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.

Rabbi Jason Miller Meets Demand for Kosher Products (Oakland Press – December 1, 2013)

Rabbi meets demand for Kosher products

Rabbi Jason Miller of Kosher Michigan
Rabbi helps meet demand for Kosher products. Rabbi Jason Miller launched Kosher Michigan, (KM), to help bring Kosher products to market. Miller works with restaurants, bakeries and manufacturers.His is the first kosher certification agency owned by a non-Orthodox rabbi to have a booth and exhibit at Kosherfest.

He was an exhibitor at the 2013 trade show in Secaucus, NJ, Oct. 29-30.

Kosherfest marked its 25th anniversary as an annual meeting and trade show and product resource for the kosher trade industry: supermarket, restaurant and foodservice buyers.

According to Miller, founder and director of Kosher Michigan, “My certification agency has grown over the past five plus years and becoming a part of Kosherfest for the first time is a milestone for me.”

Menachem Lubinsky, co-producer and founder of Kosherfest said, “In the last 25 years we have seen the number of kosher-certified items grow from a few thousand to almost 200,000. Major food companies have changed their ingredients and equipment in order to get kosher certification, and consumers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, seek the kosher symbol on the food products they buy more than ever before.”

Attendees to Kosherfest represent a broad spectrum of the industry, from chain and independent restaurants, caterers and specialty markets, to grocery/supermarket, big box and club chains, independent retailers, manufacturing ingredient buyers, distributors and buying agents, among many other industry professionals. Kosher Michigan was a co-exhibitor with Excalibur Seasonings, a large spice company in Pekin, Illinois that has been certified by Kosher Michigan for the past few years.

“As a non-Orthodox rabbi it has certainly been an uphill battle to gain acceptance in the kosher certification industry,” Miller explains. “However, it has been a worthwhile endeavor for me. Today Kosher Michigan certifies over fifty businesses and that number is growing each month. KM has expanded outside of Michigan and the KM hechsher (kosher symbol) is found on products sold throughout the U.S. and Canada.”

Miller started Kosher Michigan in 2008 to promote the observance of the Jewish dietary laws. KM is endorsed by the International Rabbinical Assembly and under the rabbinic advisement of Rabbi Joel Roth, a world renowned kashrut expert.

People of all faiths are purchasing kosher food for health and safety reasons. Additionally, people are purchasing kosher food for lifestyle and dietary reasons such as vegan, vegetarian, and lactose-free. There are more than 400,000 kosher certified products in the United States.

FYI

Kosher Michigan, 5657 W. Maple Road, Suite B, West Bloomfield Township 248-535-7090, koshermichigan.com.

Thanksgivukkah: Light Menorah, Pass Turkey (Detroit News – November 27, 2013)

For Thursday: Light menorah, pass turkey

Mark Hicks | The Detroit News

This Thanksgiving marks a first at Margo Grossman’s home: Menorah candles will burn while latkes as well as blue-and-white Star of David-shaped sugar cookies accompany heaping portions of turkey, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie and other dishes.

Thursday is the national holiday honoring the Pilgrims’ harvest with help from the Wampanoag American Indians in the 1600s. It’s also the first full day of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish holiday that commemorates emancipation from religious persecution in the second century B.C.

For many Jews across Metro Detroit, the rare convergence is a chance to combine celebrations of each holiday — shared goods, family gatherings and more to show an appreciation for blessings — into a joyful period some have christened “Thanksgivukkah.”

“It’s a cool, once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said Grossman, a transition consultant from Franklin. “I’m definitely welcoming it. Doing the holidays together is fun and different. … It’ll be interesting.”

By some calculations, this is the first time since 1888 Thanksgiving and the start of Hanukkah have fallen on the same day. And, according to a Chabad.org article, the two holidays would next coincide in 2070.

To traditionalists and grateful diners alike, the unusual occurrence this year — Hanukkah begins at sundown today — links national history with spiritual heritage.

