The Incredibly High Cost of Keeping Your Food Kosher

A look inside the Byzantine world of kashrut inspection raises questions over whether a government reform plan will really clean up a system rife with corruption and conflicts of interest.

Avner, the owner of a large slaughterhouse in the north of Israel who decided several years ago to sell meat in Be’er Sheva, has a beef with the system - one that is keeping his meat out of some of the city’s main markets. His business operates under kashrut certification from the Haifa rabbinate and also holds the stricter Atara kashrut seal of approval of Badatz Beit Yosef. Yet despite all this, Asher - who asked to be identified by a pseudonym - stumbled across formidable barriers trying to get his meat products into the shopping aisles of Be’er Sheva.

Avner’s story is disturbing because it illustrates how kashrut certification in the Holy Land not only jacks up the price of food products, but often also stands in the way of the free market and competition, and divides the country into sections, each with its own rules as determined by local rabbis.

Earlier this month Naftali Bennett, who also serves as religious services minister as well as economy minister, and Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben Dahan held a press conference to unveil an overhaul of the kashrut industry. They promised that the reforms will standardize arrangements between kashrut inspectors and business owners, establish uniform fees for services in this field, and provide the inspectors with benefits along with their salaries.

But Avner still has a struggle on his hands while the reform takes shape. The person who determines whether he’ll be permitted to sell his products in Be’er Sheva is the city’s chief rabbi, Yehuda Deri, brother of Shas party chairman MK Aryeh Deri. Be’er Sheva should presumably enjoy healthy competition since Cardi & Sons, the local slaughterhouse, is too small to provide for all the needs of all its residents and the largest two meatpackers in the country, the Tnuva conglomerate’s Adom Adom division and the Dabach family, also operate in the city.

Avner says that when he came to offer his meat at Super-Sol in Be’er Sheva four years ago, the chain’s local kashrut inspector told him they won’t accept meat from Haifa. He says he then turned to Rabbi Deri and was told to send down his own kashrut inspectors. Deri explained that he didn’t have enough manpower to send inspectors to Haifa.

After setting the matter aside several years, Avner says he discovered his staff included kashrut inspectors who had also worked for Deri. “Recently I contacted him again,” says Avner. “I told him: ‘You claimed you don’t have inspectors to send. Now your inspectors are working for me. Let me bring meat into the city.’”

Don’t compete

Avner says they met 18 months ago and, after much arguing, the rabbi let him do business with the local Rami Levy supermarket and two other shops in the city that he wasn’t interested in selling to. As for the city’s other stores, Avner says he was told not to compete with other companies holding Badatz Beit Yosef certification. A badatz it an acronym that means “court of justice,” which in this case indicates that a certain rabbinical court is providing its own kashrut certification, separate - and presumably more strict - than the state-sponsored rabbinate’s stamp of approval. (Abroad, this is similar to a “glatt kosher” designation).

“If that wasn’t enough, three months ago they forced me to send them assurances that I wouldn’t compete with Cardi’s slaughterhouse and that I wouldn’t sell to businesses working with it,” says Avner. “They told me: ‘It isn’t worth arguing with Rabbi Deri. First put your meat in the two stores in Be’er Sheva like he said, and afterwards he will give you more places.’ But I have nothing more to lose so I sent him a letter from my lawyer.”

Deri’s response to TheMarker was that the matter was being looked into and an answer would be provided shortly. “It’s hard to oversee shechita [kosher slaughter] from a distance,” he says. “We want and aspire to provide for the city’s needs by shechita under direct supervision of our rabbinate in order to streamline kashrut. This is what every rabbi in Israel aspires to, but local shechita doesn’t always manage to satisfy the all local demand so sometimes slaughterhouses from elsewhere are allowed in. We want to maintain a good level of kashrut, but we want a free market and give the public a selection, and to have fair competition.

“We didn’t express any worry that he’ll compete with other holders of kashrut [certification],” Deri says. “He’s taking things out of context and isn’t telling the truth. We have no interest in one kashrut or another. Every rabbi obviously trusts what he’s familiar with above anything else. It’s stupid to say we prefer one badatz or another.”

