You’ve probably seen the long-running ad campaign by Hebrew National with the tagline “We answer to a higher authority”. The slogan, introduced in 1965 and popularized in TV advertising since 1975, made kosher synonymous with high quality in many consumers’ minds, and worked particularly well for Hebrew National hot dogs. After all, if G-d approves, they must be good. in fact, three-fourths of the brand’s purchasers are not even Jewish, so market penetration has indeed been heavenly.
A newer campaign uses the slogan “When your hot dog’s kosher, that’s a hot dog you can trust”, spring-boarding off the earlier ad’s huge success in linking kosher with better.
So if you’re concerned about restricting GMO consumption, you’ll naturally gravitate toward kosher products. Higher authority. Trust. Kosher. It appears G-d hates GMOs, right? Well, not exactly.
Hebrew National Ownership
Hebrew National was founded in 1905 and went through a succession of owners before being purchased by food giant ConAgra in 1993. The brand strongly identifies its products as being kosher but not without controversy among the Jewish community, especially Orthodox Jews.
ConAgra Foods, the parent company, has controversies of its own, especially among progressives. Those controversies have involved environmental and labor issues as well as the corporation’s guilty plea on criminal charges related to bribery of Federal inspectors and spraying stored grain with water to increase its weight so it could be sold for more money.
As you might expect, this being a GMO diary, ConAgra is a GMO proponent and helped defeat California’s GMO labeling ballot initiative through its contributions to “The Coalition Against The Costly Food Labeling Proposition“. After significant backlash for that support, though, ConAgra joined with other coalition members and Wal*Mart to promote a national labeling system, although that effort has since fizzled.
Going To The Dogs
According to Hebrew National, “What makes a kosher hot dog different? It’s all about what makes the cut (and what doesn’t). We only use premium cuts of beef from the front half of the cow, and then we pick the best from that.” If you have seen the TV commercials, you may recall that the announcer would follow those or similar lines with “No ifs, ands, or but[t]s.”
What are Hebrew National hot dogs actually made from, though? According to the package promotional text, they contain
- No Artificial Flavors
- No Artificial Colors
- No Fillers
- No By-Products
- No Gluten
You may have noticed there was no No GMOs in that list.
That’s because Hebrew National hot dogs contain a small amount of GMO soy in the form of Hydrolyzed Soy Protein. In addition, those premium cuts of beef are cut from cattle that are fed with GMO feed. As it turns out, kosher does NOT mean that certified products contain no genetic engineering. Here is Hebrew National’s 2013 answer when asked whether their products are GMO free:
No, many of our products contain ingredients made from crops grown in the U.S. produced using biotechnology. We are working with our suppliers to better understand which of them are using these ingredients and we know it’s an important topic for many of our consumers. Thank you!
Opposing Views On GMOs
Just as in the non-kosher world, there are pro-GMO, anti-GMO, and Meh factions. Jewish environmental group Jewcology says
The time has come for Jews and Judaism to take a serious look at perhaps the most fundamental innovation of our time, the genetic manipulation of life. Genetic Engineering (GE), and the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) it has been used to create, are incompatible with some of the most basic and fundamental tenants of Jewish beliefs and values. To this point in time, the issues of GMO’s in general, and GMO’s in human food in particular, have been largely ignored by the Jewish community. (Jewcology — Why Genetically Modified Foods Should Not Be Considered Kosher)
Orthodox Union (OU), one of the top kosher certifying agencies and the agency cited in the Jewcology article, takes the opposing view. Or should I say took, because their statement on genetic engineering has been scrubbed from their website and from Google. Luckily, though, Internet Wayback Machine captured a snapshot in 2012. It boiled down to this:
Q. Are GMOs safe?
A. We’re not qualified to say.
Q. If a new strain of tomatoes is developed by introducing genetic material from a pig cell, is the tomato a Kosher entity?
A. The presence of a non-Kosher gene in a tomato does not render as non-Kosher all subsequent tomatoes that are “descendents” of the genetically altered tomato.
Naturally, the answer to the second question provoked an outcry from GMO skeptics and dietary law purists. We suspect that is why the statement was scrubbed from OU’s website. As pro-GMO forces might say, “Another victim of the anti-science anti-vaxxer tree-hugging commie socialists.”
Those seeking a way to avoid genetically engineered ingredients in their food have their work cut out for them. A kosher symbol on the package is no indication, and as the ingredients of National Hebrew hot dogs show, even products that “answer to a higher authority” have GMOs. Your best bet for now is the Non-GMO Project’s Verified Products list or a similar resource.