The Rising Stakes of Kashrut Certification

Producing strictly kosher food products for an increasingly fastidious religious public is becoming complicated and costly. But with an eye to big profits, the food industry is happy to comply.

Naomi Darom
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Naomi Darom

R., the manager of a large dairy, is a kibbutznik who sells milk to a big dairy conglomerate. Like her, the heads of the conglomerate are not Orthodox - but when Passover approaches, R.'s cows enjoy a kosher-for-Passover menu, following the special strictures of the holiday.

"We install filters on the milk pumps to make sure no leavened food gets into the milk. The kashrut supervisors [who ensure that dietary laws are observed] sometimes, even at 4 A.M., come to check whether we are using the filters. Two weeks before Passover, we change the cows' entire nutrition program - from fodder with seeds to fodder without; this too they check. The special feed costs me NIS 24 per serving, NIS 2 more than regular food, and it also causes metabolic problems, constipation, diarrhea and hoof problems. In practice, we start getting them used to it well before the holiday, and this screws us - both because of the price and the cows' output."

A food label indicating the product is Kosher.Credit: Tal Cohen

R. has also been required to install a camera in her dairy, so that on Saturday nights the supervisors will be able to check that on the Sabbath only non-Jews did the milking: Thais or Arabs. "If by chance I go into the milking center on a Shabbat, the supervisor will ask me what I was doing there."

As compensation for having to employ Thais on the Sabbath, R. receives from the conglomerate an additional 3 agorot per liter for the kosher milk. She also has to pay for the mehadrin (the strictest level of kashrut ) supervisors, who keep watch of her movements every Saturday, out of the dairy's budget.

R. does not necessarily have to produce milk that is kosher lemehadrin. "I could be producing regular milk, and then Jews could work for me on the Sabbath. But I understand from the conglomerate that the aim is to make all the milk [stringently] kosher." She attributes this to the increasing demand among Israel's growing Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, population, and people abroad who consume exported food products.

Osem, one of the country's largest food manufacturers, today has strictly kosher certification for more than 90 percent of its products. This is in addition to kashrut certification from the state-funded Chief Rabbinate, which is required for all Israeli food products marketed as kosher. Elite, another food giant, has expanded its strictly kosher line significantly. Tnuva dairy products have Eda Haredit Badatz certification (from one of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical courts ), and Tnuva has also established a "strict kashrut committee" made up of representatives from smaller certification authorities, such as Hatam Sofer and Belz. The companies naturally display the kashrut seals on the products, so as not to miss out on a single ultra-Orthodox customer.

"Strict kashrut [certification] is needed for a very simple reason," says Danny Hecht, CEO of Dodot, which markets baked goods. "The ultra-Orthodox don't buy a product without this certification, while the secular buy everything on offer. A Badatz kashrut certificate makes it possible to introduce the product into all the stores in Israel. Secular people also shop at stores for the ultra-Orthodox, so from my perspective those stores are open to all sectors."

The three leading strictly kosher certifications are Eda Haredit Badatz, considered the most popular; Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib Landau's hekhsher from Chabad, which is accepted by a large part of the Haredi sector; and the certification of Rabbi Avraham Rubin of the Slonim Hasidic sect. However, because of the huge economic potential, in recent years, other religious bodies have been providing additional certifications.

"This could be a profitable business, but in fact it isn't, because there is crazy competition," relates kashrut authority Rabbi Yitzhak Dvoritz. "Everyone slanders everyone else and only the Eda Haredit keeps quiet. The big ones don't need to slander anyone, but the little ones are involved in intrigues all day long."

Thus, for example, kashrut certification from Rabbi Rubin prohibits his followers from purchasing Coca-Cola, which is certified by Rabbi Landau; over a year ago, Strauss went from Rabbi Landau's certification to Rabbi Rubin's. Furthermore, every Passover various certification bodies conduct "kashrut investigations," which are supposed to inform the Haredi public about improprieties. These are also an effective weapon against rival bodies who authorize kashrut.

Meeting the conditions for mehadrin kashrut is extremely important for anyone interested in exporting to Jewish communities abroad, says Yosef Minsky, the Israeli representative of America's Orthodox Union, which denotes kosher certification with its "OU" seal. Among its clients are food giants like Ben and Jerry's, Pringles, Coca-Cola and Heinz. According to Minsky, some OU products even find their way to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Though the Iranian consumers do not adhere to the strictures of kashrut, they do follow strictly the dietary rules of Islam. For them, a kosher lemehadrin seal proves that a product has been scrupulously checked and does not contain pork.

