Published August 15, 2011
CHICAGO – The nation's two largest hot dog makers are taking their legal beefs Monday to federal court in Chicago, where a judge will determine whether Oscar Mayer or Ball Park franks broke false-advertising laws in their efforts to become top dog.
Legal arguments in the long-ranging wiener war between Chicago companies pit Sara Lee Corp, which makes Ball Park franks, against Kraft Foods Inc., which makes Oscar Mayer. The case could clarify how far companies nationwide can go when boasting that their product is better than a competitor's.
Thousands of pages of filings in three years of pretrial litigation by both food-industry giants demonstrate that the stakes are high.
Sara Lee fired the first volley in a 2009 lawsuit singling out Oscar Mayer ads that brag its dogs beat out Ball Park franks in a national taste test. Those tests, Sara Lee argued, stacked the deck against Ball Park in part by altering the way the hot dogs were cooked and served.
The lawsuit also contends that Oscar Mayer touts its Jumbo Beef Franks as "100 percent pure beef," arguing that the claim is untrue, cast aspersions on Ball Park franks and damaged their sales.
Kraft defends the "100 percent pure beef" tag, saying its intent was to state that the only meat used is beef. Some industry hot dogs include a mix of turkey, pork, chicken or other meats. Kraft further argues that the "pure beef" label is justified because surveys show a perception among some consumers that hot dogs contain "mystery meats."
Kraft filed its own lawsuit in 2009, alleging Sara Lee ran false and deceptive ads including a campaign where Ball Parks are heralded as "America's Best Franks." The ad further asserts that other hot dogs "aren't even in the same league."
While implications of the case are serious, even litigants have injected humor into the debate.
In a ruling this spring denying a Sara Lee motion for Kraft to disclose its consumer surveys, Judge Morton Denlow noted the issue arose "on opening day of baseball season in Chicago" and that Sara Lee "strikes out" in justifying its motion.
And in first announcing the lawsuit, Ball Park brand director Chuck Hemmingway said in a press statement: "Simply put, we believe that these untrue statements are all a bunch of bologna."