Israel Mulls Privatization of Rabbinate's Kashrut Supervision Monopoly

Kashrut supervision has long been taken to task for its inefficiency and waste, high costs and inconsistent standards.

A shawarma restaurant with a kashrut certificate issued by the Chief Rabbinate. Emil Salman

Israel’s kashrut supervision — now a monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate — may undergo a major shake-up if a government committee named to examine reform options opts for the most radical of them, which calls for privatizing the sector.

Kashrut supervision has long been taken to task for its inefficiency and waste, high costs and inconsistent standards. But the Chief Rabbinate has stood by its monopoly over the years and two months ago won backing from the High Court of Justice, which ruled that a business could not present itself as kosher without an official certificate issued by the rabbinate’s kashrut division.

Supervision is expensive and adds to consumers’ costs: A treasury report published last year estimated that the cost for kosher slaughter of animals alone, not counting imported meat and chicken, came to 1.7 billion shekels ($450 million) annually. Supervision of grocers, hotels and restaurants to ensure food is being prepared properly and that no nonkosher ingredients are being used added another 390 million shekels.

All told, the study put the costs of kashrut at 2.8 billion shekels a year, or 3% of the 97 billion shekels Israelis spend on food in stores and restaurants. Some Finance Ministry sources estimate that the cost of kashrut requirements for locally made and imported food combined, including fresh produce, is around 4 billion shekels a year.

Oddly enough, a preliminary examination by the committee, which is headed by Petah Tikva Mayor Micha Halevy, who is regarded as an expert on kashrut issues, found that the biggest complaint from businesses isn’t the high cost of supervision but inconsistent policies by the local chief rabbis to whom kashrut supervisors report.

Each rabbi sets his own kashrut standards, some which are more liberal than others, putting the legal status of a business with a certificate at risk legally.

The other big complaint is the system’s lack of transparency. Each local rabbi can decide for himself the minimum amount of time a kashrut inspector must spend at a business to ensure it is meeting standards. National chains, like cafes, face variable kashrut costs from city to city.

Even before it begins examining reform proposals, the committee has already decided that it would set nationwide norms for supervision and create a website at the rabbinate that details supervisory costs city by city so that businesses can know in advance their kashrut costs before they open a restaurant or store.

The committee appointed by the Chief Rabbinate will be considering three alternative models for Israel’s kashrut, the most far-reaching of which would take supervision out of the hands of the rabbinate and give it to private providers.

Advocates say privatization would create competition and lead to better service and may even lower costs, although some experts warn it will lead to higher prices. In a privatized system, the rabbinate would serve as a regulator.

That would mark a big break for the current system. While there are rival kashrut authorities, like the Haredi Badatz, they can only award a certificate together with the rabbinate’s. One treasury source estimated that privatization and competition could reduce kashrut-supervision costs by 300 million shekels a year.

The most conservative of the options the panel is examining would leave the current system in place, with kashrut inspectors reporting to supervisors who are answerable to the local chief rabbi. But the proposal would also make a major change by reforming the pay system so that the business or institution being supervised no longer paid the inspector, a situation that can create a conflict of interest.

Instead, inspectors would be employed and paid by a nationwide company operated by the rabbinate or perhaps regional ones, or employed by the local religious council.

A third option calls for appointing a kashrut “trustee” at a business, someone who is religiously observant that would oversee practices required under halakha (Jewish religious law) at the business, such as inspecting rice for insect infestation.

The trustee would report to a halakhic supervisor, who would typically supervise a dozen businesses and be either a civil servant or a quasi-governmental employee.