When it comes to food, most consumers would prefer to know more rather than less—where it came from, what it contains or doesn?t, how it was processed. And with fears about food safety rising in reaction to the news of mad cow disease and contaminants in the food chain, more shoppers are seeking products that meet high standards of purity.
Increasingly, consumers are looking to certifications to guide them in their purchases. For natural food customers, ?organic? may be the preferred designation. But a growing number of people are looking for other assurances that products have met more than the minimum inspection requirements set by the federal government.
Kosher and halal are two food certifications once sought only by devoutly religious Jews or Muslims; now, these labels are in demand by secular consumers concerned about food purity. Kosher foods, in particular, are seeing tremendous sales gains. For the past nine years, kosher-certified food sales have increased 15 percent annually, and are now a $7.5 billion industry with about 80,000 kosher packaged foods, according to statistics compiled by Integrated Marketing Communications. About 3,000 new Kosher products come on the market each year. The number of Orthodox Jews in the United States has remained relatively stable, however, at about 600,000, according to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
As many as 28 percent of those surveyed ?consciously? bought a kosher product during the past year, according to Menachem Lubinsky, president of IMC and editor of Kosher Today, a monthly industry newsletter. And the reason, he says, is a belief that ?kosher is better.?
?After mad cow, there has been a surge in products that are perceived to be healthier and safer,? says Lubinsky. Those concerns have driven the purchase of natural products as well. ?The findings show a lot of synergy in these markets,? he says.
Kosher products attract not only those who ?keep kosher?—Jews who adhere strictly to biblical dietary guidelines—but also vegetarians and Seventh Day Adventists, notes Steve Sichel, director of development at Atlanta-based Star-K, one of several kosher certifiers. ?Those consumers seek out kosher parve products because they are assured that they are free of animal [products] and animal byproducts.? Parve foods are those that have neither meat nor dairy ingredients.
Halal is often thought of as Islam?s dietary equivalent of kosher, though there are theological and practical differences. And, while demand is increasing for halal products, the number of foods approved by halal certifying agencies is still small. But the potential for sales is huge.
There are 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide, 8 million in the United States, and 70 percent to 90 percent of all Muslims follow halal regulations, according to Mian Riaz, a researcher on the graduate faculty at Texas A&M?s food science department.
The U.S. food industry first recognized the need for halal certification in 1991, when Islamic countries returned foods America donated after the Gulf War. The foods lacked the halal seal, according to Riaz, author of Halal Food Production (CRC Press, 2003), a text for the food industry on the intricacies of certification.
Among nonreligious but health-conscious consumers, the perception of halal, like kosher, is that the foods are cleaner and healthier. Even the list of accepted and banned foods is similar. Any food is halal, says Mian, except for pork or pork byproducts, and alcohol or anything containing alcohol, such as vanilla extract. Kosher law has a similar ban on pork products, as well as some other animal and seafood items, but allows alcohol.
Both halal and kosher laws set forth detailed requirements for animal slaughter, including a mandate that all blood must be drained immediately from the carcass. Unlike organic food production, neither kosher nor halal places any restriction on what happens to animals before slaughter.
As for vegetables, pests are prohibited, so kosher-approved methods of bug control can be used. ?If you buy nice, fresh, organic broccoli, you might find some bugs on it,? says Sichel. Not so for kosher. Both halal and kosher have specifications for handling, storing and processing food, and restrict intermingling of approved and unapproved foods.
?Kosher certification is like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval,? says Sichel. It?s an indication, at least, that another agency has been overseeing the integrity of the product. ?We visit every plant we give certification to, sending a rabbi to do the inspection,? he says. ?There is no compromise, because the rules come from God.?
Labeling mistakes can happen, however, and when they occur they are posted on a Web site, kashrut.com, created by Arlene Mathes-Scarf in 1996.
Mathes-Scarf also has seen a steady increase in interest in kosher foods. ?Of 5,000 e-mails I received, 15 percent are from non-Jews, people who are interested in kosher because they have health concerns, food allergies, lactose intolerance or are Muslims or Christians trying to follow a particular diet,? she says.
And that hasn?t gone unnoticed at the retail level. Although the bulk of his customers? requests are for organics, Eric Chabot, grocery manager of Good Earth Natural Market in Fairfax, Calif., has seen shoppers asking for kosher and, on occasion, halal products. ?Like with organics, there is a trust that someone is asking the tough questions and holding people to the truth of the paperwork,? he says. On the opposite coast the same rumblings are being felt. ?I answer a lot of this question: ?Is it kosher?? And I have customers who come in seeking specific kosher products and then bemoan the fact that some are no longer available,? says David Basham, owner of Back to the Land Natural Foods in Brooklyn, N.Y.
?There?s a similarity in lifestyle choices between natural and kosher food buyers,? notes Joel Dee, president of Edward and Sons Trading Co., the manufacturer of several products with both organic and kosher certification, though fewer are kosher. ?Whether we seek kosher certification depends on the uniqueness of the product,? he says. His company makes gummy candies, which ordinarily contain gelatin. But, because most gelatin is derived from meat byproducts, vegetarians, kosher and halal adherents shun it. There is kosher gelatin, made from fish, but it is prohibitively expensive. Dee?s company uses agar from seaweed, or pectin from apples, and the product is undergoing kosher certification.
But the meat-free connotation for the gummy candies draws many consumers. ?Those keeping kosher keep meat and dairy separate, and the ?vegan? mark we developed indicates if a product is free of animal ingredients,? he says.
Kosher and halal certifications, like their organic counterpart, are costly, Dee notes, and that price is passed on to the consumer. And, for natural foods stores to carry kosher and halal food, the products must meet other requirements. Says Dee, ?Obviously, even if a product is kosher, if it doesn?t meet the standards of a natural foods store, no store owner would stock it.?
Barbara Hey is a Boulder, Colo.-based free-lance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 3/p. 80, 84