By most estimates, kosher certification is being sought after for at least some product by two-thirds of food processors, maybe more. The double-digit growth of the industry has often been reported in these pages (see The top six trends in food processing and Kosher in the mainstream) and elsewhere.
Processors are finding the boom in demand for kosher-certified foods creates a lucrative niche for kosher foodservice
An interesting facet of this is the near-equal growth trend in kosher foodservice. Although starting a kosher foodservice processing operation, or changing an existing one to qualify for kosher production, can be an expensive proposition, some processors are opting in.
"Foodservice is increasingly becoming a focus of interest for kosher food manufacturers," says Rabbi Menachem Lubinsky, director of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Lubicom Marketing, a marketing company serving kosher food and beverage professionals. Lubinsky also is editor of www.koshertoday.com, a weekly online industry newsletter. "Kosher catering alone has been growing at a rate of 15 to 20 percent as more and more hotels and other venues offer kosher catering."
Experts at the Chicago Rabbinical Council (CRC) concur. Whereas many hotels have kosher kitchens to serve the growing demand for kosher catering, the council makes note of the Westin Hotel chain's new facility in Wheeling, Ill., which includes two completely separate kosher kitchens - one meat and one dairy.
According to the CRC, the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., is providing kosher instruction to prepare students for dealing with kosher issues.
"Because of high competition - especially from the big-box stores such as Wal-Mart and Supertarget - large supermarket chains are looking for niches to provide extra service," says Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union (OU) Kosher Division.
|Meat processing is very different from the average processing situation because in kosher production, meat has to be completely isolated from any other ingredient. According to Rabbi Reuven Flamer, CEO of Natural Food Certifiers Inc., "From the beginning to the closing at the end of day, meat must be kept under lock and key available only to the rabbinical inspector or certifying rabbi. The rabbi must be on premises the entire time a meat product is being prepared. Any interruptions in supervision of the preparation can disqualify an entire run of product."|
The OU certifies more than 400,000 products manufactured in more than 80 countries worldwide. "Supermarkets such as Shop Rite, Albertson's and Jewel opt to provide kosher catering service. It's worth it as a draw to the store, that it brings more customers in," says Genack.
Kosher foodservice is expanding to meet other demands. "The increasing prominence of the kosher-observant dieter in all segments of society is steadily giving rise to new needs for kosher provisions in remote or limited-access locations," says Abe Halberstam, president of LaBriute Meals (www.labriutemeals.com), a Lakewood, N.J., unit of Euro-Cut Inc.
In March, the company received a contract from the U.S. Dept. of Defense to provide kosher-for-Passover MREs (meals ready to eat) for Jewish troops. LaBriute has become a major player in the shelf-stable and self-heating meals market.
On the processing side, Lubicom's Lubinsky asserts, "Manufacturers are adapting their products to serve foodservice. Many manufacturers who may have in years past passively viewed foodservice are today designating special teams to serve foodservice."
A matter of process
Processors interested in kosher certification or sourcing kosher can find more information from the following sources.
Assn. of Kashrus Organizations www.akokosher.org
"There can be unique challenges faced by food processors for kosher foodservice," notes Joe Regenstein, head of Cornell's Kosher Food Initiative. "Even in situations where the process is simply a question of quantity packaging, problems can arise." Regenstein cites continuous retort systems as one example.
With a continuous system, every point in the processing chain must comply with and be supervised according to kosher laws. This is critical not only regarding the equipment and processing line but the ingredients as well.
Regenstein acknowledges the multiple-source nature of many foodservice operations. He points out the acceptance of particular certification is more critical in the foodservice processing environment when different components from different sources converge into one production system.
Lubicom 's Lubinsky explains, "While a manufacturer may be certified by one agency or rabbi, the caterer may wish to engage his own kosher supervisor that meets the level of kosher that satisfies a particular need or constituency."
LaBriute Meals expanded its position in the kosher foodservice niche by specializing in self-heating, shelf-stable meals.
Certain ingredients in kosher processing must be supervised at all times by the certifier (mashgiach). Meat is especially critical, due to the rules of ritual slaughter, purity of the animal and strict separation of meat and dairy commanded by Jewish law. And, of course, the overall need to distinguish kosher from non-kosher meat.
