviews of hot dog eateries around the world at

Hot Dog Guy

Eric said...

As a "post-denominational" Jew (I'll steal from any movement or tradition that works for me) but essentially from a Conservative base, I wonder about the acceptance of Kashrut certification from a Cons. rabbi by Orthodox consumers. To quote a recent facebook post from one of my ravs, Jeff Marker, "Fascinating for those of us who keep kosher, especially in the face of the "chumra of the week club", where there is constant pressure in certain communities to find more and more things forbidden to prove ones piety."

Sue Fishkoff said...

Believe me, the definition of glatt as a "higher standard" of kosher meat did not come from my pen. But check out the fuller discussion I give to the topic in "Kosher Nation: Why more and more of America's food answers to a Higher Authority," due on the shelves Oct. 12. It's all about humratization, kids.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Great plug Sue! Buy her book folks!

Anonymous said...

Kosher is a business ... I visited a bakery in NY and right next to the main ovens I noticed an old style rotary dial telephone. When I asked whats with the old phone... plant manager explained that the Rabbi made him install it and connect it to the ovens. When the phone rings it turns the ovens on.