A Jew, a Muslim and a Hindu walk into a conference room…
No, it's not the start of a politically incorrect joke. It was the session I moderated for the Annual Meat Conference, held in Orlando February 18 -20. The session, titled, "Kosher and Halal: Understanding the Product and the Market," featured guest speakers Mohammed Chaudry, Ph.D., president of the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (www.ifanca.org), Chicago, and Sumitha Nair, a senior consultant for Mintel Group International (www.mintel.com), Chicago.
This was the first time the conference, hosted by the two Washington-based groups, the American Meat Institute (AMI; www.meatinstitute.org) and the Food Marketing Institute (www.fmi.org), featured a segment covering this important topic.
"The demand for kosher and halal is clearly increasing dramatically in the U.S., yet many people lack an understanding of these products and the consumers who buy them," said Janet Riley, senior vice president of public affairs and professional development for AMI. "This conference was the ideal venue for some much-needed education about kosher and halal. Turnout for the session and the excellent reviews it received affirmed its importance."
And that's why, although I participated in the conference wearing my Food Processing hat, so to speak, I believe it merits coverage in my capacity as editor of Wellness Foods.
Where else to add this important dimension of "spiritual wellness" that impacts consumers? A main impetus (though by all means not the main impetus) behind the phenomenal growth in kosher and halal in food processing has been concern with what we put into our body. In that respect, these dual categories of product are no different from the drive to include nutraceutical components in a food or drink product. From the sacred side, the need for religious oversight of what we consume is firmly based on the belief that physical and spiritual health are inextricable.
Three "myths about myths" of kosher certification were discussed in the session. One, that there is (still) a divide between "ethnic" kosher foods -- bagels, gefilte fish, pastrami -- and "mainstream" kosher foods that are certified to appeal to the larger percentage of people who purchase kosher products. The fact is, the lines are well and truly blurred, and merging fast. Bagels and lox have been mainstream American foods ever since Harry Lender first successfully froze a bagel in 1964. At the same time, old standby "Jewish" foods are becoming hipper, with formulations designed to appeal to 21st century palates -- bison pastrami and salmon gefilte fish are two examples.
The next myth is that kosher meat is "blessed." Actually, this is a myth of a myth, because the answer usually given to this question is "no," when the true answer is, "sort of." A blessing is said prior to slaughter that, to paraphrase, thanks G-d for allowing us to take the life of the animal and to elevate the animal's essence so that when we eat of it we too are elevated.
The reason the typical answer is "no" is because kosher has to do with preparation to make food fit, not simply that it is "blessed" by a rabbi.
It must be noted that the majority of people, Jewish or non, choosing kosher-certified foods do so for perceived "cleanliness and safety" as opposed to for religious purposes. And that brings up the next myth: One often reads that kosher foods are not really necessarily cleaner or safer than nonkosher foods.
I believe this came about as an attempt to clarify that religious certification is based on laws governing what's "fit" (the meaning of the word kosher) in the spiritual sense and that food manufactured in any modern, legally compliant facility will be just as clean and pure.
The fact is, when certain processes are in place that supersede the legal minimum for food safety and cleanliness, coupled with extra oversight by professionals then built upon by the need for rigorous cleaning between uses of processing equipment, you can believe the end product is that much more reliable for safe and healthful consumption.
All of this does not mean there aren't any cheaters in the system. But when a certification for a halal or kosher line of products gets exposed as failing to meet criteria of safety, humaneness or any other qualification it cannot be stressed enough that these are cheaters and belong to the ranks of the disreputable by any culture's system of values. By and large, kosher and halal certifiers are dedicated to pursuing the absolute strictest adherence of their organizations rules for passing a product or facility.
Among the numerous factors covered in his comprehensive presentation, Chaudry discussed the booming marketing opportunities for halal certification in this country. Although only a small portion of the 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide, the U.S.'s population of about 6 million Muslims is growing exponentially.
Chaudry also reviewed terminology, the guidelines and criteria for halal certification, the basic process for certification, the monitoring and enforcement processes, the importance of halal to consumers (virtually identical to kosher) and the specific requirements for meat, poultry and seafood. He described the key elements of Halal meat species and their production, including restraining, stunning, slaughter and further processing.
Although the U.S. population of Jews numbers about the same as Muslims right now, it has stayed relatively static over the years although, according to Mintel's Nair the population of Orthodox (kosher-keeping) Jews is growing. Demand for kosher certification continues its rise based on the cachet such certification holds among a number of non-Jewish groups. This is due, in great part, to the rigorous separation of meat and dairy products -- appealing to those who seek dairy-free products and the equally rigorous control of the processing and use of meat, of concern to a large and growing demographic that includes vegetarians (especially vegans), Hindus, Seventh-Day Adventists and those concerned with meat safety and health.
Sumitha Nair's presentation explained the double-digit growth of kosher and halal products and certification in terms of both understanding the market for such items as well as how the different markets impact kosher and halal consumption in America as a whole.
Nair also included a discussion on the influence of religion and beliefs on the foods Americans of all backgrounds choose, and the impact of traditions in immigrant and second-generation families. Particularly intriguing was her segment on the future of so-called "sacred foods."
Complete presentations by Chaudry and Nair are available for download online at www.meatconference.com/events.html.