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.

Mark Your Calendars for Thanksgivukkah (Detroit News – October 8, 2013)

Mark your calendars for Thanksgivukkah

Not since 1888 have Thanksgiving, start of Hanukkah fallen on the same day

LEANNE ITALIE | ASSOCIATED PRESS
Woodstock-inspired T-shirts celebrating Thanksgiving and Hannukkah have a turkey perched on the neck of a guitar and implore ‘8 Days of Light, Liberty & Latkes.’ The creators nabbed the trademark to ‘Thanksgivukkah.’ (AP)

New York— It’s a turkey. It’s a menorah. It’s Thanksgivukkah!

An extremely rare convergence this year of Thanksgiving and the start of Hanukkah has created a frenzy of Talmudic proportions.

The last time it happened was 1888, or at least the last time since Thanksgiving was declared a federal holiday by President Abraham Lincoln, and the next time may have Jews lighting their candles from spaceships 79,043 years from now, by one calculation.

A 9-year-old New York boy has invented the “Menurkey” and raised more than $48,000 on Kickstarter for his already trademarked, Turkey-shaped menorah. Woodstock-inspired T-shirts have a turkey perched on the neck of a guitar and implore “8 Days of Light, Liberty & Latkes.” The creators nabbed the trademark to “Thanksgivukkah.”

Songs have popped up with lyrics like these from “The Ballad of Thanksgivukkah”: “Imagine Judah Maccabee, sitting down to roast turkey and passing the potatoes to Squanto …” Rabbi David Paskin, the song’s co-writer and co-head of the Kehillah Schechter Academy in Norwood, Mass., proudly declares his the Jewish day school nearest Plymouth Rock.

Some observers in Metro Detroit say the convergence means Hanukkah, which often has fallen close to Christmas, could this year absorb the flavor of Thanksgiving.

“Because of Hanukkah’s usual proximity to Christmas, it’s taken on this gift-giving culture. So it’s possible that this year, because of it coinciding with Thanksgiving, there might be more of a focus on being thankful … for what you have,” said Rabbi Jason Miller, director of Kosher Michigan and based in West Bloomfield Township.

Let’s not forget the food mash-ups commemorating the staying power of the Pilgrims and the fighting prowess of the Jews, along with the miracle of one night’s oil lasting eight days. Pumpkin latkes, apple-cranberry sauce and deep-fried turkey, anyone?

“It’s pretty amazing to me that in this country we can have rich secular and rich religious celebrations and that those of us who live in both worlds can find moments when they meet and can really celebrate that convergence. There are a lot of places in the world where we would not be able to do that,” Paskin said.

The lunisolar nature of the Jewish calendar makes Hanukkah and other religious observances appear to drift slightly from year to year when compared to the U.S., or Gregorian, calendar. But much of the intrigue over Hanukkah this year is buried deep in the history of Thanksgiving itself, which hasn’t always been fixed in the same spot. That caused some initial confusion over Thanksgivukkah.

In 1863, Lincoln declared Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November (the month sometimes has five of those) and the holiday remained there until President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress fixing it as the fourth Thursday, starting in 1942.

Since 1863, Thanksgiving and the first full day of Hanukkah on the Gregorian calendar have not overlapped. Jewish practice calls for the first candle of eight-day Hanukkah to be lit the night before Thanksgiving Day this year, so technically Thanksgivukkah falls on the “second candle” night.

Jonathan Mizrahi, a quantum physicist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., puzzled on the convergence last January, in a blog post with buzzed-about line graphs picked up by others online.

More than 100,000 people have visited the blog since then, he said, including some who questioned his calculations and prompted him to post a couple of clarifications.

He hadn’t made it clear that he was referring to the “second candle” night of Hanukkah, and he hadn’t realized Thanksgiving had shifted from the last to the fourth Thursday of November.

While the whole thing is lots of fun, is there anything truly cosmic happening here?

Well, there’s Comet ISON, which is set to pass close by the sun on Thanksgiving and may provide a nice show — possibly even during daylight. Or not, since comets can’t always be counted on.

