Labeling. What is Kosher for a food community?

posted in: Food | 24

Philosophical food restrictions were not something I grew up with. Well, there was the “Fish on Friday” thing, but I was never really able to understand why fish wasn’t a dead animal too. (I have a long history of aversion to dogma, which didn’t serve me well in Catholic school, as I would say things like that out loud. To nuns.) And my dad didn’t like fish so we actually just got a cheese pizza on Friday nights and that was the end of that.

Is this Kosher? Image by Julie via Flickr.
Is this Kosher? Image by Julie via Flickr.

That said, I think it’s fine for people to develop philosophies, rituals, and rules about what to eat for themselves. Pizza night was comforting and tasty. But just because my family liked pizza on Friday nights, I would never expect other families to feel the need to adhere to our little tradition and abandon their fish fry. Many cultures and religions have developed rules and rituals about food and food ingredients. Among the best known of these are the Kosher and Halal types of religious food permissions and restrictions. But many others exist as well.

I became more interested in understanding the Kosher system as the GMO food labeling debate has played out. I knew that the Kosher system had been successful, and apparently sustainable, and it was not established or maintained by the government. It seemed to be a suitable model for the philosophical objection to the GMO process that people have. Although some scientists and other science-minded folks lean towards other types of label systems, including more science-based and educational strategies that I wouldn’t necessarily reject, I still think that philosophical labeling should be handled with Kosher as the model system.

Kosher by Timothy Lytton, via Harvard University Press

Conveniently, a book was recently published that explores the Kosher label history. Timothy Lytton has written a text that provides historical context, political machinations, community tensions, various false starts and ultimate success of the label’s use. Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food is a worthwhile read if you are interested in food label systems. (It is a bit pricey for the 150-page size, I thought, so I waited a while for a library copy. But many of the key issues are discussed in the press links over there on the book publisher’s page.) Covering the Kosher dietary restrictions (sometimes written as Kashrut or Kashrus) from a historical origin and from their earliest implementation to the European strategies in the Middle Ages, through to the changing needs of immigrants in the New World, the early part of the book briefly introduces the original strategies that communities used to maintain adherence to their dietary rules.

The system had worked well enough when small trust communities formed the predominant social structures. But this system was challenging to maintain in the US where communities mixed  Jewish immigrants from many different ancestral communities. There were tensions among more- and less-observant groups. Further, because of the profit motives of many types of food purveyors, there was a great deal of opportunity for fraud and abuse. This bothered religious leaders who genuinely wanted their flocks to have access to quality food that met their requirements. And consumers distrusted the claims of some labelers and food providers, of course.

Many strategies for Kosher labeling and rule management were attempted in the US, and several helpful examples are described. Among the earliest labels was a lead tag attached to a carcass. (Seriously–that’s lead as in Pb) Most efforts ultimately failed due to the recurring themes of “rabbinic infighting and lack of resources”. This included disputes among those who establish the rules who sometimes couldn’t please different sub-groups in the community. Power structures that developed included monopolistic gangs and bribery situations in some cases. And the additional cost of the process of proper food preparation and ongoing supervision had to be paid somehow, even in the cases of trustworthy attempts this can be expensive. Hiring trained personnel and paying for effective monitoring time is not trivial.

In some places governmental regulations were attempted. The story of the New York state saga is useful. But essentially these fail for a couple of reasons: the government doesn’t have the same philosophical framework as a religious group (for many good reasons as far as I’m concerned) and may not be quite as rigorous or driven to encourage adherence. But they also lacked the financial resourcing to do it right (obviously this is not new either). Eventually, though, the right system for the US seemed to come along–in the form of private certifications:

“For nearly a century, kashrus in America was plagued by anarchy that facilitated widespread fraud and corruption. That began to change only when nostalgia for centralized communal control was replaced by faith in a quintessentially American institution with the potential to provide reliable kosher certification: the private business enterprise operating in a competitive market.” (page 34)

A sampling of Kosher symbols via Jerusalem Kosher News.
A sampling of Kosher symbols via Jerusalem Kosher News.

