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Oscar Mayer, Sara Lee Spar in Trial Over Hot Dog Advertising

Oscar Mayer Wieners War With Ball Park Franks
Sara Lee makes Ball Park frankfurters. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Kraft Foods Inc., worried that its Oscar Mayer Wieners were losing their market position as America’s top hot dog, launched a massive and misleading ad campaign against the Ball Park franks made by Sara Lee Corp., an attorney for the rival company told a U.S. judge.

Kraft, the world’s second-biggest food company, was sued by Sara Lee and accused of deceiving consumers with the claim that its franks are 100 percent beef and lying about taste-test results. Northfield, Illinois-based Kraft countersued, claiming Downers Grove, Illinois-based Sara Lee is falsely advertising how its product fared in a contest.

Kraft engaged in a “massive and unprecedented” campaign to mislead consumers, Sara Lee lawyer Richard Leighton told U.S. Magistrate Judge Morton Denlow today at the start of a non-jury trial in Chicago. He said the campaign was driven by Kraft’s fear that Ball Park sales would eclipse those of Oscar Mayer.

Sara Lee, which also produces desserts, breads, coffees and luncheon meats, sued Kraft in 2009, alleging it violated Illinois laws prohibiting deceptive trade practices. Sara Lee, challenging the composition of Oscar Mayer 100 percent jumbo beef franks, seeks unspecified money damages in the trial.

Kraft, the maker of Nabisco cookies, A-1 steak sauce, Cool Whip dessert toppings and Velveeta processed cheese, has accused Sara Lee of violating the state’s deceptive-trade laws by claiming its Ball Park Angus Beef Franks won prizes they didn’t win. Kraft also seeks unspecified money damages.

‘A Better Product’

Oscar Mayer “knew it had a better product,” Kraft attorney Stephen O’Neil said in his opening statement today. “It won the taste test convincingly,” over the Ball Park brand and ConAgra’s Hebrew National, “because it knew it had a better product.”

Consumers in the U.S. bought more than $1.6 billion worth of hot dogs last year, eating about 7 billion of them from the Memorial Day federal holiday in late May to Labor Day at the beginning of September, according to statistics compiled by the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council, a Washington-based meat industry advocacy group.

Sara Lee’s lawyer, Leighton, spoke for about two hours today as he challenged Kraft’s claims that its product is pure beef. Sara Lee’s complaint says that Oscar Mayer Wieners contain water, salt, corn syrup, paprika, dried garlic, spices and other ingredients.

‘Literally False’

Leighton said Kraft’s assertion that its hot dogs had been chosen as America’s best-tasting in a national test was “literally false.”

Kraft touted that claim in print, broadcast and Internet advertisements including one TV add Leighton said had been shown more than 366 million times.

Denlow interrupted Leighton several times, saying that Sara Lee’s complaints about the language in Kraft’s marketing campaign may be too literal.

“I don’t want to leave common sense outside the courthouse door,” the judge said.

He also questioned Sara Lee’s claim its product was best because it had won an award conferred by a San Francisco-based group.

“How would 10 chefs in San Francisco know, when they’ve never been to Chicago or tasted a Chicago hot dog?” Denlow asked.

The case is Sara Lee Corp. v. Kraft Foods Inc., 09-cv-03039, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois (Chicago).

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