“It really highlights the fact that the Jewish-American community is American,” said Rabbi Steven Rubenstein of Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield Township.

To some, the holidays share similarities.

Having fled Europe seeking economic viability and freedom to practice their religion, the pilgrims faced enormous challenges — including the threat of death from disease and starvation — adapting to a tough new terrain, said the Rev. John Staudenmaier, a history professor at the University of Detroit Mercy.

“That’s the context that originally framed the Thanksgiving feast and it is deeply important for the people who ate that feast,” he said. “They knew they couldn’t have done it on their own. … Thanksgiving is a celebration of survival but also of bravery by people desperate for a fresh start.”

Hanukkah — also known as the “Festival of Lights” — marks the victory of the Maccabees and their allies over Syrian forces, allowing them to recapture the desecrated Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

It also recalls the belief that a single day’s supply of lamp oil miraculously lasted eight full days during the temple’s rededication.

While non-Jews have associated Hanukkah, which often has fallen in December, with Christmas, this year the proximity to Thanksgiving and the holidays’ related themes seem more sensible.

“Thanksgiving fits a lot better with Hanukkah,” said Debra Darvick, a Jewish author from Birmingham. “It resonates more.”

With the overlapping observances in mind, some are creatively mixing traditions.

Rabbi Jason Miller of Kosher Michigan, a certification agency, and Patrick Coleman, owner of the Southern Nosh restaurant in Southfield that serves kosher vegetarian items and soul food, created a sweet potato latke.

A traditional Hanukkah item, latkes typically are cooked with potatoes and oil. But the Southern Nosh version uses a sweet potato — a popular ingredient in African-American and soul food kitchens, Coleman said.

Since adding them to the menu this month, cooks have averaged about a dozen orders a day, he said.

“Folks are really enjoying them. They think they’re very tasty. … They’re literally going out of the restaurant like hotcakes — no pun intended.”

The day after lighting the first candle in their menorah for Hanukkah, Lisa Soble Siegmann of Bloomfield Hills and her family plan to visit a relative’s home in Ohio for turkey, latkes, cranberry sauce, challah stuffing, pecan and chocolate gelt pie; games with dreidels, the four-sided spinning tops; and songs extolling both holidays.

“It’s going to be a night of fun and family and being together,” she said.

For Leah Gawel’s family in Novi, the convergence is more of a curiosity.

After a feast complete with latkes Thursday, they will light the menorah and let their children open gifts. Holiday decorations — colored lights, a banner — adorn their home.

“It just makes it interesting, makes it a little fun,” Gawel said. “It will be something the kids will remember.”

Partly to accommodate those celebrating Thanksgiving, organizers of the third annual “Menorah in the D” plan to hold the public lighting of the 24-foot-tall steel/glass menorah and the related community party in Detroit’s Campus Martius next week, said Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov of the Shul-Chabad Lubavitch in West Bloomfield Township. The ceremony usually occurs earlier during Hanukkah.

Some of the coordinators also are expected to display a dreidel-shaped mobile and distribute tin menorahs along with chocolate coins during America’s Thanksgiving Parade on Thursday, said Ben Rosenzweig, a member of the Shul.

That underscores a central theme of Hanukkah that dovetails with Thanksgiving, he said. “The idea of Hanukkah is good defeating evil and the idea that everybody has the freedom of religion to practice what connects them spiritually.”

mhicks@detroitnews.com
(313) 222-2117

From The Detroit News: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20131127/METRO08/311270030#ixzz2mun1VBa1

Passover and Pet Food

As a kosher supervisor (mashgiach) and the owner of a kosher certification agency, I am constantly impressed by the level of attention, respect and genuine care that non-Jewish business owners demonstrate for their kosher observant customers. I once again witnessed this first hand when I met the owner of Premier Pet Supply last week.

