Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Regulating kosher food

Recent outbreaks of salmonella and other instances of food contamination and poisoning have left people questioning the safety of our food supply. Critics of the food industry are also concerned about misleading labels, particularly the use of such words as “natural” or “healthy” to describe processed food.

Could these problems be solved by stricter governmental regulation? Can private certification prevent fraud or increase food safety? In order to answer these questions, Timothy D. Lytton, the Albert and Angela Farone Distinguished Professor of Law at the Albany Law School, examines the private kosher certification industry in “Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food” (Harvard University Press).

Lytton notes that his interest is not in Jewish dietary law per se, but rather how certification helps guarantee that a product is kosher: “This book does not argue either for or against eating kosher food. It takes no position on whether or not kosher food is safer or healthier than non-kosher food, or whether kosher certification ought to include standards for animal welfare, environmental sustainability or labor conditions. My claim is that today’s kosher certification industry reliably ensures that food labeled kosher is kosher.”

This wasn’t true in the early years of the United States: between 1850 and 1940, the industry was riddled with fraud and feuds. Consistent standards were lacking, partly due to the many rivalries between rabbis and/or Jewish organizations. Only with the advent of those certification groups now known as the big five—OU, OK, Star-K, Kof-K and CRC—did the industry come into its own.

One important factor in its success was the development of the industrialized food industry. With ingredients imported from across the world and the inclusion of chemicals that might or might not be kosher, a large market opened for those who could certify products. Some form of acceptable certification was not only needed for the final results, but for the individual ingredients purchased from other factories.

The increased interest in kosher food also helped: when larger corporations learned they could increase their market share by certifying a product, their interest grew. Large factory runs also meant that certification cost very little per item produced.

According to Lytton, the certification system is a success because the agencies work hard to “establish and maintain a good reputation in order to compete for industrial clients” and invest “in management oversight and professional development, which prevent misconduct mistakes that would harm an agency’s reputation and undermine its competitiveness.”

Another less definable factor is the “sense of religious mission” felt by many in the industry. The fact that they eat only kosher-certified food as part of their religious practice means that this isn’t only a business, but a religious undertaking. While some quibble with individual agencies or particular certifications—for example, certifying products that don’t need certification or taking the most stringent approach to a product or ingredient—on the whole, the industry works by making sure food labeled kosher is actually kosher.

In fact, Lytton believes the certification industry should serve as a model for other parts of the food industry since it does a far better job than oversight by governmental agencies, which are hampered not only by budgetary restrictions, but by politics.

He does note that one additional aspect is needed for success: the action of food activists. While fewer than 10 percent of those who eat kosher food do so for religious reasons, the religious activists keep careful track of which products are kosher. They also question certifications by contacting companies on the phone or by email. Internet blogs and websites also help keep people up to date. This allows the certification industry to quickly resolve any issues either by recalling a product or removing its certification.

Unlike the recent “Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority” by Sue Fishkoff, which takes a journalistic approach, Lytton is more interested in the business aspects of the industry than the personalities or the actual process of certifying food. The writing in “Kosher” is dry and factual, although Lytton does keep scholarly jargon to a minimum. His suggestion that private certification could prevent future food disasters is open to debate. However, his proposal makes this book a must read for anyone interested in the politics of food.


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