Friday, January 30, 2009

Kosher Food Questions

For all of its importance in our religious life, fundamentally kosher food is a product and like all products it is subject to the vicissitudes of markets and the vagaries of human behavior. Kosher food is a business and there is money to be made, often more money to be made than on similar products that are not designated as kosher. This means, in turn, that there is a temptation to take advantage and, in extreme situations, to label as kosher that which is not.

We have come a long way in this country in kosher supervision, in large measure thanks to the Orthodox Union which certifies thousands of items and sets a high standard for probity. There are those who question or do not accept certain O.U. criteria for kashruth certification, claiming that there is too great a reliance on halachic leniencies. No matter, for that’s for individuals to decide; what counts is the long record of integrity.

As kosher food is a business, so is supervision and certification. There is competition in the field, mainly from agencies and individuals that have created a dizzying array of certification symbols. Overall, we can be confident of reliability and this isn’t much undermined by the occasional scandal that gives Orthodox Jews in particular something to talk about.

Given the use of standard ingredients in most products, certification is in large measure a routine process. It is also a changing process because food production constantly undergoes change. One major development is globalization, the astonishing decline of local manufacturing as companies seek places where their products can be produced at a significantly lower cost. Two of the Rabbis murdered in Mumbai were there to inspect and certify as kosher food produced in India.

Kosher food production has expanded in India, but nothing compared to what has happened in China. A recent New Yorker article by Patricia Marx (“Kosher Takeout,” January 5) informs us that at least 1,500 Chinese factories have kosher certificates and that “there are more than fifty mashgichim (kosher inspectors) in the country, seven from the O.U.” China “is now the fastest-growing exporter of kosher goods on earth.” Flippant in tone, the article focuses on two mashgichim who live in Israel, Rabbi Mordechai Grunberg who works for the Orthodox Union and Rabbi David Moskowitz who has his own certification agency, Shatz Kosher Services, which is now involved in “more than one-hundred factories in China and a few in Vietnam.”

In short, for kosher consumers, Chinese production is now significant. This raises questions about supervision. According to Marx, typically Rabbis Grunberg and Moskowitz spend two to three weeks each month in China, with a good deal of their time devoted to getting to the places they supervise, an important factor that inevitably affects how much time is devoted to the supervision itself. As a rule, each factory is visited four times a year, with the initial visit taking up to four hours, while the “follow-up walk-through can be accomplished in an hour.” A good part of that hour is devoted to what Marx refers to as “the schmooze,” small talk and much chuckling “about what, I don’t think anyone present has a clue.”

I trust that the mashgichim are competent, that they know what to look for and what to ask as they make their pre-scheduled visits. I am not fully confident about the quality of the inspections. Four short visits a year are nothing to write home about and this concern isn’t allayed by Rabbi Moskowitz’s assertion, “It’s more what they don’t show you than what they do… You break [the] pattern” by asking to see something that they are not ready for.

The Chinese certainly aren’t less prone to human failings in commercial transactions than other humans. From recent news regarding tainted milk, lead in toys and other business shenanigans, it may be that because this vast country is in an early stage of rapid and undersupervised economic development, there is more to worry about the reliability of Chinese products than about goods coming from elsewhere. The China story is typical of societies in transformation. I doubt that kosher food production induces in Chinese businessmen a higher degree of restraint against wrongdoing.

When I spoke to an Orthodox Union official about this concern, he assured me that “90% of the products are innocuous,” a statistic that did not reduce my concern. In kosher food, it’s always a small proportion of the ingredients that require a higher degree of inspection. Shatz certifies frozen fish filet for Sam’s Club and the O.U. certifies “Wow, a snack food comprising wasabi–and–soy-roasted green peas, rice, peanuts and beans.” Are quickie visits sufficient to establish the kashruth of these products?

Although I admire the Orthodox Union’s accomplishments, uncomfortable questions need to be asked about China. Globalization is a dynamic force and the prospect is for greater reliance in kosher food production on plants in distant countries where supervision and certification are often provided by itinerant mashgichim.

Doubtlessly, China’s growing role in the relatively small world of kosher food and the infinitely larger global economy arises from cost considerations. Like other goods, kosher food is produced in China because even with shipping costs, it is cheaper to do business there than elsewhere. This raises the collateral question of whether in any way these savings are passed on to kosher consumers. To put the question differently, why is kosher food significantly more expensive than comparable food that is not labeled as kosher? Certification is a small expense. There is enormous financial pressure in many Orthodox homes. The severe economic downturn adds to this pressure. This downturn is accompanied by accelerating deflation in the price of commodities. Little or none of this is being passed on to kosher consumers. Why?