TheMarker, however, has evidence verifying Avner’s claims. “They don’t want to let me in Be’er Sheva,” he says. “That’s how it is. The rabbinate determines which meat will be sold in which city, and in Be’er Sheva, the largest city in the south, there is Deri who decided that he’s not prepared to receive meat from my slaughterhouse because he has enough.”

Indeed, if Avner’s meatpacking house is kosher enough for the Be’er Sheva rabbinate to sell its products to Rami Levy, why isn’t it kosher enough to sell to other stores? Why does the city’s chief rabbi need to trouble himself over competition between suppliers in his city? And going back a step, why is a slaughterhouse with kashrut certification from the Haifa rabbinate disqualified by default by the Be’er Sheva rabbinate?

Welcome to the world of kashrut in Israel. You won’t find any business logic here, and many would say there also isn’t a trace of logic concerning Jewish religious law either. There is, however, quite a substantial amount of money involved.

Fees up under Bennett

Israel has no law requiring suppliers, supermarket chains, or restaurants to provide kosher food, but the institution is an important one for much of the public. Most of the Jewish population wants to keep some level of kashrut in the food it eats. At a minimum, some avoid eating animal products and seafood that are forbidden under Jewish law or avoid mixing dairy and meat, while a large proportion of Israelis keep kosher.

For a business to display a kashrut certificate, the law requires that it gain approval from its local rabbinate. Displaying a certificate without approval is a crime, which is how kashrut is regulated on an official level.

Costs for services related to kashrut start with fixed annual payments. A small restaurant with up to 20 seats pays NIS 517 shekels ($147), a medium-sized establishment seating up to 50 people pays NIS 743, and larger ones pay NIS 1,356. Small hotels with up to 70 rooms pay NIS 3,261 a year and large ones with over 250 rooms pay NIS 12,295.

But the annual fee to the local rabbinate constitutes just a small part of the cost for certification. Most of the expense is in the form of monthly payments to kashrut inspectors acting on behalf of the certifying body who, according to the rabbinate’s instructions, are directly employed by the business.

The rabbinate has set the pay for kashrut inspectors at 37 shekels an hour, but there are no hard and fast regulations establishing how the relationships are conducted between the sides. For instance, must the inspector show up on a daily basis? Does he need to be present constantly? How many hours should he devote to the task? And in any case, what precisely does he need to check?

Bennett and Ben Dahan explained at the press conference that under their reform plan commercial businesses will be established to take charge of kashrut inspection, deal with any complaints against inspectors and handle the relations between them and the businesses they monitor. Three levels of kashrut certification will also be offered in a move meant to do away with the need for the multitude of badatz institutions.

The two cabinet ministers said they want to end the conflicts of interest whereby businesses paying the inspectors can dissuade them from monitoring the kitchens and plants critically. Another is the salary of inspectors being set by the businesses they are monitoring. Another problem is that there is nobody to turn to with complaints about the inspector’s performance or local kashrut standards.

TheMarker posed a series of questions to the Religious Affairs Ministry such as what the fees will be once the reforms are in place, how inspectors’ hours will be set, if businesses will still be limited to working with one company operating in their area and if these companies will be privately owned or government businesses.

The ministry responded that the details of the reform plan are still being hammered out and is it too early to address its particulars. But a review of the reform’s main objectives suggests that the ministry hasn’t made it a goal to free the market from the restrictions imposed by the kashrut institutions.

That the reform by Bennett and Ben Dahan has far to go before being implemented is evidenced by the fact that just one day prior to the press conference the Religious Affairs Ministry, the Chief Rabbinate, and the Prime Minister’s Office publicized a response to a court petition brought by the Movement for Fairness in Government and attorney Mordechai Tzivin. The petition concerns the problematic connection between kashrut inspectors and the businesses they inspect. The ministry responded that the subject is in the initial stages of being worked out and that a professional and budgetary assessment of the situation hasn’t yet been performed.

As proof that the government hasn’t set its sights on lowering the cost of kashrut supervision, Finance Minister Yair Lapid authorized Bennett last August to raise the fees for religious services by 20 to 30 percent.

