In an era of food trends and fads, one culinary tradition remains rooted in a deep history—the Jewish practice of kashrut, or keeping kosher. Kosher laws are based in biblical texts and are practiced by Jews across the world. Some of the most well-known kosher laws are the bans on eating pork or shellfish products, and on eating milk and meat at the same meal. But kosher laws also apply to processed foods, and modern Jews have had to face the question of how to ensure that their packaged foods are safe to eat. In her new book Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America's Food Answers to a Higher Authority, author Sue Fishkoff examines the kosher certification industry and its power over modern-day food manufacturing.
These days, four major kosher certifiers dominate the American market for kosher food products: the Orthodox Union's Kosher Certification Service (OU), Organized Kashrut Laboratories (OK), Kof-K Kosher Supervision, and Star-K Kosher Certification. All of these agencies hire rabbis and rabbinical students to go to factories, restaurants, processing plants, and slaughterhouses to oversee the production processes and help the owners transfer to a kosher-certified product. In addition to these four certifiers, there are also over 1,000 individual rabbis and organizations offering their own certifications. These smaller-distribution certifications are more common in communities that trust only their rabbi to determine which foods are kosher and which are not.
Fishkoff spends much time interviewing the rabbis who spend their lives certifying processed foods. They travel across the country, spending much time away from their families, and must keep their religious observances in difficult and uncomfortable circumstances. They describe their jobs as only fit for those with a "passion for kashrut." Often they are young, and must be nimble enough to, say, crawl into ovens with blowtorches or scald juice tanks with boiling water—both traditional koshering methods.
Like in any highly competitive industry, there can be a lot of bad feeling among kosher certifiers. Arguments about who is staying truest to Jewish tradition, who has the most stringent methods, and who charges the most money are ongoing. But there is good reason to fight over the kosher certification market; in 2007, almost 5,000 new kosher-certified products entered the market, and in 2008 there were $12.5 billion in sales of kosher products domestically, a 60% increase in just five years.
Not all of these sales are attributable to the Jewish community. Seventh Day Adventists, who eat only biblically-permitted animals, will often seek out the pareve, or dairy- and meat-free label. Muslims will often eat kosher meat if halal meat is not available. In fact, 86% of kosher consumers are not religious Jews. 62% of those consumers believe kosher food is safer, and over 50% believe it to be healthier than non-kosher alternatives. And the growth trends of kosher food indicate that this opinion is spreading.
Fishkoff presents a very comprehensive look at the politics, religion, and personality that goes into certifying and producing kosher food. She conducted quite a bit of original research, as well as compiling fascinating data to present a very clear picture of what kosher means in the lives of its followers and certifiers. If you've never heard of kosher or have only a very foggy understanding of its tenets, this book is a great crash-course—and even if you grew up in a kosher or observant home, reading about the behind-the-scenes of kosher certification certainly brings some interesting discoveries about the kosher industry.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.
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