Keeping It Kosher

Sep 7, 2008
Kosher snacks and cookies, such as hamantashan (above), are a growing part of the $12 billion kosher food market. Photo by ISTOCKPHOTO.

Question: What do Milk Duds, Milk of Magnesia, and giraffe milk have in common?
Answer: They are all kosher.

If you are confused by kashrut (the Jewish code of laws that oversee the fitness and suitability of food), you're not alone. Although many people are familiar with at least some kosher requirements, such as the prohibition against eating pork, other rules are less well-known. In fact, the religious laws that govern the preparation of kosher food can be quite complex, especially when modern food manufacturing techniques come into play.

Fortunately for manufacturers, hundreds of third-party organizations, such as the Orthodox Union (OU; New York City), Star-K (Baltimore, MD), and Kosher Supervision of America (KSA; Los Angeles), are available to provide kosher-certification services. All three agencies mentioned above also have a presence in China, a significant source of food imports to the United States.

Types of Certification

The type of certification an item receives depends greatly on its ingredients and how it's produced. Kosher certification symbols can alert consumers to both the general kosher status of a product (i.e., is it kosher) and its contents (i.e, does it contain meat or dairy). Thus, items may be certified kosher, kosher dairy, and kosher pareve (indicating that the item contains neither meat nor dairy). Because mixing meat and dairy isn't kosher, such symbols can be highly important to some kosher food consumers. Food can also be certified as kosher for Passover, a Jewish holiday that has an additional set of dietary restrictions (see sidebar 2).

Typically, each certification agency offers its own unique symbol along with other images or lettering that depict an item's kosher status. It's also important to note that because certification is renewed on an ongoing basis, some foods that are certified kosher one year may not be certified kosher the next.

Sidebar 1: Hot Potatoes

Kosher food shoppers get the urge to snack just like everyone else. So it’s no surprise that at last year's KosherFest trade show, held November 11–12 in New York City, one new snack food based on a traditional Hannukah treat walked away with the show's "Best New Snack Food" prize.

Zesty Veggie Latke Crisps, distributed by Thou Shall Snack (Seattle), possess the savory flavors of potato pancakes but are made with natural ingredients and are baked rather than fried. The crisps, which don't contain trans fat, preservatives, or genetically modified organisms, are certified kosher by the Orthodox Union (New York City).

"We're pleased and honored to be included among some of the best new kosher food products on the market," Thou Shall Snack founder and president Jill Ginsberg said last year when the prize was awarded. "As a young company, I'm proud that our products are already gaining recognition for their kosher status as well as for their outstanding taste and authentic flavor."

Photo Caption: Thou Shall Snack’s Zesty Veggie Latke Crisps won the Best New Snack Food award at last year’s KosherFest trade show. Photo courtesy of Thou Shall Snack.

For instance, Hershey's (Hershey, PA) Milk Duds are certified kosher dairy by the OU and bear an OU-D symbol, while Bayer's (Morristown, NJ) Phillips Milk of Magnesia is kosher until December 2008, according to Star-K. Meanwhile, the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot reported in June that Rabbi Shlomo Mahfoud declared giraffe milk to be kosher. Mahfoud made the announcement after Bar Ilan University (Ramat Gan, Israel) scientists discovered that the liquid forms curds, a requirement for kosher milk. Giraffes also have cloven feet and chew their cud—two other kosher prerequisites.

Given the constant ebb and flow of new products and ingredients, certification is a valuable tool for manufacturers and consumers alike. The certification symbols assigned by the third-party agencies act like a beacon to shoppers who seek out kosher products for all sorts of reasons, some of which are discussed below.

Faith in the Market

It's a stretch to say that giraffe milk will be on supermarket shelves any time soon. Demand for kosher products in general is no tall tale, however. In 2007, the kosher food market exceeded $12 billion in the United States, according to a January 2008 Mintel (London) report on sacred foods. Demonstrating its rapid expansion, the kosher marketplace welcomed 4477 new kosher-certified products last year (see sidebar 1); in 2003, the number was 399, and in 2005, it was 1491.