The focus of the book then turned to the new issues that arose from the other major development in American food–industrialization. This generated new demands and challenges for Jewish communities who desired Kosher foods and the religious authorities who wanted to support them. The complexity of supply chains, new ingredients, and large processing facilities was daunting. But the corresponding rise of a new, professionally managed private system, with highly educated staff, kept up. Data about the growth of product labels and customers is provided. Some smaller certifying groups continued to exist, but the field is dominated by some heavy hitters. These include the Orthodox Union (OU), Kof-K, Star-K, OK, CRC, known as “the big five“, and others. But this development of several competing groups is, in fact, a good thing. They provide competition, consumer and producer choice, and help keep each other in line.

The next section emphasizes the collective responsibility of the Kosher certifiers, and explores the “dynamics of self-regulation” that they work under, as a sort of peer-review system.  A hit to the credibility of one of them can damage all of them. Examples of incidents and associated drama are provided. Who knew there was a major vinegar scandal in the 1980s, with resulting destruction of huge amounts of pickles and other products that were deemed unacceptable? But appropriately, the groups responded with increased vigilance, better standards, and improved communication to restore confidence. The “big five” formed new oversight trade organization, called the Association of Communal Kashrus Organizations (ACKO, now just AKO), which now has over 70 member groups.

AKO coordinated the development of standards and best practices guidelines. They hold conferences and trainings. Although not immune to power disputes and competition–although some call it a Kashrut Mafia or a “boys’ club” according to the book, it seems to be a useful and effective structure. And consumers have choices about which organization’s standards and practices they prefer and trust. This section offers details about the size of the various organizations and the products they cover. And it adds further depth on the associated support servicers who they also work with–such as folks specialized to perform appropriate equipment cleaning. It’s really an impressive structure, with many ways to support the community with education, events, training, employment, and business opportunities.

Coke with two different Kosher labels. Images by Leigh Wolf and Noah Jacquemin via Flickr.
Coke with two different Kosher labels. Images by Leigh Wolf and Noah Jacquemin via Flickr.

The last section explores the “effectiveness and integrity” of this labeling strategy. There are examples of poor oversight, lax standards, excessively stringent standards–and even application of labels to items like aluminum foil. (Ahem–anyone remember the non-GMO salt label?) It describes some of the issues that have arisen with mislabeling, and methods to address them–such as consumer alerts and recalls–as well as the proactive self-reporting of the labeling certifiers. There are some amusing anecdotes about the state laws, which can sometimes be used for consumer protection, but are sometimes barely acknowledged, under resourced, or enforced by folks with no training in kashrus. State laws have also run afoul of the First Amendment separation issues. Despite the issues, Lytton says this private label system has numerous advantages (emphasis in the original text):

“To begin with, kosher certification agencies have greater expertise in determining how the traditional laws of kashrus apply to modern industrial food production….Kosher certification agencies are more responsive and accountable to consumers. While government regulation is often considered more democratically accountable than private regulation, the reverse is true in kosher food regulation. State legislators and state agency officials–for whom adulteration and mislabeling of kosher food is a relatively low priority–are not likely to vigorously pursue complaints about kosher food regulation, especially in states where religiously observant Jews are a small minority with little electoral influence….Kosher certification agencies provide better inspection and monitoring coverage of the kosher food industry….Kosher certification agencies are more proactive and prospective than government agencies…” [several more compelling advantages follow] (pg 116-117)

No system is flawless, and examples of the failures of this strategy are also provided. But the overall conclusion seems to be this strategy is effective and the self-policing is largely adequate, and that the Kosher label system is a good model of “private third-party certification”. There’s more detail in the book, of course, with supporting data and notes–and if you are interested in food label issues this book is definitely worth your time.

What I really like about Kosher labeling: it is there to support the community that wants to abide by the rules and restrictions. It’s not about forcing their perspective on anyone who doesn’t share their perspective and philosophy. The system works to strengthen their community. It provides a service to food providers who want to have the business of their market. It’s not about restricting anyone else’s access to products they might prefer. And it doesn’t use the government to force it’s philosophies on anyone else. They can also adapt their rules without waiting for the government to do so. The community who wants this added production cost pays for that service, which can be really costly as this NYT article on Kosher wheat production details. But if the community wants to pay for that, that’s fine. It doesn’t burden anyone else in the system. This is the model I support for GMO labeling.

