Why food scares just aren’t kosher

Mainstream shoppers are turning to kosher for safer, purer options

Why food scares just aren’t kosher

Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, his yarmulke safely tucked under a gauzy hairnet, trundles through the halls of Manischewitz’s mammoth New Jersey production facility. A round, affable man with a long, wiry beard and a white lab coat with the word “Rabbi” boldly embroidered on his chest, Horowitz is one of North America’s foremost experts on the intricate art of kosher food production, and a key part of the continent’s leading kosher brand, most famous for its matzo, sweet wines and traditional Jewish comfort foods.

Passing through the “wet room” where the matzo balls, gefilte fish, and borscht are jarred, and into the dry section, Horowitz surveys his pride and joy—a brand new $11-million, gymnasium-sized matzo oven, the biggest in the world. “We’re still taking the price tags off,” he jokes, and rhymes off its specs the way one might with a new Porsche: if she ran non-stop, around the clock, she could produce enough matzo in a year to circle the globe—twice.

For many in Canada’s Jewish community, Manischewitz means home, family and tradition. For some, it signifies their last link to their heritage in an increasingly secular world. In TV ads, Manischewitz is billed as “the miracle you can taste”—like Betty Crocker, if she were doing God’s work. The company will turn 120 years old this year, but today Horowitz is describing a brand new era for Manischewitz. In addition to its new equipment, the privately held company has a new 210,000-sq.-foot, state-of-the-art headquarters in Newark, N.J., and is preparing to extend its dominance in one of the fastest-growing segments of the North American food industry with its ever-expanding product line: gourmet salsas, wasabi horseradish, and ready-to-serve cake frostings.

Perhaps the biggest change, at least symbolically, is the new man in charge: Bruce Bossidy, the company’s first non-Jewish president and CEO. Even a decade ago, the thought of a non-Jew in charge at Manischewitz would have been unthinkable. But the company’s staggering growth of late has little to do with faith or culture, and everything to do with broader trends in packaged foods.

The kosher food market is in the midst of an unprecedented boom. The business is worth $575 million in this country, according to a USDA Foreign Agricultural Services study, and growing annually by almost 20 per cent. In the U.S., kosher food pulls in over $10 billion. In 2007, Chicago-based food consultancy Mintel’s Global New Products Database reported that “kosher” was the most frequently used claim on new products launched in the U.S. and Canada, more popular than “all natural,” “organic,” “low fat” and even “no additives or preservatives.” Most consumers aren’t even aware that roughly 65 per cent of all products on supermarket shelves are now certified kosher. That bottle of Perrier you’re drinking? Kosher. Heinz ketchup? Kosher. President’s Choice taco shells? Those, too.

Loblaws now operates 12 stores in Ontario with designated kosher sections, offering meats, baked goods, pantry and deli items, and full-time dairy supervision. Last month, Brooklyn, N.Y., became home to the first Pomegranate Market—the kosher industry’s answer to Whole Foods—a 20,000-sq.-foot building that takes up an entire city block and features gourmet kosher meats and cheeses, an on-site bakery, and a kosher sushi counter. Even home appliance companies are getting in on the action: General Electric, Kenmore, and KitchenAid all recently introduced ovens with a built-in “Sabbath” mode, which allows observant Jews to use the appliance on holy days when cooking is prohibited.

But what’s driving the trend is not a massive return to religiosity among Jews in Canada. Here, Jewish consumers make up less than half of the kosher food market. Most of the growth, observers say, is taking place among those who have dietary concerns that are unrelated to cultural food restrictions, including vegetarians, and people with lactose intolerance or other food allergies, who trust kosher-certified “pareve” products, which contain no meat or dairy. Recent food scares—the listeria outbreak at Maple Leaf Foods, most notably—have only added to kosher’s appeal. People are treading far more carefully in the grocery store aisles, and kosher’s meticulous sourcing, close supervision and strict labelling practices set it apart.

There is a self-propelling aspect to the kosher trend: the bigger the market gets, the more companies want certification for their products. The more certified products lining supermarket shelves, the greater the number of people who are buying kosher (whether they know it or not). This translates into more companies eager to become kosher-certified and even more demand for kosher suppliers. For example, say Nabisco wants to make a kosher Oreo cookie (which it has), it makes business sense for manufacturers of Oreo ingredients—no matter where they are in the world—to certify their facilities in order to land that contract. “[They might not] know Jews, know kosher or have the foggiest desire to know kosher,” says Horowitz, “but they want the Nabisco account because it’s astronomical. That company will run to get kosher supervision.”

A fourth-generation Hasidic rabbi, Horowitz—who is technically employed by the Orthodox Union (OU), the world’s largest kosher supervisory organization in the world—has been with the Manischewitz Company since 1996. “In many companies the rabbi is like the USDA inspector,” he says, “but in this particular company, the rabbi is really like senior management.” Horowitz oversees a team of more than 15 rabbis and trained kosher supervisors, called Mashgiach. “This is the most intensive kosher supervisory production area in the world,” he says.

The Kashruth Council of Canada (COR), this country’s largest kosher certifier, based in Toronto, now has over 45,000 products under its supervision, and it’s growing exponentially, says Rabbi Mordechai Levin, COR’s executive director. “I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that it sends out a signal to the consumer, whether they’re Jewish or not Jewish, that there’s another inspection agency that is overlooking the processing of foods,” he says. The cost of “kashering” a plant is estimated at $2,000 to $5,000 a year, depending on the types of ingredients involved. (Certain foods—such as meats, dairy products, wine and other grape by-products—require special supervision.) It’s generally considered minimal enough to justify the potential bump in sales that could result, Levin says.