The rabbi decides

Itamar, a kashrut inspector who agreed to be interviewed on condition his real name not be used, describes his path to what has become a lucrative job. “When I entered this field I hadn’t received any training. It didn’t happen overnight that I became an inspector responsible for many places, but now that I’ve been a kashrut inspector for 10 years I make a nice living. At first I worked here and there as a substitute. Ultimately, the moment you’ve gained the local rabbi’s trust, you have work,” he says.

The situation has changed since he began, but only slightly. Kashrut inspectors take a course, but Itamar says it’s just another way for people to make money rather than real training. “They take a synagogue, bring in a rabbi, give 16 or 17 lessons, and charge 2,000 shekels. After taking the course I did a test at the rabbinate. But I must say that, when it comes down to it, if I want to work nobody will ask me if I’m authorized. If the rabbi decides I can work, there is no one to tell me: ‘Hold it – you don’t have the seal of approval.’”

Asked about the payment charged by inspectors, Itamar says it all depends. “If they want someone to visit the business every day it will cost quite a bit,” he explains. “If they want him to come Fridays to see that the place is closed and Saturday evening to see that it opened on time, it will cost money. The size of the business is the most important parameter for payment. A large business that’s doing well, like a hotel, will pay an inspector 5,000 to 6,000 shekels a month to come in seven or eight hours a day.”

It’s the rabbi who determines how many hours are spent at each business and when, according to Itamar. “I inspect one of the larger caterers where I begin working at 8:30 or 9:00 AM and finish at 4 PM,” he says. “If we’re talking about a bar that works kosher events, all that’s needed is a stockroom inspection now and then. At a dairy restaurant without meat or fish the owner pays 1,000 shekels a month. A meat restaurant is an even more serious matter. Kashrut inspection is a very fluid business.”

‘More kosher than you’

Private kashrut certifiers, badatz institutions of various kinds, have mushroomed alongside the official ones. Badatz is a panel of rabbinical judges who make halakhic rulings and serves to provide a more meticulous level of kashrut for those who don’t trust the kashrut certification given by the state institutions. In practice the two are often linked in that businesses receive badatz certification from the same inspectors who work for the rabbinate.

The lack of oversight in the industry can frustrate business owners. “I did away with kashrut last month,” says Morris Nadyr, owner of Cuba Grill in southern Tel Aviv. “The inspector came and wanted to check the food supplied me while still in its crates. He asked me to keep the crates in the freezer so he could check if they’re kosher rather than just looking at the supplier’s invoices showing the kashrut seal. So I asked him, ‘Does your wife store cartons in the freezer so you can check them when you get home?’"

“I’m fed up,” says Nadyr. “At first I wanted to bring in an inspector I knew. I asked him to come and give me a certificate but he said ‘I can’t, the rabbinate will send someone.’ The rabbinate splits it up. They give each inspector six businesses and that’s how they take care of all the yeshiva guys. The one they sent me sometimes comes to the restaurant daily, sometimes every two days. When his wife’s father died he sat shiva and didn’t come all week. Whenever he did arrive he’d come for exactly 40 seconds. He’d come, say good morning, go to the drawer, check the invoices, and leave.

“For this I paid him 50 shekels a day whether he came or not,” says Nadyr. “And then one day he arrived and said the rabbinate wants to raise the fee. I told him I paid a year in advance. I wouldn’t agree. I handed him the certificate and threw him out. Because of this I’ve become anti-religious over the last few years. This whole religion thing has turned into a matter of money. Now, when people come in and ask me about kashrut I tell them ‘I don’t have a certificate but I’m more kosher than you.’”

As we’re talking with Nadyr, in steps Benny Klein who, until recently, also owned a fast food restaurant. “I paid an inspector 800 shekels to come once a fortnight,” he says. “Since I was a child I’ve seen the effect of kashrut on prices. My father was a butcher in a Bat Yam slaughterhouse, and when they tore it down he went to work in Holon. We saw that in Holon chicken was always a shekel cheaper than in Bat Yam, and the reason was simple. In Bat Yam, when the inspector came he would disqualify three or four chickens out of every 20. In Holon the inspector would disqualify just one chicken for every 20.”

