The Rising Stakes of Kashrut Certification
Producing strictly kosher food products for an increasingly fastidious religious public is becoming more complicated and costly. But with an eye to big profits, the food industry is happy to comply.
The manager of a large dairy, is a kibbutznik who sells milk to a big dairy conglomerate, are intimately aware of some of the complicated Laws that make foods Kosher for Pesach. Passover is very important and profitable to these non-Orthodox Jews. In honour of Passover, or the profits it offers, cows enjoy a kosher-for-Passover menu even before the Festival begins.
"We install filters on the milk pumps to make sure no leavened food gets into the milk.
Two weeks before Passover, we begin introducing the cows' Passover menu/nutrition program - excluding wheat and barley fodder and all types of seed fodder. These are prohibited during Passover. The special feed costs NIS 2 more than regular food, besides causing digestion problems, constipation, diarrhea and hoof problems. It costs us more, it reduces the milk output, but it still worth our trouble."
Cameras are installed [at her expense] in the dairy, permitting the supervisors to verify that during the Sabbath only non-Jews worked the cows.
The increasing size of Israel's and the international Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, population, creates demand and provides money for this special production.
Osem, one of the country's largest food manufacturers, today has strictly kosher certification for more than 90 percent of its products, which is in addition to Kashrut certification from the state-legislated 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.
It boils down to business. The market is looking for a particular quality, it makes no difference if it is "organic" or "Haredi Super Kosher", says Danny Hecht, CEO of Dodot. "The ultra-Orthodox insist on a particular certification, they are willing to pay for it - we are prepared to meet those specs if it makes business sense."
"Competition is intense," relates kashrut authority Rabbi Yitzhak Dvoritz. "everyone slanders everyone else - and the consumers are very swayed and intensely loyal to their favoured certifier. Only the Eda Haredit keeps quiet but only because they don't need to slander."
Rabbi Rubin prohibits his followers from purchasing Coca-Cola, which is certified by Rabbi Landau. Strauss created a similar upheaval when they moved from Rabbi Landau's certification to Rabbi Rubin's.
Passover sees a spike in these slanders as various certification bodies and even individuals, 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.
"Kashrut LeMehadrin reflects a state of plenty," says Shahar Ilan, vice president for research and information for Hiddush, an organisation that promotes religious tolerance. "It was almost unknown a few decades ago, but today is part of the new Judaism created by ultra-Orthodox community."
Even though the ultra-Orthodox are but 20 percent of Israel's population, they account for almost 50 percent of the births among the Jews.
"In a class of 40 children, there may well be eight different Haredi groups represented," explains a source in the ultra-Orthodox world, "who don't eat one another's certification."
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.
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."
"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
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 centre 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 notes, "It is to their advantage to stimulate and refine the problem, or even invent 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."
An anonymous businessman related, "I went to the Chief Rabbinate seeking Kosher certification. They said: 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."
"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. 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 leaving 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 criticised the fact that the supervisors receive their salaries from the businesses they supervise, which could lead to conflicts of interest,
the fact that no official criteria have been established for supervision hours
these hours are set for every business individually by the local superintendent.
supervisors work at a number of businesses and were in fact not present at businesses during the hours they were supposed to be there
supervisors gave jobs to their relatives
those in local rabbinates also worked at the Badatz, which created conflicts of interest.
rumours of employees being fired because they belonged to the J's Witnesses
certification has been denied because of the owners' religious beliefs
mehadrin kashrut certification being granted to businesses that did not conform to the kashrut criteria.
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."