More broadly it refers to anything that is deemed proper or correct.
The number of consumers who require kosher certified food for religious reasons, namely orthodox Jews, is miniscule. According to Sue Fishkoff, author of Kosher Nation, Jews comprise less than two percent of the US population and only a small fraction of those keep kosher. What should follow logically, then, is that kosher products should account for a similarly minute percentage of food products.
But the numbers don’t tell the real story. Kosher food is a huge market in the United States and appeals to a far broader base than observant Jews. The kosher consumer is not the equivalent of the Jewish consumer and kosher does not refer merely to bagels, lox, and gefilte fish. These traditional Jewish foods, many of which consumers can find in their local supermarkets during the Jewish holiday seasons, reached $12.5 billion in domestic sales by 2008 according to the Kosher Foods- U.S. – January 2009 report by Mintel, a market research firm that regularly analyzes the kosher and sacred foods market. But the overall kosher certified food market has far eclipsed the traditional Jewish niche and has garnered more than $200 billion of the United States’ $500 billion in annual food sales.
So what is behind this phenomenon in kosher certified foods? What accounts for more than 11.2 million Americans regularly buying kosher food, an impressive 13 percent of the adult consumer population? Fishkoff explains that of the total number of consumers who purchase kosher fare, only 14 percent do so because they observe kosher laws. The rest have entirely different reasons for buying kosher.
Vegetarians are frequent kosher consumers, as are lactose-intolerant individuals. They rely upon the kosher symbols that designate products into different food categories. For a product to be certified kosher, it has to be under the supervision of a kosher agency, and subjected to numerous checks and rules to ensure its kosher status. Included among these strict kosher guidelines is a complete separation between meat ingredients and dairy ingredients. Foods may not contain both meat and dairy ingredients nor may meat foods be eaten at the same meal with dairy foods (and vice versa), even though both are independently kosher.
There is also a category of foods which contain neither meat nor dairy products, referred to as parve, from the Yiddish for neutral. For kosher observant Jews, parve is a great way to add food products to a meal, since they can be eaten with either meat or dairy. For vegetarian and lactose intolerant consumers, the parve or dairy label on a particular food allows them to purchase and eat a product with complete confidence that they are adhering to their ideology or food allergy requirements.
Other religious folk, says Fishkoff, like Seventh Day Adventists, who eat only biblically permitted animals, and Muslims, who may be in a bind when Halal meat is not available, rely on kosher food. Vegans, too, for whom only parve food is permissible, count on the parve label. Even individuals who have Celiac Disease and require gluten-free food are part of the kosher ecosystem. On Passover, when wheat consumption is prohibited for Jews, all food products are manufactured without that ingredient. Gluten-free consumers buy many kosher for Passover products during that holiday and keep them for round-the-year use.
The absolute nature of kosher food is what attracts its non-Jewish consumers. The vast and stringent regulations to which the food manufacturers must agree and adhere to, provides all kosher-buying consumers with a comfort level that what they think they’re buying really is what they are buying. More than that, even, is the perception, says Fishkoff, that “kosher food is cleaner, safer, better. In fact, more Americans buy it for these reasons than for any other: 62 percent buy kosher because they believe it is of higher quality than non-kosher food, 51 percent because they believe it is more healthy, and 34 percent because they consider it safer.”
Many large companies have hired kosher agencies to supervise their products and supply them with the kosher symbol that guarantees a kosher status. Among the most popular kosher symbols are the OU, which features a U encircled by an O; the OK, which similarly features a K encircled by an O; and the Kaf Kay, which pictures a K within the Hebrew letter Kaf. These symbols often go unnoticed by consumers unaffected by a product’s kosher status, but mean a world of difference to kosher buyers.
Pepsi, Coca Cola, General Mills, Nestle, Kraft, Nabisco, Entenmann’s, and a host of other high profile brands have the kosher label on dozens of their products. While not every product can be certified kosher (any product that has even one non kosher ingredient is rendered not kosher), it is often worth a company’s efforts to ensure that its products are produced kosher.
For example, in 2000, Kraft Foods, which had recently bought the Stella D’Oro brand, decided to cut costs by switching its chocolate ingredient to one that contained milk, effectively rendering the long-time parve product dairy. In advance of its switchover, the company began putting a dairy label on the product. Almost immediately, consumers stopped purchasing the product. In 2003, Kraft decided against changing the recipe.
Another instance of the kosher consumer overriding a company’s plans occurred in 2005. For many years, Duncan Hines produced parve cake mixes. Suddenly, however, it decided to switch over many of its recipes to dairy status. When other cake mix brands saw what Duncan Hines had done, they dove headfirst into the parve cake mix niche. While their market share improved, Duncan Hines’s market share dropped drastically. Kosher consumers gave voice to their unhappiness with this change in certification, both vocally and with their purchasing power, and let CEO Jeff Ansell know how they felt. In September 2006, Duncan Hines backtracked, and returned twelve of its eighteen cake mixes to parve status.
According to Elie Rosenfeld, CEO of Joseph Jacobs Advertising, a marketing firm that targets the Jewish consumer, the strength of the kosher consumer lies not only with his consistent purchase of high end products and typically large family size, but also with its voice. “Jews are vocal,” he says. “When a company like Duncan Hines gets a thousand phone calls, they ‘get’ it.”
In 1997 Oreo went kosher. For kosher observant individuals, namely Orthodox Jews, this news was huge. Fishkoff describes the process through which the brand was subjected to make the product kosher. The price tag for Nabisco to make this product kosher was substantial. They changed suppliers to ensure that all the ingredients would be kosher; they koshered the equipment in each and every Nabisco factory (rabbis were sent to blow torch its baking ovens); and finally, they replaced 100 rubber conveyor belts, each one costing $150,000. In addition, the company pays yearly certification fees. Even accounting for all the costs, Nabisco is making money on this deal with its newfound customer base.
Kosher consumers have seen their purchasing power increase over the years. And while McDonalds and Burger King will never be kosher, the kosher consumer has plenty to be satisfied with.