Klein recalls another way kashrut seriously affects prices, by steering businesses to suppliers that aren’t necessarily the cheapest. “In my restaurant the inspector wouldn’t agree to my using simple, good Arab lettuce bought in the market for two shekels,” he says. “He demanded kosher lettuce from Gush Katif and threatened to take away my certificate if I didn’t use it. He wouldn’t stay at the restaurant for more than five minutes at a time. He would double-park his car on the sidewalk by the restaurant, come in and ask ‘Is the lettuce from Gush Katif?’ and leave.”

The subject of kosher lettuce kept coming up among business owners we talked to. The Gush Katif brand is long gone but continues to haunt Israeli restaurateurs. Kashrut, in the case of lettuce, is meant to ensure there are no bugs. In Gush Katif -- a Jewish settlement bloc in Gaza evacuated in 2005 - farmers claimed they could grow the plant on a raised surface out of the reach of insects. In short, hydroponics made the lettuce “more kosher.” But over the years, other brands were given similar approval for which they charge several times more despite a difference of opinion over the need for such a strict level of kashrut.

“Gush Katif was where the subject of insect-free vegetables got started, but now it’s a huge and unregulated field,” says Itamar. “They sold it as a method of growing detached from the ground, but in practice it’s done with the heavy use of pesticides. I don’t buy these things for my house. Just like they know how to wash lettuce, I also know to wash it at home.”

Conflicting demands

If restaurant owners are frustrated, the hotels are even more so. A hotel with a kitchen working around the clock might be required to have several kashrut inspectors, each making conflicting demands.

Moreover, a hotel is required to make sure an inspector is on premises during weekends, so it needs to put him up for the weekend along with his whole family. Usually taking this on as a moonlighting job, weekend inspectors are paid just 300 shekels but, with families that are often large, the cost to the hotel for the rooms it provides can be quite steep.

People in the Chief Rabbinate and kashrut inspectors themselves were left wondering if the reform was nothing but a political gambit in a clash between Bennett and Netanyahu. Kashrut institutions are indeed in desperate need of reform, but it needs to be thorough and comprehensive.

“Kashrut is a world unto itself,” says Itamar. “Never mind the secular people who don’t understand this realm, the Haredim also don’t understand it. Maintaining kashrut at home is different than in a business. There are many points that need to be touched upon when talking about reform. It doesn’t matter what these specially designated corporations set up to manage the inspectors are called, but they would be personnel companies to which all the employers transfer money. It can’t hurt my paycheck but secular people need to understand that such a reform will cost them more."

“There are many problems surrounding kashrut and there is no shortage of scheming inspectors, but the idea of reform is political,” says Itamar. “They’re trying to create a situation where every religious council has a personnel company and the money for inspectors will flow to the councils. So a politician’s crony will have a specially designated company in Tel Aviv, and the crony of another rabbi will have a company in Haifa. Every crony will have a company employing inspectors. This organization will have CEOs, supervisors and will lease offices, and all this will come from the pockets of the companies and the pockets of the inspectors."

There are 280 to 300 businesses with kashrut certification in Petah Tikva, says Rabbi Shimon Biton who sits on the city’s religious council and previously served as head of the council. “Most of the inspectors work under the table and are paid directly by the businesses, with the rest belonging to the religious council’s economic corporation. It’s a total sham. From my experience, with Petah Tikva already having an external company for seven years, this won’t solve the problem,” he says.

In every council there are already eight supervisors working on their behalf whose job it is to make sure the kashrut inspectors do their work reliably, says Biton. Each supervisor works up to four hours a day."

Why is another specially designated company needed? To bring in more operators? The public is being hoodwinked with the reform. People are simply looking out for themselves. If you want real reform and not a sham, you need to have the kashrut inspectors employed directly through the religious councils,” says Biton. “Otherwise, there will always be middlemen and brokers all taking their own cuts. The reform will achieve the opposite effect and businesses will drop kashrut if they’re being exploited.

A kashrut certificate on display.
Emil Salman