"Kashrut lemehadrin is a phenomenon of a state of plenty," says Shahar Ilan, vice president for research and information for Hiddush, an organization that promotes religious tolerance. "Until a few decades ago, the vast majority of food products received an ordinary kashrut certification. Kashrut lemehadrin is part of the new Judaism created by ultra-Orthodox society in Israel."

Ilan attributes the rise of mehadrin to a number of factors. "One is that ultra-Orthodox economic clout is growing and making this possible, and the other is that there is no large and organized public for which it is important not to eat mehadrin. And of course ultra-Orthodox society has a big problem providing jobs for people with a Torah education. Therefore, in fact, ultra-Orthodox society has an interest in the mehadrin industry just continuing to grow. The secular companies, for their part, think this will increase their profits, or are afraid to lose a market to competitors."

Sources in the food industry say the kashrut requirements complicate their lives - especially with respect to products like milk or meat, and products containing dozens of ingredients, each one of which need to receive a kashrut seal. The kashrut organizations work with food engineers and other experts who can suggest alternative ingredients. Unlike default kashrut certification from the Chief Rabbinate, which is perceived as a kind of necessary evil, mehadrin kashrut is a matter of choice. Companies that choose to obtain it usually sigh at the demands - and comply.

M., a director in a company that produces infant formula, among other things, relates that adapting the company's overseas production line to the demands of mehadrin certification took four years and entailed considerable costs, though he refuses to cite specific sums. "Even though the ultra-Orthodox are 20 percent of the population, they account for almost 50 percent of the births among the Jews. This trend is growing stronger. Before we had mehadrin kashrut, we found ourselves with a line that wasn't answering the needs of the market. We couldn't allow ourselves to have a leading product that a large part of the population could not consume."

A rabbi from abroad, chosen because of his geographical proximity to the production line of M.'s firm, spent years arguing with the company's scientists. Every element in the formula was scrupulously inspected, and it was necessary to obtain the approval of both the scientists and the rabbis, who investigated where each ingredient was produced, who produced it and whether it was kosher.

The infant formula, relates M., had to be free of any suspicion of "gentile milk" (halav nokhri ) - that which was extracted by a non-Jew or without the presence of a Jew, and is therefore suspected of having been mixed with milk from a non-kosher animal. Therefore, even though the country where the formula is produced has many dairies, to conform to mehadrin regulations, the company must import milk from Israel. "All in all, the kashrut process increases the cost of the product by nearly 35 percent," he says.

Is it possible to charge more for the strictly kosher product? M. "No. The price of the product remains the same. The total profits should increase. But per unit, we earn significantly less."

When a strategic partner holds the key to an entire sector, companies will do a lot to satisfy him, especially when that partner is an expert in rabbinical law and can threaten to revoke the kashrut seal.

The Eda Haredit Badatz is one of the strongest mehadrin kashrut organizations in the world, if not the strongest. It is also the most veteran kashrut body in Israel. Its seal is acceptable to a large percentage of Israeli ultra-Orthodox - 90 to 98 percent of a population that is split into rival communities, each of which follows a different rabbi.

"Sometimes in a class of 40 children, there will be eight different Hasidic groups represented," explains a source in the ultra-Orthodox world. "This one doesn't eat that one's certification, and that one doesn't eat this one's. If there is a child in an ultra-Orthodox school who is celebrating a birthday, he will receive instructions to bring only sweets certified by the Eda Haredit Badatz."

Large companies among Badatz clients refused to be interviewed for this article. They also declined to reveal the sums paid to Badatz, for the simple reason that the rates are not fixed - they depend on the complexity of the work, the size of the production plant and the company owners' negotiating skills. Hecht relates that initially, he wanted to obtain Badatz certification for his products, but they demanded - in addition to a fee and salaries for the supervisors - a percentage of the profits.

For small and medium-sized businesses, this could be a heavy burden. Hecht decided in the end to go with Hatam Sofer certification in addition to certification from the Chief Rabbinate. Though it is less popular, it still has a respectable place on the list.

According to a food industry source, himself religiously observant, who requested anonymity, "The Badatz says there are people who are prepared to pay for strictness in kashrut, and if so, we are prepared to be strict. It isn't that rabbinical law requires extra strictness, but there are people who want this and the Badatz provides the goods. With them, everything is taken to an extreme - in the adjustments to production, in unnecessary cleaning, in excessive strictness regarding shmita [when land lies fallow for the biblical sabbatical year] The case of Badatz is especially interesting when you remember to what group it belongs."

The Eda Haredit in Jerusalem is considered one of the most extreme branches of ultra-Orthodox society in Israel. It is known for its opposition to Zionism and its refusal to have anything to do with state institutions, and it is behind many of the demonstrations against Sabbath desecration in Jerusalem. Yet its rabbinical court grants kashrut certification to a number of the largest firms in the Israeli economy.