Premier Pet Supply - Michigan
Mike Palmer, who is half Chaldean and half Italian, owns the pet food and supply store with his uncle, the store’s founder. Located in Beverly Hills, a suburb of Detroit, the store has received a lot of positive attention of late because of Mike’s knack for publicity and his people skills (he obviously has great pet skills too!). The store is consistently named best pet supply store in the area and Mike was just named one of the Elite 40 Under 40 for Oakland County, Michigan.
Mike called me a few weeks ago and asked if I would come by his store before Passover to answer some questions about kosher for Passover pet food. Since my family doesn’t own any pets and I haven’t certified kosher dog food in over a year (the dog treat company Kosher Michigan certified went out of business in 2010), I decided to brush up on the laws concerning pet food on Passover. And it’s a good thing I did because when I got to the store I was overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge Mike possessed concerning the kosher laws and Passover. He knew more about the intricacies of the holiday than many Jewish people I know.
As we walked the aisles of his store I checked the pet food that he had labeled as being appropriate for Passover and there were no errors. He explained that he had read an article by the Star-K kosher certification agency and felt he had a good understanding of what makes pet food kosher for Passover, but he wanted to run some questions by me. We had a long conversation about kitniyot(legumes, which most Ashkenazi Jews don’t eat on Passover) as well as the custom of feeding the family dog in the garage on Passover, which many families follow. Over and again, I heard Mike express how important he believes it is to provide quality service to his Jewish customers and ensure that they can purchase the best food for their pets on Passover while adhering to the holiday’s regulations.
Premier Pet Supply - Michigan
In terms of what Jewish law says about pet food on Passover, the most important thing to remember is that chametz (leavened products) from the five grains (barley, oats, rye, spelt, or wheat) is forbidden to eat or derive benefit from. Feeding chametz to one’s pet would be deriving benefit from it. Additionally, a Jewish person is not allowed to even possess any chametz on Passover.
As I explained to Mike, while kitniyot (legumes) are not eaten by most Ashkenazi Jews, they may be fed to pets on Passover. Also, one does not need to change over the dishes for pets, meaning that the usual food bowls for pets can be used on Passover but they should be cleaned out first.
Dog Food Kosher Passover

A 2009 article in the NY Times featured a Passover Seder for dogs that took place at a Chicago pet food store to promote Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Company which sells Kosher for Passover products. (Joshua Lott/Chicago Tribune)

There is a custom of “selling” one’s pet to a non-Jew on Passover. The reason for this has to do with deriving benefit from chametz. Thus, if one leaves a pet with a non-Jew during Passover the pet owner will still derive benefit from chametz when the non-Jewish friend feeds the pet. Therefore, some observant Jews will “sell” the pet to the non-Jewish friend on the condition it is sold back at the conclusion of the holiday in the same fashion as the “legal fiction” sale of chametz.

While many Jews are not familiar with the laws governing pet food on Passover, it is reassuring that there are pet supply store owners like Mike Palmer who are concerned about this. It is admirable that he has taken the time to research this subject and has gone out of his way to help his Jewish customers find the right pet food for Passover.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin

 

Rabbi_Asher_LopatinMagnolia Bakery at 108 N. State Street, right across from Macy’s, has just opened its doors and is certified by Kosher Michigan, a supervision agency headed by Rabbi Jason Miller. Even though the Kosher Michigan label is based in Detroit, I am thrilled that Magnolia is under the direct hashgacha (supervision) of Will Kaplowitz, a member of Anshe Sholom and someone whom I trust fully. I have concluded that Magnolia Bakery in Chicago fully meets the Kashrut standards of the Anshe Sholom community. All the products should be considered dairy, and may be enjoyed at the bakery or at home.

