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The Winnipeg Free Press, of June 5, 1996, D1

Kosher gets complicated
By Ernest Sander, Associated Press

New York - In the 3,500 years since God met Moses on Mount
Sinai and handed down kosher law to the Jews, much has

Today's multibillion-dollar kosher food market is dominated
by names such as Procter and Gamble and General Mills, giant
companies that prowl the globe for ingredients and rely
heavily on colourings, flavourings and enzymes that weren't
around in the beginning.

Now it takes computer programs, science PhDs and travel
budgets to follow the food trail, to track ingredients from
the ground and the lab to the supermarket shelves, ensuring no
kosher laws have been breached along the way.

"The modern kosher professional has to do more than just read
labels. You really have to know the ingredients and know the
process," says Baltimore-based Rabbi Tzvi Rosen.

With a combination of money, sophistication and clout, a small
group of kosher certifying agencies have done that better than
anyone else, and as a result have cornered the market.

OU, Star K, Choff K, O/K -- their stamps of approval on a
salad dressing, cookies or chicken are, for many kosher
followers, "gospel."


And that's critical to consumers who fear two things above all
else: unwittingly eating unkosher food, and getting tarred as
someone lax about their kosher diet.

Whatever mystical associations people may have, the term
kosher means simply this: an exhaustive investigation of a
food, what goes into it and how it is made, and a series of
rules about what can and cannot be eaten.

Perhaps no one is more steeped in kosher than the Orthodox
Union, or OU.

By far the largest and most trusted of the certifying
agencies, its logo (a U with a circle around it) is recognized
in hotels, restaurants and stores around the world, and its
stamp appears on about 100,000 products in 48 countries.

Only about a quarter of kosher eaters are Jewish. The rest are
vegetarians, the lactose-intolerant, Muslims, Seventh-Day
Adventists and others drawn by lifestyle or religious

"Once upon a time, kosher food used to be an ethnic food, but
now kosher consumers want the things that everyone else has,"
says Moshe Bernstein, an OU rabbi.

For its services, the OU charges fees ranging from several
thousand to several hundred thousand dollars a year, though
the agency declines to go into detail. The OU calls itself

On the surface, kosher certification is portrayed as genteel,
a sort of community service, which in many ways it is. But
certifiers use contacts, price cuts, advertising and other
techniques to capture market share.

While transformation of the kosher menu into a veritable
smorgasbord has been a good thing, it has introduced a new
risk for kosher observers.


Twenty years ago, if a company made frozen peas, few kosher
consumers were concerned. Vegetables and water are kosher.

Today, that same company may be producing a line of
Chinese-style vegetables with pork and shrimp, both unkosher.
If the equipment isn't sanitized between production runs, the
garden-variety frozen peas will be tainted.

Products as innocuous as toothpaste and toilet paper can be
unkosher if made or packaged in a certain way.

It's from a fear that something will go awry, either by design
or inadvertantly, that leads most consumers to be wary of all
but about a half-dozen of the kosher stamps in circulation.

Among consumers, there's no incentive not to go with a
tried-and-true certifier. A quick way for a person to see
their reputation plummet among the kosher set is to serve
"second-rate" kosher foods.

Sometimes mere rumors of malfeasance can scare off kosher


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