As the bench trial got under way, U.S. Magistrate Judge Morton Denlow cast his eyes across the Chicago courtroom, where half a dozen attorneys were at opposing tables, and said, "Let the wiener wars begin."
The battle pits Chicago-area companies Sara Lee Corp., which makes Ball Park franks, against Kraft Foods Inc., which makes Oscar Mayer, in a case that could clarify how far companies can go when boasting that their product is better than a competitor's.
Despite the light-hearted remark by the judge, attorneys for the food makers struck a serious tone.
"There's never been anything of this scope . . . in the entire history of hot dogs," said Sara Lee's attorney, Richard Leighton, about what he described as Kraft's false and deceptive ad claims about making a better-tasting frank.
Sara Lee had fired the first volley in a 2009 lawsuit singling out Oscar Mayer ads that brag its dogs beat Ball Park franks in a national taste test. Leighton argued the tests were deeply flawed, including by serving the hot dogs to participants without buns or condiments.
"They were served boiled hot dogs on a white paper plate," he complained. He added that Sara Lee's hot dogs may well have tasted too salty or smoky eaten sans buns.
Kraft filed its own lawsuit in 2009, alleging that Sara Lee ran false and deceptive ads including a campaign in which Ball Parks are heralded as "America's Best Franks." The ad further asserts that other hot dogs "aren't even in the same league."
Another focus of the trial is Kraft's claim that its Oscar Mayer Jumbo Beef Franks are "100 percent pure beef." Sara Lee says 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."
Denlow interrupted Sara Lee's attorney several times in his opening statements.
"Don't we have here a couple of big hot dog companies just saying they are the best?" Denlow said at one point. "Is there something more unusual going on here than what goes on every day?"
Leighton responded that Kraft's alleged manipulation of the taste test and how it then based a massive advertising campaign on it in 2009 made the case unique.
At another point, Denlow said one could argue Sara Lee engaged in similar practices, including by basing its claims of being the No. 1 hot dog by citing in its ads an award given to Ball Park franks by ten leading chefs in San Francisco.
"And how would ten chefs in San Francisco know what the best hot dog is when they have never been to Chicago or tasted a Chicago hot dog?" Denlow said, cracking a smile.
The judge broached that subject again later, alluding to a rule among connoisseurs in the city never to put ketchup on a Chicago-style hot dog.
When Leighton suggested those participating in the Kraft hot dog tests should also have had the option of squirting ketchup on their dogs, Denlow interrupted, saying "That's an area of great debate."