In a report in the ultra-Orthodox magazine Mishpaha in June 2010, Badatz sources said their shmita project of the previous year had cost them $1 million. If necessary, inspectors will be sent abroad to examine the source of a food ingredient produced, for example, in Indonesia. An entire contingent of supervisors might be lodged there for many weeks, with the companies picking up the tab.

"Kashrut expenses are insane," explains Rabbi Dvoritz. "People travel from one end of the world to the other. To [produce] kosher tuna, for example, four people have to be in the tuna plant 24 hours a day. A supervisor arrives in China or Thailand on a Thursday. On Sunday he kashers the plant and begins production - and for 24 hours he sits and checks for worms and opens the tuna's belly to see whether non-kosher fish are mixed in there."

There is even more involved when it comes to certification of a restaurant. Explains Yigal Ben Ezra, a national supervisor at Beit Yosef, the kashrut certification body associated with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, "We will not give kashrut to a place where there is a television, and if there is a screen, it is supposed to show only the menu." If a brochure on nutrition features a picture of a woman, he adds, "We insist that this isn't respectable. Part of the public that buys the product does not want to see this."

Last year, the ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Berama demanded that Rabbi Landau, who grants kashrut lemehadrin certification to Coca-Cola, rescind his seal. The reason: Coca-Cola invites teens to stay at its holiday village, where they can lodge in co-ed rooms without separation or modesty. The campaign was not aimed at ultra-Orthodox youth, but the station feared that ultra-Orthodox youth could theoretically enter the village. Fortunately for Coke, Rabbi Landau's kashrut office refused to intervene.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, started a kashrut authorization organization of his own - Beit Yosef, which focuses on the Sephardi community and specializes in ritual slaughter. According to Dvoritz, Beit Yosef is the leader in chicken slaughtering in the Haredi sector. Yosef serves as president of the rabbinical court's kashrut bureau, and provides the religious authority behind its kashrut rulings. The court is headed by his son Rabbi Moshe Yosef

However, according to Yigal Ben Ezra from Beit Yosef, "We try very hard not to create a connection to politics. Naturally people think if the rabbinical court is under the presidency of Rabbi Yosef, it is connected to the [Shas] movement. The opposite is the case."

According to Ben Ezra, the demand for kashrut came from the public. "There was a group of people that wasn't getting kashrut according to its requirements, especially in the areas of meat and bishul Yisrael - food preparation by Jews - where Sephardis are more strict. About 15 years ago Ovadia Yosef came out with a slaughtering initiative suited to the Sephardi method. With the meat came the supervision of spices, and from this developed the concept of the Badatz." Today Beit Yosef grants kashrut certification to, among other firms, the ultra-Orthodox marketing chain Yesh, Sunfrost frozen foods and branches of Burger Ranch Mehadrin.

Dr. Nissim Leon, a researcher of Mizrahi Jewry (referring to Jews with origins in Muslim countries ) in Bar-Ilan University's department of sociology and anthropology, says, "This is part of an entire industry, which translates formulas from rabbinical law into everyday life, and it gives a lot of power to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's method. There is no doubt that this is a very powerful mechanism, not only from the economic perspective but also from the cultural perspective. It posits Rabbi Yosef's method of rulings at the center of the Mizrahi-religious agenda. Religion is not only a strengthening force, but also a tremendous economic force, and the attempt to translate it into the business plane is not only supposed to benefit those who lead the method but to advance the method itself."

Leon compares the kashrut certification to Rabbi Yosef's prayer book industry - which obligates his synagogues to acquire his books. Beyond that, notes Leon, "This provides a good living to people whose interest is kashrut issues. The thing is to stimulate the problem, invent, refine it. They assume there is a problem in the existing kashrut system, and on this they pile up a whole structure of articles and books. What refines this persuasive capability is of course technological development, which makes it possible to see things at an even more precise resolution. In all meat there are worms you can't see. The problem gets a solution, which is also a business."

"I relate to this the way I relate to advertising companies," says M. from Tekoa Farms, who raises edible fungi and vegetables and boasts kashrut certification from Rabbi Efrati. "This is something that has to be done in order to reach your audience of customers. Just as it hurts to spend money on advertising, the same applies to kashrut. But the main thing is for the customers to be satisfied."

