Nutrition Trends: Kosher in the Mainstream

The perception of higher quality is pushing kosher - a Hebrew word meaning 'fit' - well into the mainstream.

By Eric Schellhorn

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Permitted animals must be slaughtered by a shochet, a ritual slaughterer, who slits the animal’s throat with a special knife in a manner that minimizes suffering. The organs are inspected for flaws, such as adhesions on the lungs or a perforation of the brain, which could result in the animal being labeled treif, or unfit for consumption.

Sholom Rubashkin, whose Postville, Iowa-based firm Agriprocessors slaughters most of the kosher meat produced in the U.S., notes the emphasis placed on the intact brain. This factor, he notes, raised the profile of kosher beef at a time consumers are concerned about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, aka "mad cow" disease) which attacks the brains of cattle and has been linked to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. (For more on BSE, see “Meat Safety Under the Microscope.”)

“Consumers cite food safety issues as a reason to choose kosher foods,” says Paul J. Albert, marketing communications manager for Empire. “At Empire, safety in all products is ensured by rigorous tests and temperature inspections throughout the process. Empire Kosher sells more kosher chicken and turkey than any other company, so we take extra care at every stage of growing, processing, selling and distribution of our poultry to ensure the best quality and safety. We’re the only kosher poultry processor to have two dedicated knife inspectors on the plant floor at all times.”

Opportunity Knocks

Given the rigorous and complex nature of the kosher laws, it may seem surprising an estimated one-third of all food products — from crackers to corn syrup and club soda to caramels — are kosher-certified. Lubicom pegged the total number of kosher-certified products at 82,000 in 2003. Why are manufacturers putting themselves through the paces just to ensure they can display a hechsher, a symbol attesting to a product’s kosher status?

The answers, according to many who endure kosher inspections regularly, are that the market opportunity is too great to ignore and the certification process is not as intrusive or cumbersome as to outweigh the benefit.

OUT OF STYLE

Kosher is not a “style” of cooking — there is no such thing as "kosher-style" food. Chinese food can be kosher, if prepared in accordance with Jewish law. Although the details of kashrut are extensive, the laws all derive from a few fairly simple, straightforward rules: Certain animals may not be eaten at all. This restriction includes the flesh, organs, eggs and milk of the forbidden animals; of the animals that may be eaten, the birds and mammals must be killed in accordance with Jewish law; and all blood must be drained from the meat or broiled out of it before it is eaten; certain parts of permitted animals may not be eaten.

Gerry Kean, director of quality assurance for Brea, Calif.-based Ventura Foods, says the process of obtaining kosher certification for 80 percent of the mayonnaises, sauces, oils, shortenings, salad dressings and other products produced by his firm doesn’t exhaust patience or resources at his manufacturing operations.

“I found it to be very easy,” Kean says. “Once a company decides to get a product certified, it gets a rabbi to inspect the plant and the processes. You get a list of ingredients, submit kosher certifications on those ingredients, and submit a product and ingredient statement. It’s just not the horror some people envision it to be.”

Kean reports the ongoing follow-up inspections by the certifying agency’s rabbi, needed to maintain certification, aren’t burdensome either. “In each plant, once a month, the rabbi will show up and have complete rein,” he explains. “He’ll walk through the ingredient areas (and) look at our processing equipment to be sure the right process is being followed. But we’ve never had any issues at all; it’s an extremely cooperative process.”

Ventura, which supplies many of its products to fast-food restaurant chains and retailers for private-label resale, can’t afford to forgo certification, Kean adds. “Kosher certification opens up the marketplace. Supermarkets want kosher-certified products, as do kosher restaurants and institutions. We have to respond.”

“If a company is resisting the idea of going kosher either because they’re afraid of the cost or the responsibility, neither factor should be of great concern,” says Rabbi Luban of the OU. “The cost is very reasonable and minimal — in fact, by creating new avenues for products, the cost of the [certification] program is covered many times over. The kosher symbol is a powerful marketing tool today.”

Choice of a Lifetime

Seth Leavitt, the 33-year-old co-owner of Brooklyn-based Abeles & Heymann Gourmet Kosher Provisions Inc., agrees with that assessment. “When you’re kosher, you’re opening the door to more customers and, in many cases, you’re not doing anything to change the product at all,” he explains.

Leavitt knows first-hand about the drawing power of kosher. He and partner David Flamholz saw sales climb 500 percent since they bought the once-struggling enterprise in 1997. The company’s beef frankfurters are now available in kosher groceries around the nation, along with their new line of bison products and staples such as salami, bologna and liverwurst.

The most appealing aspect of Abeles & Heymann’s success is it came without a dime of advertising, and in spite of the fact A&H products, by Leavitt’s own admission, carry a premium price tag. “We’re probably the most expensive product on the market, and that doesn’t scare people away at all,” Leavitt notes. “Our sales are all from word-of-mouth, and I think that speaks volumes about the quality. If the price is fair, and the quality is there, you’ll have customers for life.”

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