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Kosher 101: the oy of cooking

Laurie Budgar

April 24, 2008

9 Min Read
Kosher 101: the oy of cooking

"That's not kosher." You've heard the phrase, perhaps applied to a breach in ethics or judgment. But do you know what it really means to be kosher? If not, you should, because consumers are demanding kosher foods to the tune of $190 billion—about 40 percent of the $467 billion spent on all groceries last year.

Of course, that includes food that just happens to be kosher but is bought for other reasons. Still, Kosher Today estimates that the market for buying kosher on purpose is about $10 billion and growing at a clip of about 15 percent annually. Since Jews represent only about 2.8 million people out of the nation's nearly 298 million, (and only a small percentage of them adhere to strict dietary laws), someone else is buying all the product. According to a recent Mintel study, 55 percent of people who buy kosher foods on purpose do so because they believe they're more healthful.

In fact, many people presume that kosher laws were a biblical-era necessity to maintain health. They're not entirely wrong. "It's for spiritual health," says Rabbi Aharon Brun-Kestler, rabbinic coordinator of the Orthodox Union, which is the oldest and largest kosher certifier in North America. Those who follow kashrut (the laws of kosher that evolved from the Torah, or Hebrew Bible) for religious reasons do so because the practice infuses spirituality into the most mundane of daily activities. "People perceive it as healthier, but its underlying reason is that God commanded us and that's what we do. That's the Zen of Judaism, that there is a system of keeping commandments to constantly give your life that sense of connectedness," Brun-Kestler says.

And, contrary to widespread belief, it takes more than a rabbi's blessing to render a food kosher. For starters, it can't be any rabbi, and it can't be any old food.

What, then, makes a product kosher?

The meat of the matter

  • Kosher laws prohibit mixing dairy and meat in the same product or meal. This means that even the dishes and utensils used to prepare dairy meals must be separate from those used for meat. Some foods commonly accepted by U.S. consumers as "dairy" in fact contain traces of meat. Cheese, which is often made with rennet, is one example; another is yogurt made with gelatin.

  • Food that is parve (neutral, such as eggs, vegetables, grains, beans or fruit) may be served with either type of meal.

  • Any animal that chews its cud and has split hooves (such as cattle, sheep, bison and deer) is kosher; if an animal has only one of these designations (such as a pig) it is not kosher. The same holds true for dairy products derived from animals.

  • Chickens, Cornish hens, ducks, geese and turkeys are kosher; predatory and scavenger fowl, including ostrich, are not.

  • Animals and fowl must be killed humanely by an experienced slaughterer who is knowledgeable about Torah and whose accuracy and speed with a knife prevent animal suffering. The animal's organs must be inspected after slaughter; any sign of disease or injury would render the animal nonkosher, or treif. Certain forbidden veins and fats are also removed, and the meat is then rinsed, salted, soaked and rerinsed to remove any traces of blood.

  • For fish to be kosher it must have both fins and scales; this means some popular species, such as swordfish and catfish, are not allowed; neither are shellfish. Although fish are considered parve, they may not be cooked with meat.

  • For the most part, any produce is kosher, although a prominent recent exception was that of American-grown romaine lettuce, due to insect infestation. Because produce is inherently susceptible to bugs, it becomes difficult to certify, especially with organics, which eschew synthetic pesticides.

  • Herbs, grains, seeds and nuts are also kosher by default, unless infested with insects.

  • Vitamins and supplements can be kosher if they have not been made using nonkosher gelatin or animal-based waxes and resins and if they eschew other nonkosher ingredients, such as oyster in calcium supplements. "There's a general rule," Brun-Kestler says, "that if something is medically required, a lot of bets are off. Your life comes first. Obviously if there's a kosher alternative, do it."

Some manufacturers are even producing kosher personal care products and pet food. "Does nail polish have to be kosher? No. Do people want it to be kosher? Yes. Why? I don't know," Brun-Kestler says, laughing. But people are buying it.

Regardless, kosher certification would hinge on the same criteria. A hair-care product, for example, couldn't have both milk and meat protein in it. When pet food is certified kosher, it's more to satisfy the spirit of the kosher law, which has a prohibition against benefiting from products that combine meat and dairy, Brun-Kestler says. "It's not that it's kosher in the sense of human consumption."

