One of the hottest trends in the grocery business theses days is Kosher food. Sales reached $12.5 billion in 2008, 64% more than 2003. Kosher food abides by a set of religious laws observed by Jews for thousands of years. Amongst them – pork and shellfish are prohibited, meat and dairy products cannot be eaten together, and more.
So has there been a mass conversion to Judaism recently, or is the kosher trend to be attributed elsewhere?
In a recent New York Times article, Tara Parker-Pope proposes that people are choosing kosher food for health reasons.
62 percent of people who buy kosher foods do so for quality reasons, while 51 percent say they buy kosher for its “general healthfulness.” About one-third say they buy kosher because they think food safety standards are better than with traditional supermarket foods. Only 15 percent of respondents say they buy kosher food because of religious rules. read more…
Reading into the numbers, you can see that health and food safety are driving the trend, not a theological epiphany. In many cases, kosher meat and poultry products are more expensive (though not as expensive as organic). And yet sales are skyrocketing.
The article goes on to provide possible explanations for this phenomenon. No doubt, there’s a lot of marketing going on here, on top of any “real reasons”. Kosher was not created for health reasons, but as a religious framework for food. So what gives?
A possible explanation for the perceived healthfulness is the extra sets of eyes involved in kosher food processing. You see, in order for a food to obtain a kosher seal of approval, a “Mashgiach Kashrut” (literally: Kosher supervisor) must be present to oversee the food preparation process. Whether it’s supervising a kosher “shchita” (slaughter) or making sure no wrong ingredients make into a snack bar or pudding, someone is standing at the factory taking notes.
If we’re to read into this a bit further, the reason kosher is perceived as healthier is because there is a third party inside the manufacturing plants that has a different incentive than the food company. His loyalty is to the customers (and even more so to god.)
Sounds very similar to another third party that inspects food plants – the FDA (and the USDA too). A recent report has shown that FDA inspections of food processors decreased in the five years 2004-2008. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here. Give consumers more confidence that facilities are being inspected by a non-partisan third party, and you’ll get higher approval ratings.
If you think about it, all of the various certifications, including Organic, Free Trade, etc… are an additional layer of oversight that help consumers decide with more confidence. What if the FDA beefed up its inspections of plants, and the resulting data of all inspections was easily available for consumers to see and understand?
What to do at the supermarket:
If you are interested in kosher foods, it’s really easy to spot them. Look for one of the following symbols on the product package.