Omer (not his real name ) opened a bakery in one of Israel's larger cities a few years ago. "I went to the Chief Rabbinate in town," he relates, "and they said to me: No problem. A supervisor came along with a mehadrin certificate from the Rabbinate (the Rabbinate offers mehadrin certification in addition to regular kosher certification). I asked how much it cost - NIS 1,500 a month and an annual fee. And he also wants travel expenses. I said, not a chance, it's a new business. I spoke to the superintendent and he said to take regular Rabbinate kashrut, not mehadrin, for NIS 1,300. That is a lot of money for me, but I took it. The supervisor started coming once a week and I didn't get the impression he did anything. He didn't check the holes in the sifter the way he is supposed to. He is supposed to ask us where the flour is from, where the grains are from, and he didn't ask anything. I don't care. One day we asked him to tithe the challah and he asked my partner, who is ultra-Orthodox, what the blessing is.

"I decided I wasn't paying NIS 1,300 a month to a person who doesn't do anything and doesn't even know basic blessings. I stopped the Rabbinate kashrut and went over to mehadrin kashrut. They take NIS 700 a month and for four months they took care of me for free. You feel these are serious, professional people who come to work, not to steal money."

The only problem is that Omer is breaking the law. In order to receive mehadrin kashrut, an eating place or a product must first of all receive regular kashrut certification from the Rabbinate. And he says there are those who are reminding him of this. "There is a Rabbinate supervisor who wants to be the supervisor here - and now he is always threatening to report me to the Rabbinate."

The mehadrin kashrut certifications make money from, among other things, the problematic reputation of the Rabbinate's kashrut certification. O., formerly a chef at a hotel in Jerusalem, relates that on weekends, supervisors are supposed to ensure the Sabbath is not desecrated. To that end, they are lodged at the hotel for the entire Sabbath and hold the keys to the kitchen. Usually they come with wives and children. On a certain weekend the hotel was full and it was not possible to provide the supervisor's family with the two adjoining rooms he demanded. He threatened to go home, says O., and leave the hotel without a supervisor - in effect, without kashrut.

In 2008 the state comptroller found serious flaws in the kashrut functioning of the Chief Rabbinate. Among other things, he criticized the fact that the supervisors receive their salaries from the businesses they supervise, which could lead to conflicts of interest, and also the fact that no official criteria have been established for supervision hours.

In practice, found the comptroller, supervision hours are set for every business individually by the local superintendent. The supervisors work at a number of businesses and were in fact not present at businesses during the hours they were supposed to be there. Rabbis gave jobs to their relatives and those in local rabbinates also worked at the Badatz, which created conflicts of interest.

There have been media reports of a company employee being fired because he belonged to the Jehovah's Witnesses. Kashrut certification has been denied to businesses because of the owners' religious beliefs. There have also been reports of corruption and the granting of mehadrin kashrut certification to businesses that did not conform to the kashrut criteria.

Following the comptroller's report, Kadima MK Otniel Schneller called for legislation to regularize matters of kashrut, job assignments and the supervisors' work, but to date no such legislation has been passed. However, a committee was formed to examine procedures in the government kashrut system, coordinated by attorney Mordechai Eisenberg, chair of the Movement for Fairness in Government.

Eisenberg, who is ultra-Orthodox, has filed a number of petitions to the High Court of Justice on issues of kashrut. "If we want to improve government kashrut in Israel," he says, "there has to be an emphasis on the certificate from the local rabbinate being accepted truly everywhere. After all, in every place a different local rabbi grants the certification, and there are differences in personality and ability. The profession of supervision is on the bottom rung with respect to pay - there are places where the supervisors get less than the minimum wage. There also aren't enough superintendents. If there are enough superintendents and a suitable work force, we will be able to go back to relying on local rabbinates' kashrut certification, and maybe we will have less need for the Badatzes and their strength will wane. If a plant can sell with local rabbinate kashrut certification because people believe in this certification, it will save tremendous expenses."

According to Rafi Yohai, director of the Rabbinate's national unit for enforcing the law prohibiting kashrut fraud, the solution is ostensibly simple. "Take the supervisors - at the moment there are 3,500 to 4,000 - and make them into civil servants. They should have positions and the standards of civil servants. This has been rejected outright by the religious affairs and finance ministries. At the moment kashrut supervisors continue to receive their salaries from the businesses or from temporary-labor companies, which deduct mediation fees.

"The problem is in fact the cost of supervision: Who will bear it? On the one hand the state says there is no religious coercion, no one is forced to be kosher. On the other hand it is aware that 70 percent of the population demands kosher food. Until they regularize the situation there will be no solution to all the problems."

A., who owns a catering company in the north, relates that every year the local council raises the supervision fee. This year she will have to pay a total of about NIS 30,000 for kashrut supervision, for work that lasts only half the year. What local rabbi is prepared to relinquish an income like that? And will the Rabbinate's kashrut supervision have to wait for the next comptroller's report?



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