Why is 41% of America’s Packaged Food Kosher

Less than 2% of the US population is Jewish. So why is 41% of the country’s packaged food kosher?

By Deena Shanker

Considering how few people keep kosher in the US—Jews make up less than 2% of the American population, and only a portion of them follow Jewish dietary laws—it’s fairly astounding that more than 40% of the country’s new packaged food and beverage products in 2014 are labeled as being kosher. That makes it the top label claim on food and beverages, according to market research firm Mintel, beating out the ever-present “gluten-free” label and even allergen claims.

“Kosher” food meets the broad range of requirements of Jewish dietary laws. The laws define, for example, which animals are and are not allowed to be eaten (cows and chickens are ok, pigs and shellfish are not), as well as how the animals are slaughtered, and how their meat is prepared; the laws also lay out which foods can and cannot be mixed (no meat with dairy, for example), and even, when it comes to wine, who is allowed to touch it.

To be certified as kosher, food companies must work with certification bodies like the Orthodox Union (“OU”), which says it certifies an estimated 65% to 71% of kosher foods, an endeavor that involves both paperwork, on-site supervision, and payment to the certifying bodies.

In 2009, market research firm Packaged Facts estimated the kosher industry to be worth as much as $17 billion. And the label’s relative popularity seems to be growing: While it was on only 27% of packaged foods in 2009, in 2014 it appeared on 41%. New business for OU certifications grows by about 10% each year, according to Phyllis Koegel, the group’s marketing director.

But if less than 2% of Americans are Jewish, and not all Jews even keep kosher (an estimated 80% to 85% don’t), then who is buying all of this kosher food?

“[T]here are other consumer groups that buy these foods,” Amanda Topper, a food analyst at Mintel, tells Quartz.

Muslims are one such group, she says. While there are even fewer Muslims than Jews in the US, their numbers are growing. They now account for 0.9% of the US population, according to the Pew Research Center, up from 0.4% in 2007. Muslims have their own set of dietary laws, called halal. But “if they’re not able to find halal, they rely on kosher,” says Koegel.

However, there are differences between kosher and halal, and not everyone agrees with OU and Mintel’s assessment: “We have no statistics to indicate any appreciable number of Muslims seek kosher products,” says Roger Othman, CEO of the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America.

Many consumers go for kosher foods for completely non-religious reasons. Some “gravitate toward kosher products for positive health or taste perceptions, or for vegetarian reasons,” says Topper. Others buy kosher to avoid certain allergens, like shellfish. But not all of these reasons are based on a correct understanding of what “kosher” actually means.

The word “kosher,” says Koegel, has connotations of healthfulness and cleanliness. But as she points out, plenty of kosher foods, like OU-certified candy, are decidedly unhealthy. As for cleanliness, she says, the OU does provide an extra set of eyes on a facility and wouldn’t certify a company that wasn’t meeting its standards. (But whether it upholds its own standards has been questioned.)

Some of the kosher market’s expansion has come from already popular, non-kosher foods making the switch, like when Oreos removed lard and got certified in the late 1990s. And now and then the kosher aisle will have a cross-over hit, like when Lil’ Kim rapped about Moscato wine in 2005, and Bartenura, a kosher wine company, became an unexpected favorite for hip-hop musicians and their fans.

Are Hebrew National Hot Dogs Kosher?

When I awoke this morning to find a few news articles in my “Kosher” Google News Alerts regarding a lawsuit against ConAgra claiming Hebrew National hot dogs aren’t kosher, I didn’t give it much thought. That’s because a large segment of the kosher observant population hasn’t considered Hebrew National hot dogs to be kosher for many years.

Much of the criticism against Hebrew National in the past has more to do with “kosher politics” than it does with actual kosher standards. In fact, the reason why many don’t consider Hebrew National meat (most notably their hot dogs) to be kosher is because they are not glatt. Several months ago, I wrote on this blog about what “glatt kosher” means and why there is such a misunderstanding about it.

A leading Orthodox rabbi (Rabbi Yitzhak Abadi of New Jersey) and also the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly (including kosher experts Rabbi Joel Roth, Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz and Rabbi Paul Plotkin) have publicly stated that Hebrew National is truly kosher for those who do not eat only glatt meat. The three Conservative rabbis traveled to Hebrew National’s headquarters to inspect the facilities.

However, this class action lawsuit argues that ConAgra, the parent company behind Hebrew National, cut corners in the slaughtering process and that the head of Triangle-K, the certifying agency, did little to correct the transgressions.

According to the American Jewish World News, the complaint runs approximately 65 pages and notes that employees “who made the complaints were terminated or otherwise threatened with adverse retaliation, such as job transfers to other facilities or states. In turn, non-kosher meat was delivered to ConAgra and packaged, labeled and sold to the public [including the plaintiffs in the lawsuit] as strictly 100% kosher.”

The lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Hart Robinovitch, told the American Jewish World, “Don’t get me wrong here: We’re not saying that they’re passing off pork as kosher products… but in the complaint, as you can see, we went through the different elements and the different requirements for meat to be considered kosher, in terms of the way the cows are slaughtered, and the meat is prepared; and based on our investigation, there were certain things that weren’t conducted properly, in a systematic way, from the way cows were slaughtered, to the way the lungs were inspected or not inspected for imperfections, as is required to meet the standard that the meat is 100 percent kosher.”

