Keep Kosher and Carry On

Original Article at The Jerusalem Post

Every November, the entire kosher food industry descends on the Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus, New Jersey, for two exhausting, invigorating days of Kosherfest, the central kosher food event of the year, which attracts 6,000 industry professionals.

Caterers, distributors, chefs, restaurant, camp, nursing home and hotel owners, kosher supervision agencies, and companies of all sizes selling products ranging from gefilte fish to Matzola to pistachios to grills and aprons work their way down seven long aisles featuring 325 exhibitors.

They taste dozens of food and beverage products, view cooking demonstrations, exchange business cards and get new ideas for the upcoming year.

Kosherfest is truly unique among trade shows. Which other trade show cautions visitors to sample carefully, as both dairy and meat products are on display, and reminds them of times of morning and (nearly continuous) afternoon minyanim? Kosherfest features small booths and larger displays of both old favorites and newcomers. Streit’s and Manischewitz, best known as matza companies, display such relatively new matza-derived products as Matzola (matza granola) and matza s’mores. A & B Famous has proudly evolved from just a gefilte fish company to one that features new items such as tricolor gefilte fish (original, salmon and spinach!), parve kishke and salmon and trout franks.

Gabila’s Knishes, a four-generation business that has sold over a billion knishes in 90 years, displays sweet potato and several varieties of cheese knishes, alongside classic potato knishes.

While newer companies such as Paravella (high-quality Italian chocolate spread), Nongshim (minestrone and classic chicken cups of soup and mushroom alfredo), DumaSea Surimi (fish cakes) and Katz’s Gluten Free (doughnuts and bagels) are examples of the yearly increase in numbers of kosher products hitting the shelves, several booths in Aisle 700 offer a clue to a very important development in the global kosher world.

Kosher products (photo credit: Courtesy)

Aisle 700 is home to pavilions of Japan, the Czech Republic, Korea, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and India. How and why have companies and trade organizations from these countries, as well as from Turkey, South Africa, Argentina and Chile, come to Kosherfest? “The reality is that kosher is expanding!” observes Rabbi Moshe Elefant, executive rabbinic coordinator and chief operating officer of the Orthodox Union. Faraway countries are grasping that reality. “We reach 9,000 plants and certify products in over 90 countries.”

Joe Regenstein, PhD, professor of food science at Cornell University and head of Cornell Kosher and Halal Food Initiative, observes, “If you are going to export to the United States, where 40% of goods are kosher certified, you can’t get into the market without mainstream kosher certification.”

Many of the products certified kosher by the OU are not ready-to-eat foods consumers will find on the supermarket shelves. Rather, they are ingredients from abroad. Rabbi Menachem Genack, administrator and CEO of the Orthodox Union, notes, “Thirty-five years ago, all ingredients were produced in the United States. Now, most ingredients come from abroad – sodium caseinate, citric acid from China, even yak’s milk from Tibet!” The OU has invested millions of dollars in a registry of ingredients which is continuously updated.

To Genack, it is clear that “the biggest trend in kashrut has been the globalization of the economy.”

Importing raw ingredients is big business. While the use of such products in mainstream food production has generally helped bring food prices down, Genack notes, “We wonder whether the Trump victory will affect trade in the United States. We have to see.”

For now, foreign countries are hopeful.

Representatives from many countries offer unique stories of how and why their companies have discovered the world of kosher and the Kosherfest trade show.

Winemaker Jean van Rooyen is here from Paarl, South Africa, to introduce his OU-certified line of Unorthodox Wines to the US market.

Trevor Shevil, CEO of Sally Williams Fine Foods, is here with his honey nougats and Belgian chocolates and is looking to expand his market. “We export to 22 countries, and the kosher market is hugely successful. We have been kosher for all 20 years of our existence – and we give back to the Jewish community.”

Rabbi Menachem Genack (left) and Rabbi Moshe Elefant of the Orthodox Union (photo credit: HOWARD BLAS)

Rasmin Narin, vice chairman of a company in Mersin, Turkey, which produces Okka brand tehina, playfully notes, “The market brought me to Kosherfest!” Ten years ago, Narin had never heard of kosher. “Customers approached me and told me I need to be kosher. They liked my tehina a lot and told me they couldn’t use it unless I was kosher.” Narin offers a lesson in tehina production and distribution, explaining that most of the world’s tehina comes from Lebanon, Greece and Israel.

