Kosher: Pri­vate Reg­u­la­tion in the Age of Indus­tri­al Food

  • Review
By – August 26, 2013

To para­phrase a catchy adver­tise­ment for Levy’s rye bread,“You don’t have to be Jew­ish to eat kosher food!” There are ten thou­sand com­pa­nies pro­duc­ing kosher food in the Unit­ed States alone. These com­pa­nies make more than 135,000 kosher prod­ucts for over twelve mil­lion con­sumers, reports Tim­o­thy D. Lyt­ton in his delight­ful book, Kosher: Pri­vate Reg­u­la­tion in the Age of Indus­tri­al Food. The Amer­i­can kosher mar­ket gen­er­ates more than twelve bil­lion in annu­al retail sales and more prod­ucts are labeled kosher than are labeled organ­ic, nat­ur­al, or pre­mi­um. Only eight per­cent of kosher food con­sumers are reli­gious Jews. Oth­ers include those who believe kosher foods are safer, tasti­er, and tru­ly veg­e­tar­i­an, lack lac­tose, and con­form to Halal, Islam­ic dietary restrictions.

The kosher food indus­try wasn’t always so suc­cess­ful. Fraud and cor­rup­tion plagued kosher meat pro­duc­tion in the Unit­ed States from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. In 1925, the New York City Depart­ment of Mar­kets esti­mat­ed that 40 per­cent of the meat sold as kosher in the city was not kosher. The indus­try was also noto­ri­ous for price fix­ing and rack­e­teer­ing. That has all changed. The trans­for­ma­tion of the indus­try has been so suc­cess­ful and dra­mat­ic, Lyt­ton per­sua­sive­ly argues, that it can now serve as a mod­el of suc­cess” of pri­vate reg­u­la­tion to be emu­lat­ed by oth­er indus­tries seek­ing improve­ment in such areas as food safe­ty or organ­ic prod­uct label­ing. Today, the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion sys­tem ensures that food labeled kosher” is actu­al­ly kosher. Lyt­ton argues that the sys­tem has accom­plished this by devel­op­ing a mar­ket struc­ture that aligns the finan­cial incen­tives of cer­ti­fiers and com­pa­nies with the inter­ests of kosher consumers.” 

Kosher: Pri­vate Reg­u­la­tion in the Age of Indus­tri­al Food is not an aca­d­e­m­ic tract argu­ing for pri­vate over pub­lic reg­u­la­tion. Nor does it argue for or against eat­ing kosher food. The book pro­vides a fas­ci­nat­ing, metic­u­lous­ly doc­u­ment­ed how-to nar­ra­tive explain­ing the actu­al mechan­ics of indus­tri­al kashrus,” its stan­dards, admin­is­tra­tion, and self-reg­u­la­tion set in the con­text of Jew­ish social his­to­ry and reli­gious prac­tice. He iden­ti­fies many of the key actors in the process, includ­ing the mash­giachs (pro­fes­sion­al who over­sees kosher food prepa­ra­tion), shochets (pro­fes­sion­als qual­i­fied to per­form kosher slaugh­ter), and the spe­cif­ic kosher cer­ti­fi­ca­tion indus­tries in the field. 

An exam­ple of the inter­est­ing infor­ma­tion woven into the book is Lytton’s account of the devel­op­ment of the Kof‑K” kosher cer­ti­fi­ca­tion devel­oped by Har­vey Sen­ter. Sen­ter grew up in Brook­lyn , attend­ed Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty, where he earned a BA in 1958, rab­binic ordi­na­tion in 1961, and a PhD in math­e­mat­ics in 1963. He became an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of math­e­mat­ics at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, taught math as an adjunct pro­fes­sor at Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty, and vol­un­teered as a con­gre­ga­tion­al rab­bi. As a hob­by he did infor­mal research on kosher foods and was par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in the issue of fla­vors. He called com­pa­nies to get infor­ma­tion about their man­u­fac­tur­ing process­es. Sen­ter com­piled this infor­ma­tion into a book­let, Guide to Kashrus, in his role as the fac­ul­ty advi­sor to Yeshi­va University’s stu­dent mag­a­zine. In the 1960s a mar­ket­ing exec­u­tive from Howard John­son, one of the com­pa­nies he had researched, hired him to pro­vide kosher cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for its ice cream. Sen­ter agreed and hired trust­wor­thy indi­vid­u­als to inspect Howard Johnson’s ice cream plants in Mia­mi, Bal­ti­more, and Broc­ton, Mass­a­chu­setts. With its hir­ing of Sen­ter and his staff, Howard John­son ice cream became the first prod­uct cer­ti­fied by Sen­ter. Howard John­son, itself, start­ed as a small cor­ner drug­store in that sold ice cream at its soda foun­tain in Wol­las­ton, Mass­a­chu­setts in 1925. By the 1960s it was America’s largest and best-known restau­rant, hotel chain, and ice cream manufacturer. 

In the ear­ly years of Kof‑K, Sen­ter did pre­sen­ta­tions before Jew­ish groups through­out the coun­try demon­strat­ing his knowl­edge and exper­tise in food tech­nol­o­gy and his rig­or­ous lev­el of per­son­al obser­vance. Sen­ter knew that to suc­ceed, kosher cer­ti­fy­ing agen­cies must devel­op a rep­u­ta­tion among con­sumers for reli­a­bil­i­ty and trust­wor­thi­ness. For, as Lyt­ton writes, Kashrus cer­ti­fi­ca­tion is not only a busi­ness. It is also a reli­gious mis­sion.” Sen­ter real­ized that for large food com­pa­nies that pro­duce non-meat edi­bles, kosher cer­ti­fi­ca­tion is a high­ly attrac­tive and rel­a­tive­ly inex­pen­sive mar­ket­ing strat­e­gy. Sen­ter now heads one of the largest kosher cer­ti­fi­ca­tion agen­cies in the Unit­ed States , Kof‑K, whose staff of 150 cer­ti­fies near­ly two hun­dred thou­sand prod­ucts man­u­fac­tured by 900 com­pa­nies worldwide.

Lyt­ton doesn’t avoid the lat­est con­tro­ver­sies in the field. Appen­dix­es include dis­cus­sions of the con­tro­ver­sy over OU dom­i­nance of Kosher meat,” anti-trust con­cerns (the big five kosher cer­ti­fi­ca­tion ser­vices con­trol eighty per­cent of the mar­ket); eth­i­cal kashrus, and the Iowa slaugh­ter­house scan­dal. Agriproces­sors, the largest kosher meat-pro­duc­tion facil­i­ty in the Unit­ed States, locat­ed in Postville, Iowa, was charged with ani­mal cru­el­ty, labor exploita­tion, envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, and finan­cial irreg­u­lar­i­ties. In 2009, Agriproces­sors CEO Rab­bi Sholom Rubashkin was crim­i­nal­ly con­vict­ed of sev­er­al of those charges.

You need not be a food­ie,” a rab­bi or even eat kosher food to enjoy the book. Lyt­ton has suc­ceed­ed in mak­ing a book about an ordi­nar­i­ly dull top­ic, kosher cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of food, into a riv­et­ing social his­to­ry of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish expe­ri­ence and entre­pre­neur­ial genius. 

Tim­o­thy D. Lyt­ton is the Albert and Angela Farone Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Law at Albany Law School. Appen­dix­es, glos­sary, index, notes, tables.

Read Tim­o­thy D. Lyt­ton’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

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