Hebrew National Hot Dogs

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs thought they were buying products that were 100 percent kosher. If that means the plaintiffs thought they were buying glatt kosher meat and surprised that it wasn’t, I don’t think that’s cause for a lawsuit. Hebrew National and the Ralbag family rabbis who run Triangle-K have been clear that Hebrew National is not glatt. Therefore it isn’t deception.

However, if Hebrew National has been using non-kosher meat (non-glatt does not mean non-kosher or treif) then the class-action lawsuit has merit.

There are many different levels of kosher observance. Thus, it is difficult to have a secular court rule on whether a company is claiming its meat to be 100% kosher but it actually is not 100% kosher for some consumers.

I am irritated when I hear the Hebrew National hot dogs being marketed as “kosher hot dogs” at Detroit Tigers baseball games when in fact they are cooked on the same grill as the non-kosher hot dogs and sausages. Further, the buns they are wrapped in are dairy thus violating the kosher law against mixing dairy and meat. However, I also recognize that for some fans at the baseball stadium the fact that the hot dogs are kosher is satisfactory enough for them.

Whenever a food is advertised as kosher, it is caveat emptor – buyer beware. It is important to do a little research before eating the product. In the case of Hebrew National, it is well documented that their meat isn’t glatt which means not 100% kosher for some people. If that is the rationale for the class action lawsuit, I say it’s frivolous. If, however, Hebrew National and its parent company ConAgra, is guilty of cutting corners and passing off treif meat as kosher, then I think this lawsuit is legitimate and Hebrew National will have to answer to an even higher authority.

What is Glatt Kosher?

As a panelist for Jewish Values Online, I am asked to weigh in on various values-based questions from the perspective of a Conservative rabbi. A recent question I was asked to respond to was odd in that it wasn’t a question that had to do with values. I was asked to answer the difference between “glatt kosher” and “kosher”. This struck me as having to do less with values and more with a general misunderstanding.

Here is my response from the Jewish Values Online website:

Literally speaking, the term “glatt” is a Yiddish word that means smooth (it is called “chalak” in Hebrew). It is used most commonly as a kosher designation referring to the lungs of an animal. If the animal’s lungs were smooth and free of any adhesion that would render it non-kosher, the animal is designated as “glatt.” The term only applies to kosher animals whose meat can be eaten (not fowl or fish). Therefore, kosher food like chicken, fish, lamb, or dairy products can never be “glatt.”

The term has come to mean “kosher to a higher level” leading many people to erroneously think that non-beef food items can be “glatt.” In fact, I have been asked if pizza that I certify as kosher is “glatt” to which I responded that if they’re concerned about the melted cheese atop the pizza being smooth, they should be fine.

What is Glatt Kosher?

Rabbi Ari Z. Zivotofsky wrote an insightful explanation of why the “glatt” designation is important. He explains, “In colloquial discourse treif refers to anything that is not kosher. The technical definition of treifa is based on Exodus 22:30 (Do not eat meat from an animal torn [treifa] in the field) and refers to an animal with any of a specific group of physical defects that are detailed in the Talmud. Examples of these “defects,” which often go far beyond the health inspection of the USDA, include certain lesions, lacerations, broken limbs, missing or punctured organs, or the result of an attack by a larger animal. Such defects can occur in and thereby render both animals and fowl treif. Because most of these defects are uncommon, it may be assumed that most animals are healthy and hence there is no requirement to inspect every animal for them. An exception is the lung of an animal, on which adhesions and other problems may develop. While these problems are not common, they do occur more frequently than other treifot. Their relative prevalence led the rabbis to mandate that the lungs of every animal be examined, both manually while still in its natural position in the animal, and visually following its removal from the thoracic cavity.”

Most types of adhesion on the animal would make the animal a treifa and therefore forbidden to be eaten by a Jewish person. Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Ramah) allows for a method of peeling and testing many types of adhesions, which results in many more animals being designated as kosher. This leniency allows kosher observant individuals to eat meat that is not from a “glatt” animal, but one whose adhesions had been checked through peeling and testing. Isserles ruled only for Ashkenazi Jews, but Rabbi Yosef Karo did not rule that this was acceptable practice and therefore his Sephardic followers only eat “glatt” kosher meat.

This led to the “glatt” designation being considered a stringency that the pious would uphold. The misconception is that if meat is not “glatt” then it is not kosher. In truth, non-glatt meat that has been thoroughly inspected is considered fully kosher for Ashkenazic Jews.

There are kosher certification agencies that only certify meat that is “glatt”. Those who only eat “glatt” meat are known as mehadrin, meaning “embellished.” Maintaining a kosher diet leaves froom for leniencies and stringencies. One who follows a more stringent level of kosher observance is considered to have embellished God’s commandments and thus is said to be keeping kosher l’mehadrin. The terms “glatt” and “mehadrin” have come to describe a higher level of kosher status, but has also been misapplied to such things as water.

These terms can colloquially mean “extra strict supervision,” but it is important that the actual definition is lost along the way. Rabbi Reuven Hammer of Jerusalem has written about the fact that this stringency of the pious seems to apply to kosher food, but seldom to matters of ethics. He writes, “If people want to be extra strict with themselves, that is their right, but I often wonder why this extra strictness seems to be confined to ritual mitzvot rather than to ethical ones. Whenever I hear about Glatt I am reminded of [Rabbi Abraham Joshua] Heschel’s comment that we need a mashgiah [kosher supervisor] not just for food for other things such as lashon ha-ra – gossip – as well.
So, the bottom line is that “glatt” means smooth and refers to the lungs of animals like cows. When its applied to other food it is being misapplied, but colloquially means “kosher to a higher standard.”