“Turkish tehina is not well known in the trade. It is like us supplying sushi from Turkey to Japan – it is very difficult!” Narin remains hopeful and is proud that his family business’s use of high-quality Ethiopian humera sesame seeds has led to contracts with Sabra Dipping Company.

Several Japanese companies sat at the Kosher Japan booth, eager to introduce fine Japanese foods to the American market. Joseph Edery, nephew of Rabbi Binyomin Edery, the current chief rabbi of Japan and Chabad rabbi who came to Japan 15 years ago, explains, “The Japanese have a very disciplined culture. They are devoted, particular, and their products are very healthy and high end.”

Rabbi Yehuda Benchemhoun, also at the Kosher Japan booth, is a scribe, shohet (kosher slaughterer), a botanist (currently working on koji, a filamentous fungus which provides a fragrant taste in the making of miso) and a professor of French at Brooklyn College in New York. Benchemhoun travels to Japan two or three times a year for two weeks at a time. At Kosherfest, he serves guests sake and a delicious sweet-potato dish, offering careful instructions on how to warm the sake glass with two hands, and where in the mouth to get most enjoyment from the sweet potato. “The Japanese have a very strong connection to nature and a strong natural pride.

Nature feeds us and we have to have respect. This is very Jewish!” Benchemhoun reports, “Without kosher certification, it is hard to enter the US market – it is better to have it.”

He and his colleagues at Kosher Japan are working hard to help Japanese manufacturers export their products.

Alexander Stevenson, manager and professional engineer for Lequios Japan, is an enzyme specialist and former US marine who lives in Okinawa, Japan.

Stevenson is wearing a traditional Japanese shirt as he mans the All Zen company booth and hands out samples of vegan soup and Matcha green tea.

“When we would go to the fancy food shows, buyers would ask us if we were kosher. When we said ‘no,’ they would walk away.

“We went home and saw there were other products which were halal certified but not kosher, so we went kosher. It was consumer driven!” The company started with soups and teas and has now expanded to matcha powder and ramen powder – with no monosodium glutamate, a flavor enhancer that many believe causes headaches and feelings of discomfort in large doses. Stevenson reports proudly, “We found the Orthodox Union and they give us a lot of support.”

In the nearby Korea pavilion, the Dong Bang company displays many varieties of sesame oil and perilla oil.

Manager Kang Mu Ku explains, “It is our first time here. We believe kosher certification opens opportunities for other markets.” Others in the Korea pavilion note, “Kosher has strict management and people believe kosher is a more high-quality product.”

The Chongga company is offering samples of kimchi, a Korean dish consisting of fermented chili peppers and vegetables. Korean-born Bongja Ziporah Rothkopf, CEO of the KOKO Food Kosher Korean who converted to Judaism 36 years ago, offers samples of her Kosherfest 2016 New Product Winner, Koko Gochhujang (fermented red hot pepper paste). Rothkopf manufactures in Korea and splits her time between Lakewood, New Jersey, and the Old City of Jerusalem.

Nearby, the Betula Pendula company, from the Czech Republic, is enthusiastically showing a most unique product, goat colostrum – the first milk secretion of the goat – which comes in both capsule and cream form. Company consultant Andrea Jelinkova notes, “It is good for health and skin rejuvenation.”

Ladislav Smejkal, COO and co-owner, reports, “Some customers had the idea that we would be wise to make our products kosher certified. We did and we are now trying to enter the Israel market.”

Fromin, another kosher-certified company from the Czech Republic, displays a more conventional product – bottled water – in gorgeous glass bottles of various shapes and sizes.

Todd Bentley, overseas trade director for Fromin (and himself based in Thailand), proudly notes, “Kosher is our new market. In January, I am going to Israel to negotiate.”