Parallels with the Organic/Non-GMO Community

As a rather young arena, the organic and non-GMO community certainly hasn’t faced the volume of scandals that early Kosher communities did over many decades. Nonetheless, there have been major breaches on several fronts.  Deception in packaged foods was demonstrated by the Swaddles Organic scandal. They repackaged non-organic food with organic wrappers for five years. At the other end of organic production, another scammer was committing fertilizer fraud, selling product that was marketed as “organic” but contained synthetic materials–again, for years. And there are multiple stories of swindles at farmers’ markets by folks who are not actually growing the food they sell locally, or claiming it is without pesticides, when that turns out to be false. These types of incidents–combined with studies that demonstrate the nutritional claims of organic foods made by proponents are also not supported–risk engendering distrust in exactly the same way the Kosher community saw. And as we saw with Kosher, state label efforts may fail for lack of rigor and resources too. The federal panel setup setting organic standards causes whinging in the organic community already too.

Basically, I feel that government- or industry-based labels will be unsatisfying in their stringency for label advocates once they really grasp the outcomes, and we’d be back in the same shouty place anyway.

The target will simply shift to banning ingredients, assaults on vendors, and escalated demands for more stringency to match their philosophical (not scientific) objections. Or continued battles at the state level. The Kosher labeling model really seems to be a wise choice for a group that has philosophical objections to some aspect of food production or preparation, or for non-health related issues such as patents and monocultures. They can set the rules and requirements, monitor the producers, and deal with the breaches. It will be immune to the whims of one administration or another. And it will be sustainable if done properly. It can also serve the needs of those who want rules established on some types of foods with one brand of label, but want to to have “food freedom” from rules on other sorts of foods such as raw milk, which could divide the communities if they attempt to align on government regulations. Further, a private and voluntary GMO labeling system is already accomplishing some of the things it wants in exactly that manner.

Chipotle’s strategy of denoting their use of GMOs has pleased some food activists, and only enraged others, confused or misled some, and many are hoping this leads to the elimination of GMOs. Jason Lusk recently pointed to a study that evaluates the impacts of voluntary and mandatory strategies as well. This voluntary system is ready now, and that’s what I’d rather see than useless, uninformative, and unscientific mandatory government labels of the types I’ve seen proposed by label advocates. That said, work has shown that the democratic and transparent nature of private label systems, and their accountability, can be compromised by those with strong industry ties. (1) But that is up to the participating community to address. Lytton compares this to government notice-and-comment systems, and finds they are not necessarily better in this regard. A private system like Kosher would resolve some of the drama and tension on this topic.

If the non-GMO community wants to have rules established by alt–med vendors who oppose labels for their own products, conspiracy theorist fiction writers nominated as the One Crank to Rule Them All, anti-vaxxers like the director of the Organic Consumer’s Association that is among leading donors to label initiatives, advocates of humming pandits like the co-author of the Earth Open Source report (I’m so sad they left out the pandit data from that report), those who bury manure in animal horns with astrology, and yogic fliers, and if they wish to test and certify their food processors in a private label like the ominous sounding Global ID Group, where John Fagan (of the humming pandits) is the founder and Chief Scientific Officer–that’s perfectly fine with me. But I will fight back if those folks get near any federal rule-setting panels with my tax dollars.

A side note on GMOs and Kosher

By the way, in case you were curious about the intersection of Kosher labeling and GMOs, here’s one example of the largest Kosher certifier–Orthodox Union–and their take on this issue:

According to the Orthodox Union, the strictest interpreter of Halachic laws, GMOs do not pose a concern. “The Halachic implications of bio-engineered foods with possible genes from non-kosher sources has been studied at length by the Orthodox Union’s Rabbinical Kashruth Advisory Board, headed by the renowned Rabbi Israel Belsky of Mesivta Torah V’daath and Rabbi Hershel Schechter of Yeshiva University,” states the OU. “The conclusion of this Rabbinical Board was that such genetic manipulation does not present any Kashruth problems whatsoever….”

But if other Kosher certifiers want to exclude GMOs, that’s totally up to them. The way philosophical labeling should be handled.

Reference: (1)  Fuchs D., Kalfagianni A. & Havinga T. (2011). Actors in private food governance: the legitimacy of retail standards and multistakeholder initiatives with civil society participation, Agriculture and Human Values, 28 (3) 353-367. DOI:

Follow Mary Mangan:

Mary Mangan PhD is a genomics scientist, with credentials in microbiology, immunology, plant cell biology, and mammalian cell, developmental, and molecular biology. All comments here are my own, and do not represent my company or any other company.