Keeping kosher, like many mitzvot, has changed significantly in modern times. Timothy Lytton, a law professor at Georgia State University, spoke Monday night, Oct. 21, at the New Toco Shul about the turbulent history of kosher certification in America.
The event at the Toco Hills’ latest synagogue, which opened last year in a yellow house-turned-synagogue on LaVista Road, included a kosher dinner of homemade pizza with faux sausage and pepperoni, as well as salad and dessert.
About 30 people attended the event, gathered in two long rows of comfortable blue chairs.
“I thought it was very informative, insightful and enjoyable,” said Channah Broyde, a lawyer. “It was also very thought-provoking.”
Rabbi Don Seeman, an associate professor of religious studies at Emory University, introduced Lytton and explained how the New Toco Shul regularly brings in speakers who highlight the ways Torah can intersect with points of secular knowledge.
Lytton recently published a book called “Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food,” in which he examines kosher certification as a model of private regulation in the food industry and explores the implications of this model for food safety and food labeling.
His talk included insights from his book and years of research.
More than 10,000 companies offer 135,000 kosher products, he said, and in a nation with fewer than 6 million Jews of all denominations, 12 million consumers regularly seek packaged food bearing a hecksher, or kosher symbol. Of those 12 million people, only 8 percent are religiously observant Jews, Lytton said.
“Almost everyone is getting kosher certification,” he said.
Many people seek kosher food that offers vegan and nondairy attributes, Lytton added.
There are more than 300 kosher-certifying agencies, though five heckshers are predominant: OU, OK, Star-K, KOF-K and cRc. (The Atlanta Kashruth Commission, which certifies nearly 150 businesses, including most of the local establishments, uses the familiar AKC inside a peach.)
The industry was not always so neatly organized, Lytton explained. While historically most food was prepared at home, with the animals slaughtered by a local shochet, the industrial revolution and the rise of processed food created a need for a different type of oversight and regulation.
While kosher meat production in the United States was originally overseen by individual synagogues within a community, the end of congregational leadership in the kosher field led to a rise in fraud, corruption and even violence, he said.
“In 1925, 50 percent of all meat sold in New York City as kosher actually wasn’t,” Lytton said.
The U.S. government lacked the resources to regulate kosher meat production, and private certification agencies began forming in an effort to meet the need.
The kosher meat industry still has some issues, but kosher certification of packaged food — the area Lytton focused on during his presentation — seems to be down to a science. Kosher agencies use sophisticated marketing efforts to convince manufacturers of the need and benefits of certifying their products, he said.
Rabbi Alexander Rosenberg, who worked for the Orthodox Union from 1950 to 1972, is famous for his initial attempt to sell Duncan Hines executives on the benefits of kosher certification of their cake mixes.
Rabbi Rosenberg said kosher consumers were a small but highly influential demographic because they were concentrated in major metropolitan markets. By increasing market share in those major metro areas, a company could achieve better product positioning on store shelves, where all customers, not just kosher consumers, would be more likely to see and buy them.
A marketing manager at Duncan Hines said Rabbi Rosenberg taught him that “the whole grocery business depends upon shelf space.”
As a result of OU certification, sales of Duncan Hines’ cake mix among nonkosher consumers rose 40 percent in two months.
In fact, 2 percent to 20 percent of a typical product’s sales are attributable to kosher certification, Lytton said, which can mean millions of dollars for a leading brand.
The major certification agencies are often interdependent, with one overseeing certain ingredients that go into products regulated by another agency, he said.
Because processed food can contain multiple additives, the agencies typically hire employees who oversee specific aspects of food production. For example, one person will be in charge only of emulsifiers, while another will do flavor enhancers.
Lytton explained that the agencies perform an initial inspection of the facilities and equipment, then make regular visits throughout the year for ongoing monitoring. The fees range from $2,000 to $100,000 per year.
“I thought it was eye-opening about how complex the kosher supervision has become,” Ilana Gimpelevitch said.
She said she enjoys hearing speakers discuss timely and interesting Torah-related topics, as the New Toco Shul frequently offers.
The major kosher certification agencies are known for their reliability, Lytton said, and they serve as a model for other industries. The seven ingredients of successful private certification, as Lytton explained, are consumer demand, brand competition, agency interdependence, consumer vigilance, concentration of market power, shared sense of mission and social networks.
“As a government lawyer, it offered another dimension of enforcement and interaction between government agencies and private agencies,” Broyde said.
“I wasn’t aware of the whole issue of corruption and violence. That was shocking to me. But also I found the interplay between cooperation and competition as an intellectual matter very interesting,” she said.
Overall, Lytton concluded, those who oversee the kosher food industry are mission-driven.
“They believe what they are doing is a sacred trust.”