A quick read of the statistics could suggest that more people are embracing kosher diets. That may not necessarily be the case, however. Mintel estimates that only 5% of people who identify themselves as religious make food choices based on their religion.

"Mintel's research indicates that more than half of consumers who purchase kosher products do so because they consider the products to be safer than products not certified as kosher," the report notes. "They believe that kosher food is produced under stricter supervision than is being provided by government inspection."

Sidebar 2: Cottonseed Oil for Passover

Cottonseed oil is not a significant source of trans fat because the oil does not require hydrogenation. Photo courtesy of the National Cottonseed Products Association (Cordova,TN).

If you think the normal requirements for kosher certification are tough, get ready for kosher for Passover certification. Consumption of five grains—oats, wheat, barley, rye, and spelt—are forbidden during Passover, which means that kosher-for-Passover foods are subjected to extra scrutiny.

According to Rabbi Zushe Blech, an administrator for EarthKosher Certification Services (Portland, OR, and Englewood, NJ), cottonseed oil has several advantages over other kinds of oil.

"First, it is a domestic oil and is not subject to the potential significant kosher issues relating to the shipment of tropical oils that also may transport animal fats," Blech says. "Second, most opinions approve its use for Passover, a status not enjoyed by soy, corn, and canola oils."

"It's been estimated that more than 40% of retail foodstuffs sold nationally in the United States enjoys a kosher certification," adds Blech. "This figure continues to grow, aided by the ready availability of kosher raw materials, such as kosher cottonseed oil."

In other words, fears about food safety are playing a strong role. Other potential reasons include the fact that kosher foods don't contain shellfish—a potential allergen—and the fact that kosher food labels clearly list meat- and dairy-derived ingredients that vegetarians, vegans, and people with lactose intolerance want to avoid. Because of these reasons, manufacturers of kosher foods, unintentionally or by design, are increasingly reaching out to mainstream consumers of all religious and ethnic backgrounds. The perception that kosher certification is rigorous adds an extra level of comfort for shoppers, even if they don’t necessarily understand what kashrut is.

Generally speaking, consumers seeking kosher foods for reasons other religion "may not be clear as to the complete compendium of kosher regulations," according to Mintel, "but they have faith that the food is better for them than mainstream products."

Getting Certified

Manufacturers that want to tap into the market should work with a qualified certification agency that can evaluate their ingredients, production process, and facilities. Many agencies also supply other services in addition to certification that help both consumers and food companies, such as sending out product alerts that notify shoppers about newly certified kosher items. Regardless of which agency a manufacturer selects, the certification process is basically the same.

It typically begins with an application from the manufacturer, who provides information about the company, plant, personnel, and raw materials. The manufacturer also must designate what kinds of certification they are seeking (e.g., dairy, pareve, kosher for Passover, etc.) for each product.

After it receives the application, the certification agency will conduct an initial inspection of the manufacturing facility, not unlike a good manufacturing practices (GMPs) audit. The agency will then determine what changes, if any, need to be made to the production process and will create a contract that specifies the approved ingredients and brand names to be certified.

But the process doesn't just end there with a quick mazel tov. Certification agencies will conduct periodic audits and perhaps even some market surveillance to ensure that products bearing their symbol are truly kosher. OU's Web site, for instance, posts almost-daily consumer alerts describing products that have been found with incorrect or outdated labels and unauthorized certification symbols. The certification agencies stake their reputations on the accuracy of their work and don’t give their imprimatur to just anyone.

Mass Appeal

Years ago, shoppers seeking kosher-certified foods had limited options to choose from. Today, thanks to the efforts of certification agencies and manufacturers that are willing to upgrade their production lines, there are an abundance of kosher foods on the market that appeal to a wide cross-section of consumers. These foods range from traditional Jewish cuisine to everyday items like candy and gum, all of which require certification agency experts to be well-versed in modern food technology.

In fact, one item sure to be among the most sought-after kosher foods this year is not part of traditional Jewish cuisine. It’s not particularly healthy, but that hasn’t stopped it from acquiring an almost religious following. According to a recent alert from Star-K, the Slurpee from 7-Eleven (Dallas) will now be available in more than 100 kosher flavors—including one pareve flavor—this summer.

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