Monday, August 21, 2017

How the Hechsher? Is it Kosher?

In addition to enabling the mass production of dry goods, clothing and automobiles, the industrial revolution allowed for the commercial production and distribution of prepared foods. While this meant less time and energy spent on food preparation, it also meant that people were less involved with, and aware of, the ingredients in their food.

Some brands recognized, early on, the unique needs of the kosher market. Indeed, in 1911, Crisco shortening promoted their vegetable-based shortening to the kosher market as the product for which “the Hebrew race has been waiting 4,000 years.” However, as foods became more complex, Jewish consumers faced the question of how to know if  packaged food was really kosher. In 1915, the New York State legislature made it illegal to falsely promote non-kosher food as kosher, demonstrating how easily the food industry could manipulate the market.

In 1924, the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America (founded  in 1898, now the Orthodox Union) created the first kosher certification agency in the United States. It was headed by Abraham Goldstein, whose background in chemistry allowed him to understand the composition of the food additives and to guide the organization’s growing body of kosher supervisors (mashgichim). In addition to overseeing already registered foods, the OU kashrut division actively sought to convince brands to obtain kosher certification. One of their greatest coups was when the Heinz food company agreed to OU certification for its Vegetarian Baked Beans in 1935.

Creating competition often allows for dynamic business growth, and Mr. Goldstein created that opportunity  when he left the OU and founded the Organized Kashrut Laboratories (O.K., also known as Circle K). The number of products accepting kosher oversight and trademarking a hechsher (symbol of kosher certification) continue to grow. Both the OU and the OK are still among the best-known hechsherim.

In order for a kosher certification to be trademarked, it must bear a distinct design, such as a  simple letter U encircled by the letter O. However, the letter  K alone with no particular embellishment* cannot be trademarked and any company is free to use it and  claim kosher status even without rabbinic  oversight.

*It should be noted that there are a few exceptions to this rule. For instance,  Kelloggs cereals, which have the oversight  of the Rabbinical Council of New England,  are marked only with a plain K or KD (for Dairy) in the United States.

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