CHICAGO — There’s a boom in kosher certification being fueled by consumers’ desire for clean label, allergen-free and vegan foods, as the various kosher designations communicate a food’s composition. If it’s certified pareve, it is free of dairy and meat. A pareve item becomes kosher dairy or kosher meat when it is cooked together or includes a dairy or meat food, respectively.
To receive kosher certification, all ingredients in the product and the process used to prepare the product must be certified kosher. Thus, when a product or establishment is certified kosher, consumers know that it’s in compliance with complex, strict policy of kosher food laws, which include cleanliness, purity and quality.
For practicing Jewish people, kosher means more than responsible food preparation. Kosher refers to a set of intricate biblical laws that detail the types of food that may be consumed and the ways the foods may be prepared. The basis of this is scripture that does not permit consumption of dairy and meat at the same time. The two also may not be cooked together nor served together on the same table. This rule is scrupulously upheld in observant Jewish households, even in the handling of cooking vessels and utensils.
It is estimated that nearly 80% of all kosher food sales are outside of the traditional Jewish market according to the Orthodox Union (O.U.), New York, with more than 12 million American consumers choosing kosher food products for reasons related to health, food safety, taste, vegetarianism, lactose intolerance and other dietary restrictions. Food Business News spoke with Rabbi Menachem Genack, chief executive officer of the Orthodox Union’s Kosher Division, to develop a better understanding of the kosher market. The O.U. is the world’s largest kosher certification agency, certifying almost 70% of the kosher food sold worldwide. This includes more than 800,000 products produced in more than 8,500 plants located in 100 countries around the world.
Food Business News: Kosher certification has come to be so much more than a visual cue to identify approved foods for Jewish consumers. Please describe the different consumer groups who seek out kosher-certified foods. What does kosher mean to these segments?
Rabbi Menachem Genack: The dynamics of the kosher market are often misunderstood. While the initial demand for kosher products comes from committed kosher consumers, there’s more to it than that. As reflected in the famous ad of the 70’s, “You don’t have to be Jewish to eat Levy’s rye,” the kosher market extends far beyond the Jewish population.
Consumers include Muslims, Seventh Day Adventists and vegetarians who purchase kosher products for religious or moral reasons. Additionally, those with milk related allergies, health-conscious individuals and discerning consumers often view reliable kosher symbols as signs of health, quality and integrity. They, too, comprise the very large pool of devoted consumers.
Kosher consumers, however, do not fully account for the remarkable growth pattern that we have witnessed in recent years in the kosher industry.
What is driving this growth of kosher certification?
Rabbi Genack: For starters, companies can ill-afford to allow their competitors to have a significant marketing advantage. We often receive applications from companies whose competitors have chosen to be kosher certified. This dynamic is so powerful that many areas, such as baking and snack foods, have extremely high concentrations of kosher supervision, and some staple industries, including vinegar, flavors and vegetable oils have kosher programs in almost every facility in the U.S.
There’s also a domino effect. As more companies become kosher, the suppliers of raw materials must become kosher as well. Consider the following scenario. A large pastry manufacturer, which uses hundreds of different ingredients, applies for kosher supervision. Ten suppliers lack adequate kosher supervision. The pastry company gives notice for them to either go kosher or they will no longer be able to use the company as a supplier. A domino effect has been set into motion. Each time another manufacturer becomes kosher, the demand for additional kosher supervision is created and the kosher food market expands.
Interestingly, we attribute much of the recent growth of O.U. certification to private label companies. Private label is a big business and manufacturers fiercely compete for the private label trade. When a private label company chooses a manufacturer, the availability of kosher certification plays a significant role in the decision-making process. Even if the kosher logo will provide only a slight marketing advantage, it may be enough of a factor to tip the scales in favor of the kosher manufacturer.
Then there’s the battle for shelf space. When retailers are deciding whether or not to carry a product, or what level shelf space for placement, they consider various criteria. In many regions, the kosher symbol may be the deciding factor.
How have the types of foods getting kosher certification evolved over time?
Rabbi Genack: Trends in kosher certification follow the broader trends in food production. As the market for complex and international foods has grown, we have grown along with it. The trend toward globalization also means that many foods and food ingredients once produced locally are now produced all over the world. As a result, we now have hundreds of inspectors, visiting factories in 100 countries to certify food products from exotic Asian items to American staples.
As the leaders in the field, our team is constantly on the lookout for changes in equipment and technology. We have inspectors who have expertise in every area of the food industry and follow the relevant trends, from enzyme production to dairy to flavors. This includes changes in technology, as well as changes in local culture.
For instance, in India, local custom has long accepted that there is very little non-kosher animal-based oils on the market. This must be continually monitored over time, as India’s local meat industry has begun to grow in the past few years.