As quickly as it’s growing, though, there are still wild misconceptions about what kosher even means—the most common one being that rabbis stand over each food item and bless it. This would be false. “Of course a rabbi will give you a blessing any time because most rabbis are friendly,” says Horowtiz. The word kosher actually means “fit” or “proper.” Collectively, kosher refers to ancient scriptural laws that outline which foods are fit to eat, how they should be combined and prepared, and what equipment should be used. Among the major restrictions: no animals that don’t have split hooves or don’t chew cud (so, no pig or rabbit); no fish without fins and scales (shrimp and other shellfish); no birds of prey; and no insects and their by-products. Milk and meat must be kept separated, as must meat and fish. During Passover, an important holiday commemorating the exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egypt, regulations are extra stringent: observers are prohibited from eating leavened foods or specific grains, such as corn. “Passover is only eight days,” says Horowitz, “but it’s literally a billion-dollar industry worldwide.”

Ultimately, Horowitz describes kosher as “a melding of ancient Biblical and rabbinic law to modern food technology.” And because modern food technology is always changing, Horowitz is kept very busy pouring over the ancient texts that line his office walls, and discerning how to apply traditional laws to any new products or production changes at the plant.

All of these carefully adhered-to regulations contribute to the perception of kosher as safe and pure. Of course, where “healthy” is concerned, Horowitz says, “our definitions of not kosher, or not healthy, may not jive with what contemporary food science would say.” In fact, the all-natural health food craze created a massive headache for the kosher community when it first emerged in the ’70s. Take for example, resinous glaze, an ingredient used in the production of all-natural candy. It’s a natural substance, but because it’s an insect by-product, it’s not kosher. On the other hand, things people might generally consider to be unhealthy are not necessarily problematic from a kosher standpoint. For example, he says, years back when petrochemicals were used to flavour products, this made kosher approval simple. “If it’s an inorganic substance, it can’t be non-kosher. If it’s a chemical, it can’t be non-kosher.”

Manischewitz—likely the most efficient kosher brand in the world—remains at the heart of this food sector. Founded in 1888 by Rabbi Dov Bear Manischewitz in Cincinnati, it was the first to mass-produce matzos, using patented machinery. “Matzo is the most important Jewish food,” says Horowitz, a signal part of any Jewish Seder. “Once upon a time matzos were all made by hand,” Horowitz says. “Dov Bear Manischewitz did for matzos what Henry Ford did for the automobile.” In the 1940s, the company licensed its brand name to a New York-based wine company. (Manischewitz wine is now produced by Canandaigua, the second largest producer in the U.S. after E. & J. Gallo.)

The company stayed in the hands of the Manischewitz family for over 100 years. At the time of its sale to Kohlberg & Company in 1990, Manischewitz had $1.5 billion in annual sales, exported products around world, and dominated the matzo market, according to the New York Times. (In fact, that same year, the company was accused of conspiring to fix the price of Passover matzos, and was later fined $1 million by a New Jersey federal court.) In 1998, Manischewitz was purchased by the R.A.B. Foods Group, which recently changed its name to the Manischewitz Company to exploit brand capital. In the last five years, it acquired kosher competitors, including Rokeach and Guiltless Gourmet.

In January 2008, Bossidy, formerly the CEO of Dimensions, an arts and crafts company, took over the management of the company. He says it hasn’t posed any problems, but he’s clearly skittish when asked about it. “I’ve always been in consumer products,” he says, “but I have to say I’ve never been involved in the kosher business before.”

But his appointment is consistent with the company’s focus on growth in the larger secular marketplace. The market of “cultural Jews” (those who want to preserve a feeling of grandma’s house) is shrinking, says Horowitz. Meanwhile, the markets for “traditional Jews” (those who eat only kosher) and non-Jews (those looking for healthy, safer options) are growing and overlapping. “The marketplace will be the final arbiter of what exists and what doesn’t,” says Horowitz.

Indeed, the marketplace has inspired the company to extend into more popular fare, and experiment with the same trends as the conventional food market: portability, portion packs, supplementing products with vitamins, omega-3 acids and probiotics. “We acquired a company called Cuisine Innovations that does frozen hors d’oeuvres and appetizers,” says Ken Janso, the company’s brand manager. “We also have a brand called Asian Harvest—an Asian line offering mostly vegetables, baby cut corn, chow mein noodles.” They’re also exploring the Mediterranean trend. Maybe a line of soups.

Of course, the research and development of kosher products is more challenging than that of conventional foods. “It’s another additional layer of supervision,” says Horowitz. “Not only do you have to find out the fat content and whether there are any potential contaminants, etcetera, which every R & D lab would do, you also have to ask, is this particular ingredient or process doable by kosher standards?”

This can pose some unusual complications. For instance, Coca Cola’s New York bottling plant decided it wanted to introduce a kosher-for-Passover version of Coke. “But Coke is based on secret formulas,” says Horowitz, “so how do you make something that’s secret kosher-supervised? They had to develop a really novel system where they would submit to the OU literally 5,000 ingredients that were all kosher and the OU approved them and let them use any one of those ingredients, so that way they could keep it secret.”

The list of flavours and products that are not available in a kosher form gets smaller every year—even flavours that might be considered repugnant to some traditionalists. Synthetic shrimp products, for instance. One U.S. company called J&D’s sells kosher bacon salt, a zero-calorie, vegetarian seasoning “that makes everything taste like bacon.” But synthetic pork products is where Manischewitz draws the line. “That is something the Jewish kosher market would recoil at,” says Horowitz. “They want to try out all kinds of new things. But if you had a bacon-flavoured matzo, it would not play in Peoria. Maybe in Peoria, but not in Brooklyn.”

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