"Many people think of kosher certification as simply coming in to 'bless' the kitchen," says Rabbi Reuven Flamer, CEO of Natural Food Certifiers Inc., Spring Valley, N.Y., the first natural and USDA-organic food kosher certification company. "Kosher is certification to physically inspect that every step and ingredient complies with the Kosher laws that ensure pure foods.
A systemic situation
The separation of meat and dairy extends to the equipment as well. For example, a nondairy yogurt-like product may not have an iota of dairy in the formulation, but if the equipment or, even in some cases, the preparation surfaces have contact with dairy, then the product is considered dairy.
"If you prepare kosher and nonkosher in the same facility and use the same equipment, the certifying rabbi must kasher ("kosherize") all the surfaces, utensils and equipment and then recertify them. And recertification may occur only after a 24-hour 'down' period," says Flamer. "Most processors don't know that the exhaust vent and filters over preparation surfaces and vessels need to be inspected as well," he adds.
(Courtesy of Lubicom Inc.)
Rabbi Flamer recalls one situation where a large manufacturer was doing mass production for foodservice and hit just such a snag. "A single-boiler, multi-vessel return-steam system for double-jacketed vessels was in use and the steam was originating three rooms away in a nonkosher set-up in the facility. Heat, being a transferring agent, can cause contamination because of the condensate. The steam was routed via a vessel in which nonkosher food was prepared, rendering the equipment using the steam unkosher. We fixed the problem by using a boiler additive - usually a bitter or noxious chemical, such as chlorine."
Fresh leafy greens also can be problem sources. According to Jewish Law, a whole insect is considered as offensive as pork. All fresh produce must be inspected. But items such as leafy greens and berries - where insects can easily hide - must be rigorously checked.
"Insect infestation is affected by issues such as season and climate. Inspecting lettuces and other leafy greens for bugs, especially extremely small ones, such as aphids, can be tedious and expensive," says the OU's Genack.
"The light box has become standard. It's an OU innovation we developed to make the process easier and more efficient," Genack notes. Also, the work must be preformed by a mashgiach, which means an added full-time position for the processor.
Case in point
As daunting as kosher foodservice may appear, it's growing for good reason. "Soul Vegetarian sought to have our products meet kosher requirements for several purposes," says Laura Gaines, president of Soul Vegetarian Food Products Inc., Los Angeles. "Kosher certification instills confidence that the products meet religious and ethical dietary requirements. But it is also represents another level of the high quality we continue to achieve with our organic, kosher, vegetarian/vegan foods."
There are hundreds of different hechshers - that is, kosher certification seals - in use all over the world. Many states, and even large cities, have their own kosher oversight group. Different organizations apply different levels of strictness in their adherence to kosher laws, so research is in order to find the kosher organization that best fits your needs. Some of the larger kosher certifying agencies are:
Gaines points out that the foodservice industry serves consumers who don't have the opportunity to check labeling. "When we began presenting to entities such as hotels and universities, we found the demand was very high for organic and even more so for kosher foods," she says. "Being kosher, we can serve a wider variety of foodservice consumers."
The biggest challenge for Soul Vegetarian was sourcing ingredients and manufacturers willing to comply with the rigorous requirements to produce organic and kosher foods. "We are constantly challenged to source ingredients that meet our high standards," Gaines says.
The effort paid off. "Our initial forays into foodservice have enabled us to serve senior living centers, long-term care facilities, hospitality venues, employee dining facilities, restaurants, event catering and other institutional and foodservice categories. We are presently being distributed in a few key markets. As we expand, we are continually seeking new foodservice opportunities and distribution."
|Kosher Food Production, by Rabbi Zushe Blech (Blackwell Publishing, 2004; www.blackwellpublishing.com). Includes both basic kosher laws and theory plus details essential food-production procedures required of modern food plants to meet kosher certification standards.|
"The certification was well worth it," Gaines says. "It allows us to tout our products as the purest quality available. Health-conscious consumers are seeking foods that are nutritious and prepared in a safe manner. Kosher represents that, even to non-Jewish consumers. The kosher certification has expanded our market."
Rabbi Flamer says processors should not be discouraged. "A company shouldn't think that going kosher is insurmountable - thousands of companies are doing it. And it can be a lucrative market. It's definitely worth looking into."