Rabbi Aaron Gunsberger, born in Prague and a lifelong resident of the Czech Republic, supervises 65 factories in the Czech Republic. He answers questions from curious visitors and hands out a “Catalogue of Czech Stand at Kosherfest 2016,” featuring write-ups, color photos and contact information of the seven Czech companies at Kosherfest. “Our goat products are very rare and unique,” reports Gunsberger proudly, “and they are halav Yisrael.”

Thushara Rajapakasha, director of SRS Fruit N Spices Ltd., exporters of dessicated coconut and spices, traveled a very long way from Negombo, Sri Lanka, to get to Kosherfest. “I first heard about kosher in 2000. Customers and distributors asked if we are kosher. They told us we needed to be kosher. His products are now under the supervision of the Star-K, the Baltimore-based kosher supervising agency.

Tonette Salazar, county manager of PS Kosher Philippines, tells a similar story of why companies in her country are seeking kosher supervision. “Reaching potential markets is a major key.” She has been working with Rabbi Joel Weinberger of Star-K for more than 15 years. “I wanted someone to help the Philippines, someone who is global, someone with a fine reputation.” She proudly hands out an 18-page spiral bound “Kosher in the Philippines” directory of kosher certified products and other activities that aim for kosherkeeping Jewish travelers.

Menachem Lubinsky, founder and co-producer of Kosherfest and the CEO and president of Lubicom Market Consulting, understands exactly why so many companies from around the world have discovered Kosherfest.

“If you produce an ingredient and want to sell to the US market, it needs to be kosher – otherwise, companies like Danon and Coca-Cola won’t buy from you. Kosher is a $30-billion business between the US and Israel alone. Around the world, they want to get a piece of the kosher food industry.”

This year, more than a dozen countries, from Argentina to Sri Lanka, discovered Kosherfest. Perhaps next year, even more countries, including representatives from the Arab world, will attend. A crazy idea? Not really.

“This year, we gave supervision in Saudi Arabia,” notes Elefant. “An ingredient company approached us, and a rabbi in our office traveled there. That story says what kosher is – when a company in a non-friendly country realizes they can’t succeed without the OU!” 

Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus, New Jersey (photo credit: HOWARD BLAS)

The business of being kosher

Restaurants and companies producing ingredients, edible products, beverages, foil and other kitchen products, vitamins, medicines, even medical marijuana have many national, regional and local options if they choose to seek kosher supervision.

According to the Brooklyn-based Kashrus Magazine, there are 1,371 Kosher supervision agencies worldwide listed in their 2017-18 guide.

Kosher certification is big business. In the United States, companies may apply for kosher supervision from one of the “big four” kosher certifying agencies which operate throughout the country and the world, or from local, regional or country-based certifying agencies.

The largest agencies include the OU (Orthodox Union), Star-K (and Star-D, the Star-K dairy division), KOF-K, and OK (Organized Kashrus Laboratories).

These symbols are registered trademarks of kosher certification organizations, meaning they cannot be placed on a food label without the organization’s permission.

Most states in the US have one or more kosher certifying agencies. Kashrut supervision operates in countries ranging from Argentina and Australia to Ukraine, the United Kingdom and Uruguay. While most communities hold by the kosher standard of the “big four,” support of local agencies varies by community. Nearly all are under Orthodox auspices, though some operate under supervision of the Conservative movement (an example is KINAHARA, Kashrut Initiative of the New Haven Area Rabbinical Assembly in Connecticut).

In all countries except for Israel, the process of certifying kashrut takes place apart from the government. In Israel, where many feel kashrut has become political and divisive, the High Court, in June 2016, ruled that businesses can present themselves as kosher only if they have a certificate from the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

Most major American supervision agencies have user-friendly applications on their websites in languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian and German. This is an acknowledgment that so many ingredients and products are produced around the world.

The process of obtaining certification through a major kashrut certifying organization usually involves first completing an application online (including information about the company and plant, as well as a list of the products to be certified and their ingredients).

A rabbinic coordinator, who will serve as point man throughout the process, is assigned, and a rabbinic field representative then visits the plant and works with the certifying organization to determine if products are eligible for supervision. Kosher certification organizations charge manufacturers a fee and a contract is signed by all the parties, and the company can begin placing the kosher certifying agency symbol on its products.

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