Everything’s kosher as certified foods move into the mainstream

Rabbi Levi is the Rabbitical Field Administrator Inspector checking product in the Garden Protein manufacturing facility. Photograph by: Kim Stallknecht, PNG

Everything’s kosher as certified foods move into the mainstream

A reputation for careful production and inspection has driven popularity of food that meets Jewish dietary laws


Take a little non-profit agency run by an innovative orthodox rabbi — in no way a contradiction in terms — and you get Kosher Check, a Vancouver kosher certification agency that sends rabbinical inspectors as far away as India and China.

“Companies want to get kosher certification because it makes their products easier to sell,” Kosher Check business manager Richard Wood said.

“The majority of people today buy kosher products not because they are Jewish but because they are vegans or vegetarians or celiacs or lactose intolerant,” Wood said. “They could be Muslims or Seventh Day Adventists.”

The primary reason North Americans buy kosher is for its reputation for more careful production and inspection, market research firm Mintel said. In response to the market perception, Kosher Check will now require adherence to advanced food safety protocols such as Canada’s Hazard Awareness Critical Control Points (HACCP). It already requires food manufacturers to meet Canadian Food Inspection Agency minimum standards.

Kosher Check certifies food as having been prepared according to Jewish dietary laws and labels foods as dairy, a meat product or dairy free (pareve).

Certain animals, fowl and fish (such as pork, rabbit, catfish, shellfish and most insects) are not kosher, and even kosher species must be slaughtered and prepared in a prescribed manner. Dairy products must come from kosher animals. Meat and milk may not be combined, and ingredients within a kosher product must be kosher. Fruit and vegetables are kosher, but must be inspected and certified that they are not contaminated by anything non-kosher, such as insects.

Eighty per cent of global kosher sales are outside traditional Jewish markets, Wood said. “Kosher outpaces organic, natural and gluten (free) and continues to be the market leader in North America,” he said.

Only 14 per cent of U.S. consumers buying kosher foods do so because they adhere to Jewish dietary laws, according to Mintel. In addition, 10 per cent of consumers buying kosher foods do so because they follow other religions with similar dietary rules.

India and China have become prime customers for the Vancouver non-profit agency as food manufacturers increasingly seek more affordable, Asian-produced ingredients such as dehydrated onion powder, menthol oil, guar gum and glucose, Wood said.

Kosher Check certifies 14,000 products of which 2,000 are manufactured and certified in Asia.

“Seventy per cent of the world’s mint comes from India. The mint in your toothpaste probably comes from India,” Wood said.

He also recently sent a rabbi to Tanzania and Mozambique to examine cashews.

“Quite often I will refer to (the rabbis) as inspectors, as in many countries they have no idea what a Jew is or what is a rabbi,” Wood said.

Kosher Check, then known as B.C. Kosher, has been certifying manufacturers since 1983 and operating in Asia since 1985, when Rabbi Avraham Feigelstock, the organization’s originator and supervising rabbi, identified an opportunity. Although the service had been available in Vancouver, Rabbi Feigelstock greatly expanded the scale.

Historically, the rabbi in each community would certify the local butcher and baker, but as food manufacturing grew more sophisticated, the Jewish community began to create certification agencies to cope with the intricacies involved. Heinz was one of the first manufacturers to be certified kosher back in the 1920s. In 1935, Rabbi Tobias Gessen in Altanta, Ga., famously certified Coca-Cola as kosher. More than two-thirds of food manufactured in North America is certified kosher.

Kosher Check, an offshoot of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of B.C., is the only kosher certification agency in Canada that operates internationally, thanks to Rabbi Feigelstock’s entrepreneurial mind, and it is the largest agency east of Ontario.

Vancouver has a Jewish population of just 26,000 compared to 189,000 in Toronto and 91,000 in Montreal and not all people who identify themselves as Jewish buy kosher food. Nevertheless, Kosher Check is probably among the top 10 kosher certification agencies in North America, Wood said.

Most agencies are non-profit or run as an extension of a synagogue. There are about 1,000 kosher certification bodies worldwide.

Kosher Check’s 500 customers include local heavyweights Canada Safeway, Rogers Sugar, Garden Protein, Golden Boy Foods and Sunrise Soya. It employs 20 rabbis worldwide to supervise kosher food production and operates across Canada, in 13 U.S. states, and in Chile, China, India, Japan, the Philippines, South Africa and Vietnam.

Inspectors arrive unannounced.

“People say we come more often than the Canada Food Inspection Agency,” Wood said. “At the moment, there’s a shortage of coconut product from the Philippines. One of our manufacturers in Coquitlam wanted someone in Sri Lanka certified.”

Kosher certification can get quite complex. Meat must be ritually slaughtered to minimize pain to the animal, separate utensils must be used for meat and dairy, and manufacturing equipment may need to be purged at specified high temperatures.

Kosher Check is now looking to expand its reach in Asia. Toronto and Montreal’s kosher certification agencies have the advantage of being located in major food manufacturing hubs and do much of their work locally.

“We want to become more of a global agency and in order to do that we have to go further afield,” Wood said. Kosher Check is ideally located to work in China and India, the first and second largest food producers in the world, Wood said. The organization’s primary goal is to increase the supply of kosher food for the kosher consumer, he said.

“With the federal government making these free trade agreements with countries like Vietnam, it only encourages food manufacturers there to become kosher certified and we want to be part of that action,” Wood said.

The U.S. kosher food market was worth $12.5 billion US in 2008, a 64 per cent increase from five years earlier, Mintel said. Kosher food sales in Canada are estimated at $500 million, Wood said.


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