Detroit News staff writer Mark Hicks contributed

From The Detroit News: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20131008/NATION/310080034#ixzz2mulywrrm

Ending Kosher Nostra: How to Bring Sanity to the Kosher Industry

Rabbi Jason Miller koshering a kitchenThere’s a joke I often tell about a conversation regarding the kosher laws between Moses and God. God dictates the Jewish dietary laws to the Israelite leader in easy-to-understand terms, but Moses repeatedly complicates these statutes. Finally, frustrated, God gives up and tells Moses to just do whatever he wants.

From the commandments to not cook a calf in its mother’s milk and the prohibition on eating certain animals, the kosher laws have become a very complex system of eating restrictions. To ensure the compliance of the kosher standards from the farm to the factory to the grocery store to the restaurant, an entire industry of supervision and certification was been established. In recent years, I’ve found myself entrenched in this world of hashgacha.

In her recently published book, Kosher Nation, Sue Fishkoff provides the reader with an insider’s perspective about what goes on in the kosher food industry on a daily basis. Each chapter details another aspect of the Jewish dietary ethic – how kosher food has conquered the U.S. market, the business of kosher certification, the rise and fall of the Jewish deli, the kashering of a hotel for a wedding, and the often scandalous production of kosher slaughtered meat. Fishkoff circles the country to explain the subtle nuances of “keeping kosher” in the 21st century. She travels as far as China to shadow a kosher supervisor checking for compliance in several factories. Fishkoff provides insight into the sometimes dirty politics in which the kosher certification agencies have notoriously engaged. From extortion and price gouging to fraud and general dishonesty, kosher certification has gotten a bad name.

My journey to the kosher certification profession was not planned. In 2008, I was hired as the rabbi of Tamarack Camps, with my main focus to supervise of the agency’s kosher kitchens. To adequately prepare for this new role, I returned to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York where I was ordained. Though I had served as a mashgiach (kosher supervisor) in the cafeteria as a rabbinical student, I required detailed instruction to oversee the large camping agency’s many industrial kitchens as a rav hamachshir (certifying rabbi).

This new position led to my private certification of a few bakeries, bagel stores and a vegetarian restaurant with the eventual formation of my own kosher certification agency, Kosher Michigan. This experience has been nothing less than fascinating. I now certify a paper mill that makes paraffin wax paper for kosher foods, olive oil bottling at a spice company, a gourmet chocolate factory, a foodservice corporation that provides shelf-stable meals to areas hit by natural disasters, as well as several other businesses. I’m frequently called upon to kosher industrial and residential kitchens, to consult Jewish organizations on kosher matters and to speak about the kosher food industry.

I have become accustomed to fielding many questions about my kosher certification. People want to know if “the Orthodox” (as if it’s a monolithic group) accepts my imprimatur. They want to know if “Conservative kosher” (their phrase) is really legitimate. I’m frequently asked to articulate my standards and demonstrate my knowledge. Without even understanding the term, they want to know if all of the food I certify is glatt (even the bagels!). Some are surprised that I conduct unannounced spot checks more often than many of my Orthodox colleagues.

As Fishkoff demonstrates in Kosher Nation, the kosher business has changed drastically over the past several years. She writes, “kosher has become one of the country’s hottest food trends. … A generation ago, kosher was a niche industry, the business of the country’s small minority of observant Jews. … Today one-third to one-half of the food for sale in the typical American supermarket is kosher. That means more than $200 billion of the country’s estimated $500 billion in annual food sales is kosher certified.” Not bad for a religious tribe that accounts for less than 2 percent of the U.S. population.

And it’s not just that there’s more kosher food out there. The rules of the game have radically changed as well. So many proverbial fences have been erected around the kosher laws that no 19th century rabbi would recognize them. Rabbis today can make a modest living washing leafy vegetables and checking them for miniscule bug infestations. The ultra-Orthodox have ruled that such innocuous items as strawberries, Romaine lettuce, Brussel sprouts, smoked salmon and water cannot be consumed because of either insects or microscopic copepods. Non-observant Jewish owners of kosher grocery stores, meat markets, and restaurants are no longer trusted to hold the keys to their own businesses.