Magnolia is a chain that standardizes all of its products and ingredients, and the five Los Angeles stores are under the top-notch supervision of the Rabbinical Council of California. Those same ingredients are used at the Chicago bakery. Will has checked out everything in the Magnolia bakery in Chicago, and he confirms that every ingredient is under strict rabbinical supervision, including the hot drinks (with the exception of unflavored coffee and plain cocoa powder, neither of which need supervision). All dishes and utensils in the bakery were bought new and were never used before it opened as a kosher institution. In Los Angeles, as in Chicago, Magnolia is open on Saturdays. However, there is no issue eating Magnolia’s products (at any time when the eating of chametz is permissible) because Jews are not doing the baking, and they are not baking on Shabbat for Jews in particular.

I have met with Rabbi Miller, and reviewed with him the strict contract he has with the bakery. The contract forbids the bakery from mixing any outside ingredients with the products they sell, and requires employees to keep personal food away from the kitchen or baking area. Even though Kosher Michigan has been supervising kosher institutions in the Detoit area for four years already, in Chicago it is a new supervision.  I am impressed by both Rabbi Miller’s sincerity and earnestness, and his willingness to consult Orthodox authorities on halachic issues (he himself has ordination from JTS). It means a lot that his mashgiach on site is one of our most respected members, who is knowledgeable, observant, and in close contact with me. I will continue to be in touch with Rabbi Miller and Will to constantly confirm the reliability of this new supervision.

To reiterate, at this time, Magnolia Bakery in Chicago fully meets the standards of Kashrut of our community here in Lakeview. Please note that Ashkenazic Jews are strict about only eating Pat Yisrael – Jewish baked breads – between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. Since the baked foods in the bakery are baked by non-Jews, one should wait until after Yom Kippur to eat their products. After Yom Kippur, I would personally eat their products, both in the store and take out.

Gmar chatima tova,

Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Conservative Rabbi Takes Kashrut Challenge Up a Notch (JTA – April 11, 2011)

Conservatives taking kashrut challenge up a notch

JTA | By Sue Fishkoff · April 11, 2011

Rabbi Jason Miller - Kosher Michigan

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — The Conservative movement’s ethical kosher initiative may not have been intended as a wedge into the Orthodox monopoly over kosher supervision. But the planned rollout this summer of the Conservative-backed seal of ethical kosher production, the Magen Tzedek, coincides with an increase in the number of Conservative rabbis acting as kosher supervisors.

“I see an uptick,” said Rabbi Paul Plotkin, chairman of the kashrut subcommittee of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the legal body of the Conservative movement.

At a time of growing activism in the Conservative movement around the issue of kashrut, the Conservative rabbinate seems to be moving into the kashrut business like never before.

Conservative rabbis for years have been giving kosher supervision to their own synagogue kitchens, as well as to local caterers and retail establishments patronized by their congregations. But they largely left commercial kosher supervision to the Orthodox.

That’s beginning to change, say Conservative rabbis active in the field. It’s partly due to the energy generated by the Magen Tzedek initiative, which will rate kosher food manufacturers according to prescribed standards of ethical behavior regarding workers, animals, the environment and financial dealings. It’s also a natural extension of Conservative interest in promoting kashrut, rabbis in the movement say.

“Our rabbis are as knowledgable about kashrut as their Orthodox colleagues, and care about it as much as they do,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement’s main rabbinical group. “But our emphasis is on raising Jewish adherence to kashrut observance rather than professional ritual kashrut supervision. Magen Tzedek is our unique contribution to building awareness around the impact that kashrut is intended to have upon our full development as Jews.”

The Magen Tzedek is being tested at three kosher plants to see how well the auditing process works. Once testing concludes after Passover, those three manufacturers will go through the actual Magen Tzedek evaluation procedure, and the first kosher foods carrying the new seal should be on supermarket shelves before Rosh Hashanah, according to commission co-chair Rabbi Michael Siegel.

The identity of the companies involved in the trial is being kept under wraps, but at least one is a “major food producer,” according to Rabbi Morris Allen, Magen Tzedek’s program director.

