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Sara Lee and Kraft in a wiener dog fight

Updated: November 16, 2011 1:29AM



I walked into U.S. Magistrate Judge Morton Denlow’s courtroom Monday just as an attorney for Sara Lee Corp. was making the case that rival Kraft Foods had cooked the results of a hot dog taste test, so to speak, by serving the wieners plain.

“The test director expressly ordered [those conducting the test] not to provide buns or condiments,” lawyer Richard Leighton was saying in the most accusatory tone he could muster.

“He KNEW the consequences of doing that,” Leighton added archly, sounding much like a prosecutor explaining the culpability of a defendant who brought a weapon to a fight where somebody ended up dead.

In a development that proves we are entering the dog days of summer, as well apparently as the fact that large corporations have to find some way to justify all the money they spend on lawyers, two of the Chicago area’s biggest companies went to trial Monday over whether they have been making false advertising claims about their hot dogs.

Sara Lee, which makes Ball Park franks, and Kraft, which owns Oscar Mayer, are battling over such meaty issues as which company can rightfully claim to make the “best” hot dog, as well as what it means to sell a hot dog as “100 percent beef” or “all beef” and whether that’s as honest as saying “made with 100 percent beef.”

Sara Lee started the court fight in 2009 after Oscar Mayer ran ads boasting its hot dogs beat Ball Park in the aforementioned taste test. Kraft responded with a counterclaim of its own contending Ball Park had gone too far in declaring itself “America’s Best.”

“The filing of this lawsuit was an act of utter hypocrisy,” said Stephen J. O’Neil, Kraft’s lawyer, with a straight face.

I’m not sure how this case actually made it to trial, but seeing as how Judge Denlow is known to be a devoted St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan as am I, there’s no questioning his wisdom.

Therefore, I must assume there are legitimate legal matters at stake that justify taking up the court’s time, even though I heard none while I was listening to the proceedings.

Denlow opened the bench trial Monday by declaring: “Let the wiener wars begin,” then sat back with a bemused expression to listen to the lawyers’ opening statements.

He interrupted occasionally with questions and observations that seemed to indicate he still has doubts of his own as to whether the matter belongs before him.

“Isn’t it two hot dog companies saying they are the best? Is there something more unusual about this than what goes on every day?” Denlow asked Leighton at one point.

Later, when Leighton argued that Ball Park’s advertising claims were no different than what Kraft had done in a Claussen pickle campaign, Denlow observed: “A Claussen pickle on one of these hot dogs is really good.”

I should note there were five people sitting at the table set aside for Sara Lee’s lawyers and four at the Kraft table, which I bring up in case some big kahuna at Kraft wants to get right on that before somebody thinks Sara Lee has a bigger legal department than his.

While Chicago is well-known to be a city that takes its hot dogs seriously, we don’t take them quite this seriously.

The case also seems particularly silly because most Chicagoans know the best hot dogs are made right here at Fullerton and Damen by Vienna Beef, though the company itself is careful not to overclaim, lest it get caught up in wiener wars.

“They’re very, very good at what they do. We don’t compare ourselves to them,” said Tom Pierce, vice president of customer service at Vienna Beef, referring to his oversized competitors.

But surely you agree you are the best?

“I believe we are,” Pierce said. “A Vienna hot dog is a pure beef hot dog.”

He’d better be careful. One of the issues in the Oscar Mayer-Ball Park case is whether it’s proper to claim to have a “pure beef” hot dog when all hot dogs contain additives.

Joe Plonka, who opened his UB Dogs stand near Franklin and Lake in April to the great relief of hot dog-starved workers in my corner of downtown, serves only Vienna Beef dogs in the natural casings and figures he’d quickly be out of business if he served anything else. Instead, the lines are getting longer by the day — to my consternation.

Let the hot dog giants put that in their next taste test — and we won’t even make them put it on a poppy seed bun with mustard, onion, relish, celery salt and a pickle, although they would be foolish to do otherwise.



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