A Mafia-like reputation (“Kosher Nostra”) has been attributed to the kosher certification industry. Fishkoff tells stories of strong-arm tactics and extortion when it came to kosher meat. “Corruption and scandal also plagued the processed food industry,” she writes. “Keeping kosher is a mitzvah, but giving kosher certification is a business. And that means money, politics, and all the other unpleasant temptations that can distract a Jew from fulfilling God’s commandments.” There’s a sordid history of lax supervision of kosher-for-Passover food, substitution of cheaper treif meat in butcher shops, and rabbis selling high priced kosher certifications with no oversight in exchange. Rabbi Don Yoel Levy, the head of the OK kosher agency was interviewed by Fishkoff. He told her, “Kashrus today is power and money. And unfortunately, it’s extremely competitive. Instead of people working together to improve kashrus, everybody tries to get business away from the other one.” Levy even blames kosher politics for his father’s death. He attributes the 1986 scandal that included death threats against the state inspectors to be the cause of his father’s demise.

I am frequently called by local business owners who have been interested in acquiring kosher certification for years, but have been turned off by the methods of the established agencies. I recently met with a store owner to discuss certifying her food market, which had previously been under kosher certification. When I told her that I wouldn’t confiscate her set of keys to her store even though she is not an observant Jew and that I donate the majority of my profits to local charities, she told me that I was “a breath of fresh air.”

Positive change is afoot in the kosher world. Today, more people are increasingly concerned about the food they eat, where it comes from and who is making it. They want to be assured that it is clean, fresh, safe and healthy. More people have specialized diets because of lifestyle choices, health reasons or religious values. Kosher is just another option in a category that includes vegan, organic, gluten-free and heart smart. There is a growing non-Jewish demographic that is maintaining some form of a kosher diet. And the leaders of Reform Judaism, which once shunned kashrut, are now promoting adherence to the kosher laws on some level.

Like me, other Conservative rabbis around the country are launching kosher certification agencies. There may be four major agencies, but there are close to a thousand smaller ones. Getting rid of the monopoly enjoyed by some kosher agencies in communities will only help reduce the price of kosher food. Kosher certification, I maintain, is about trust. When dirty politics and corruption are allowed to enter, they only diminish the holiness that kosher observance intends. Ending “Kosher Nostra” will add sanity to the kosher industry.

We have become so far removed from the kosher laws of the Torah and Talmud that we focus less on why we keep kosher and more on how punctilious we can be, only to “out frum” the next person. We have become so concerned about everyone else’s kosher standards that the same laws enacted to keep our community united are being used to keep us from ever being able to eat together. I’m reminded of the joke about the ultra-pious man who dies and goes to heaven. When a colossal feast of the choicest, most expensive foods is laid out in front of him, he inquires with the ministering angel about the kosher certification there in heaven. When he’s told it is the Holy One, God himself, who has sanctioned the kashrut of the food he decides to play it safe and just orders a fruit plate.

My goals for Kosher Michigan are simple. I want to help create more options for the kosher consumer without exorbitant prices. I want to shift the focus of kosher certification to trust and the compliance of sensible standards, regardless of denominational affiliation. It does not necessarily follow that a restaurant owner who does not observe the Sabbath cannot therefore be trusted to maintain the strictures of the kosher laws in his establishment. And just because a non-Jew has looked at a bottle of wine does not mean it is no longer suitable for Jewish consumption. I want to help people ask educated, thoughtful questions about kosher certification, rather than resort to pejorative comments that seek to divide our people.

I consider it a great honor to have the responsibility of keeping my eye on food production and preparation to ensure proper compliance of our kosher laws. No matter why people choose to eat kosher, I want them to feel confident trusting my certification. I’m only one person, but if I can help make the kosher industry more “kosher,” it’s an important start.