Conservative Judaism, like Orthodoxy, accepts the Torah’s commandments as obligatory, including kashrut. While the same general laws of kashrut apply, there are some distinctions — notably the standards governing wine, cheese and certain fish.

In recent years, Conservative kashrut certification has grown.

In 2008, Rabbi Jason Miller of Detroit founded Kosher Michigan, which certifies nearly 30 products and establishments. In addition to the bakeries and ice-cream parlors typically supervised by Conservative rabbis, Miller oversees a company that makes dried wheat used as an ingredient in other kosher products, and in March he opened the glatt kosher dining plan at Michigan State University.

“I got into this reluctantly, but once I did, it became a passion and a mission to show that kosher-observant individuals need not rely on Orthodox hashgachah,” he said, using the Hebrew word for kosher certification. “I wasn’t waving the banner five or 10 years ago, but once I became part of the kosher certification world, I realized the injustice of the Orthodox monopoly.”

In Minneapolis-St. Paul, a group of Conservative rabbis launched MSP Kosher last July. Headed by Rabbi Avi Olitzky of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, the agency does not charge for its service, which Olitzky says is aimed at providing more kosher food for Jews who do not necessarily adhere to the stricter standards required by Orthodox supervision, such as glatt kosher meat.

“Plenty of people in the Jewish community who keep kosher will eat dairy out,” he says. “I’m not interested in going into hashgachah as a business. I don’t think it should be a business.”

In the past two decades, Conservative rabbis have spearheaded lawsuits challenging a number of states’ kosher laws on the grounds that they constitute government interference in religious matters. In every case, the courts agreed that the existing laws indeed privileged Orthodox definitions of kashrut and overturned them. New kosher laws in those states only require that establishments advertising themselves as kosher disclose their kosher standards, not that they subscribe to Orthodox certification.

“It’s a fair, nonsectarian way to acknowledge there are different approaches to kashrut,” said Rabbi Shalom Lewis, who was behind a recent case brought on his behalf in Atlanta by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Orthodox reaction to these legal challenges has varied from shrugs to protestation. In New York and New Jersey, Orthodox rabbis in charge of enforcing the new laws say they do a disservice to kosher consumers who, the rabbis say, are interested only in Orthodox certification.

In Georgia, Rabbi Reuven Stein, director of supervision of the Atlanta Kashruth Commission, said he was “disappointed” by Lewis’ lawsuit, calling it unnecessary and unhelpful.

“Conservative rabbis do give hechsherim, and we’ve never had an issue with it,” he said, using the Hebrew word for kosher certification.

Conservative leaders long have said that Magen Tzedek is not a replacement for Orthodox kosher certification, and only will be given to manufactured products already carrying a recognized kosher label, or to raw products such as fruits and vegetables that don’t need certification.

Even so, the Magen Tzedek leadership characterizes its relationship with the Orthodox Union, whose label will appear on two of the three first products carrying the new ethical seal, as friendlier than the OU describes it.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the OU’s Kosher Division, stands by the position he articulated soon after the May 2008 immigration raid on the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant. The Iowa plant’s demise pushed the Magen Tzedek project to the front burner of Conservative movement priorities.

“We believe that all these important issues — the environment, workers’ rights and so on — are most effectively handled by government agencies that have the expertise and the mandate to monitor them,” Gernack told JTA.

He said the OU was “dismayed” at Allen’s appearance on a recent episode of the TV show “American Greed” devoted to former Agriprocessors CEO Sholom Rubashkin, who is now serving a 27-year prison sentence for financial fraud.

“The sentence is a travesty,” Genack said.

That doesn’t mean the OU will hinder Magen Tzedek or any other additional certification a kosher food manufacturer might seek.

“If there is a company that wants to use Magen Tzedek, we will not object to it appearing on the label. We also would not object to them putting halal on their label,” Genack said, referring to Muslim dietary laws. “These are marketing decisions the company makes on its own.”