As an example of technological change, a few years ago, a company developed a new proprietary technology to produce certain types of flavors. This ultimately had an effect on the requirements needed to keep their equipment in kosher status.
How does a company obtain kosher certification?
Rabbi Genack: The first step is to make certain that all the ingredients used in the product are kosher. The O.U. has a database of tens of thousands of ingredients that have been researched and approved as kosher over the years. When a new company applies to the O.U. for supervision to obtain certification, we check to see if the ingredients used in the plant are already recorded in our data base. If not, we will evaluate if these new ingredients are acceptable.
Evaluation of ingredients requires much technical skill. This is because ingredients are often made from sub-units, and in order to decide if an ingredient is kosher, one must investigate all the sub-units as well.
High-fructose corn syrup is a good example. It is made from corn syrup, which is made from cornstarch that comes from corn. Each phase of production requires the use of other ingredients. Sulfur dioxide is used to transform corn into cornstarch. The enzymes alpha amylase and glucose amylase help convert cornstarch into corn syrup, while xylose isomerase converts corn syrup into high-fructose corn syrup. To determine if high-fructose corn syrup is kosher, one must investigate all the different stages and study the ingredients used at each phase of production.
After the ingredients are deemed kosher, the production process must be reviewed. If the plant produces kosher and non-kosher, or dairy, meat and pareve products, it is essential to identify the equipment used for producing each product. Some products cannot be certified because they are made on non-kosher equipment, unless the equipment is kosherized between uses.
(Kosherizing is the process of making vessels, utensils, fillers, etc. kosher. It requires specific cleaning procedures, which focus on temperature. This prevents cross-contamination of foods that are not allowed to be eaten together, basically dairy and meat, and it prevents contamination from previous non-kosher products.)
After the agency determines that a product can be kosher, a contract is drawn up that specifies ingredients and production process. Once the contract is signed, a trained inspector called a mashgiach must visit the plant on a regular basis to make sure that the contract is being enforced.
What types of foods are the most challenging to certify kosher and why?
Rabbi Genack: Meat and meat products are the most challenging because meat requires a special kosher slaughter. This affects not only the meat itself, but ingredients that can be produced from animal sources, such as gelatin, glycerin and other derivatives. As a result, the majority of beef gelatin on the market is not kosher, although kosher versions are available. Another example of a difficult product is wine or grape juice. Because of the sacramental nature of such products, there are extra requirements involved in its kosher production, including the need for a rabbinic team to be very involved in every aspect of production. Finally, most cheeses require a rabbinic team to be involved in production, as well. In such productions, we have rotations of rabbis who stay near the factory and are on call at all times.
What is the difference between kosher and kosher for Passover?
Rabbi Genack: The classical food for Passover is matzah, a flat thin cracker of unleavened bread, which is baked before the dough has a chance to rise. Why matzah? The bible relates that more than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people were freed from slavery in Egypt through divine intervention. As they prepared to leave Egypt and travel to the desert, they baked matzah, rather than bread, because they left in great haste, and there was no time to wait for the dough to rise.
To commemorate the exodus, God instructed the Jews to eat matzah every year during the Passover holiday. In addition, the bible prohibits eating chometz, which is leavened bread made from wheat, oat, spelt, rye or barley, during Passover. Chometz is proscribed because it is the antithesis of matzah, since leavened dough rises before the baking occurs.
Through Rabbinic interpretation, the definition of chometz has been expanded to include not only bread products, but any food item, made from wheat, oat, spelt, rye or barley, that is not similar to matzah. Thus, grain-fermented vinegar, as well as many breakfast cereals, are considered chometz and may not be consumed on Passover.
Further, most non-Passover kosher certified products are not produced in the presence of a Rabbinic field representative (R.F.R.). The R.F.R. visits the plants at regular intervals and such spot-checking is sufficient to establish the integrity of the kosher status. In contrast, most Passover-certified products are manufactured while the R.F.R. is in attendance. This is because the bible is far more stringent and exacting in describing Passover laws than year-round kosher requirements. If non-kosher food is bad for the soul, then chometz during the eight days of Passover is spiritual poison. In a kosher home, there are weeks of cleaning and scrubbing to prepare the kitchen for Passover. Even home shelves are lined with paper to ensure against minute amounts of chometz contaminating the food, and this is why supermarkets often line their shelves where Passover products are sold. This same caution is reflected in the full-time supervisory requirements for O.U. products.
What differentiates the O.U.’s kosher certification process from others?Rabbi Genack: O.U. Kosher is the world’s oldest and largest certification. The O.U. is a nonprofit charitable agency and our standards for kosher certification have largely set the standard in North America.