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

Thomas Morrell, a supermarket manager in Des Moines, Iowa, is a devout Christian, yet when he buys groceries for his family, he often seeks out foods that have kosher certification. “The kosher food I buy, I buy because it has a higher quality to it,” he says. “Taste, freshness and the safety aspect are also a part. I know what a lot of the procedures are, for instance, having a rabbi there for extra inspections. And there’s the cleaner conditions in processing — that’s the big one for me.”

Down the road from Morrell, a large percentage of the customers at Maccabee’s delicatessen and grocery are not Jewish. “Kosher means quality, but also many of our non-Jewish customers say eating kosher makes them feel spiritual; it’s food of faith,“ says Yossi Jacobson, Iowa’s senior rabbi and the head of Chabad Lubavitch of Iowa.

It’s apparent kosher isn’t “just a Jewish thing.” If that were the case, the market for such products would be, at best, a niche play. According to recent figures, of the 5.2 million Jews in the U.S. only about 20 percent keep kosher.

Menachem Lubinsky, president and CEO of Lubicom, a Brooklyn, N.Y., marketing consulting firm, understands. “People believe kosher is better — it’s like a ‘Good Housekeeping’ seal of approval,” he notes. “Consumers today feel they’re largely on their own. The USDA can’t police everything, and there are 15,000 new food products released every year. There’s reassurance associated with the fact that there is another set of eyes on kosher products.”

According to Lubicom, orthodox Jews represent a small segment of the overall kosher-buying population, which, by the firm’s reckoning, now comprises at least 10.5 million consumers. Many kosher foods also meet the religious dictates of Seventh-Day Adventists, as well as Muslims who observe the tenets of Halal, the Islamic dietary laws. And the fact that meat and dairy products are never mixed, necessitating clear labeling as well as innovative nondairy recipe creation, makes kosher products attractive to lacto-vegetarians and the nation’s 50 million lactose-intolerant consumers.

But even patronage by those groups doesn’t fully account for the category’s 15-percent annual growth rate and $175 million in 2003 U.S. sales. That year, a survey by Mintel Consumer Intelligence revealed 28 percent of U.S consumers had purchased kosher products. Of that group, 35 percent indicated they did so for “taste” or “flavor,” while only 8 percent reported they kept kosher all year long.

In other words, kosher’s appeal extends far beyond a small subset of U.S. consumers. “That,” says Lubicom’s Lubinsky, “has everything to do with the perception of quality.”

Christophe Hervieu, director of marketing for Osem USA, an Israeli kosher foods manufacturer owned by Nestlé, echoes the assessment: “Kosher products are looked at by non-Jewish people as being of a higher quality because there is a rabbi’s supervision,” he says. “If a product has kosher certification, they see there’s been extra effort at the quality-control level.”

Yaakov Luban, executive rabbinic coordinator at the Orthodox Union (OU) (the largest of several hundred kosher-certification agencies) is quick to caution the “kosher-is-better” mindset invites some misconceptions. He stresses that the OU does not promote the idea something kosher is always better or the quality of kosher ingredients is always superior.

Defining Characteristics

So what exactly does kosher mean? And how do kosher products differ from non-kosher ones?

The short answer is, kosher is the original “you are what you eat” model. The meaning of "kosher," which is also a homonym for the Hebrew word  for "connection" comes from the biblical implication that the foods we eat, by being "fit," can enhance or detract from our connection to a higher power. Food that is kosher — “fit,” or “proper” — is sourced, prepared and served in compliance with laws derived primarily from the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and the Talmud (the rabbinical interpretations and clarifications of the laws of Torah begun over 2,000 years ago), as well as the works of successive centuries of Jewish scholarship.

Pork is forbidden, as is meat from carnivorous animals and scavengers as well as water-dwelling creatures without fins and scales. Kashrut also requires complete separation of meat and dairy products, right down to the utensils, equipment, containers and surfaces used in preparation and packaging. Items that have come into contact with non-kosher food may not be used with kosher food. Wine and grape juice made by non-Jews may not be consumed. 

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. 

“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.

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.”

Retailers On Board

One of the major developments on the kosher-foods front in recent years has been the decision by many major supermarket chains to devote significant shelf space to kosher products. “The supermarket world has bought into kosher big-time,” says Menachem Lubinsky of Lubicom. “They found providing consumers with everything they need from kosher is good business. They’re keeping people in the store and not giving them reason to go elsewhere.”

Rabbi Luban of the Orthodox Union says such a domino effect should ultimately result in an even greater range of choices for consumers who favor kosher products. In an essay for the OU’s web site, Luban writes: “As more companies become kosher, the suppliers of raw materials must become kosher as well. [If] a large pastry manufacturer, which uses hundreds of different ingredients, applies for kosher supervision, [and] 10 suppliers lack adequate kosher supervision, the pastry company gives notice — either go kosher or we can no longer use you as a supplier. [So] each time another manufacturer becomes kosher, the demand for additional kosher supervision is created, and the kosher food market is expanded.”

The impact extends to other organizations as well, Luban argues. “When certain companies go kosher, it puts pressure on the competition to do so. Fortunately, given the size of the kosher market, companies have more options now than they did 20 years ago. It’s just not that difficult to find kosher materials today.”

 

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