Every ingredient, every process
To meet kosher standards, a kitchen or other processing facility must undergo a rigorous kashering procedure in which a rabbi either heats its utensils and other equipment with a blowtorch or immerses them in boiling water. In addition, all preparation and processing surfaces must be scrubbed clean.

Dairy and meats need completely separate processing equipment. Care must be taken so that one does not commingle with the other. If a plant processes both kosher and nonkosher foods, it also must have separate equipment. "We're talking about separation at every level," Brun-Kestler says.

At the retail level, dairy and meat may need to be stored in separate coolers or freezers and separately from nonkosher foods. Separate dishes and utensils must be used to prepare and serve them. If mistakes are made—say a spoon used to stir yogurt accidentally touches beef broth—both the spoon and the containers holding the yogurt and the soup must be re-kashered.

"Kosher is really more like a QA function. In other words, when we get involved with a company, we're going to be involved top to bottom: every ingredient, every process. We have to look for crossover products and contamination. We're visiting the company once or twice a year," Brun-Kestler says.

In this regard, kosher certification is not unlike the organic certifying process.

"It's one of the reasons why we found synergies with, for example, the gluten-free people [OU now certifies products as gluten-free] and SGS [a Swiss group that certifies food safety]. We put out feelers to say, 'Hey, we're going into plants anyway. Is there any interest on the natural and organic side?' … It means fewer people traipsing through," the rabbi says.

The emphasis on preventing commingling also sits well with vegetarians, vegans, people with food sensitivities and consumers of organic foods, he says. "They're very happy to know that if it says kosher parve, there's no milk or meat in that [product]."

Look for the seal
To help consumers navigate this complexity and fill up their grocery carts with kosher products, several major U.S. kosher-certifying agencies inspect the manufacturers of kosher products. Each agency places its symbol (called a hechsher) on the food's label after it's been approved.

Kosher-savvy consumers look for those symbols, much the way organic consumers seek out the U.S. Department of Agriculture seal.

Some of the more well-known and respected certifiers include the Orthodox Union, Star-K, Organized Kashrus Laboratories and Kof-K. Brun-Kestler estimates that those four agencies approve 90 percent or more of the kosher-certified product available.

Still, there are other certifiers, many of which operate only in specific cities or states. "Some are very good, some are very good some of the time, and some are horrendous," Brun-Kestler says. "The standards are not consistent," he adds. "The top agencies have an incredible amount of stored-up knowledge and databases and people in the fields."

Brun-Kestler suggests retailers contact the rabbis in their town and ask them: "What is the community standard here? What kinds of things should I be looking for?" A standard that is acceptable in secularized neighborhoods of Miami Beach may not fly in Orthodox Brooklyn. Rabbis can also be a good source of other information. They may point out that products in your bakery could easily qualify for kosher certification, or that if you had a separate knife and board in your seafood department, you could serve kosher fish.

Start small
To keep things as simple as possible, Brun-Kestler suggests that retailers who want to carry kosher food begin with closed, certified product. Once you begin thinking about bringing kosher food into the bulk bins or foodservice areas, it becomes a little more complex.

"The places where retailers find it relatively easy is in whole grains. It's reasonably unlikely that they've been tampered with," he says. "With lentils, beans, etc. in bins—except for [the more rigorous laws during] Passover, I'm not going to lose a lot of sleep. When it's next to falafel mix, which is next to milk powder … then there could be more questions."

What consumers want
A decade ago, shoppers looking for kosher products went to the neighborhood kosher market. If they didn't live near one, they either stocked up when they went to big cities or got their supply through mail order. Now, even mainstream retailers are beefing up their kosher sections. Of note, Albertsons has expanded its kosher section in hundreds of its stores and even installed kosher bakeries and delis in more than 20 of its stores.

If your store is in an area with a large Jewish demographic, you'd do well to stock up on some of the more traditional kosher foods, such as Rokeach gefilte fish, Manischewitz Tam-Tam crackers or Empire kosher poultry. Otherwise, you may want to stock any of the 75,000 kosher products available from companies such as Country Choice, Eden Foods, Nature's Path, Road's End and dozens of other natural and organic manufacturers.

Consumers who don't strictly adhere to kosher rules might be satisfied with kosher-style foods. Keep in mind that a deli advertising kosher-style pastrami or pickles, for example, does not necessarily have any kosher certification. But it does mean the food is prepared like bubbe ("grandma") used to make it.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 3/p. 88, 92-93

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