Rabbi Eli Langsam shops for kosher food at Cub on Big Hollow Road in Peoria recently. Langsam says shopping for kosher food has become much easier in the last 10 years.


Keeping Kosher

Jews not only taking advantage of increasing ease in finding certified food

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Rabbi Eli Langsam entered Cub Foods in Big Hollow Shopping Center and walked only a few feet before he had in hand a package of food that was certified kosher.

"Almost all the products today are kosher," the Chabad of Peoria rabbi said, holding up the bag of Fig Newtons.

Formerly the exclusive concern of Jews who follow the Torah's laws and rabbinic rulings on kosher eating, kosher food's popularity has grown over the past several years and so has its availability.

Food is considered kosher by ritually observant Jews:

- If it's defined by the Bible as being permissible to eat. Beef, chicken and lamb, for instance, are OK while pork, other kinds of mammals and some kinds of seafood aren't.

- If it's prepared and eaten in ways specified by rabbinic tradition.

- If it's processed with rabbinic supervision and inspection. Fresh fruit and vegetables generally don't need that supervision or certification, but any food that goes through a packaging, mixing, cooking or canning process has to meet certain content and preparation standards to be certified kosher.

On top of all that are the extra restrictions on foods considered kosher during the week of Passover, which begins at sunset today. None of those products can contain any leavening agent, such as yeast.

But the general, year-round standards are leading an increasing number of people to buy kosher, whether for religious, health or ethical reasons, say people involved in the certification process.

Kosher sales have grown at roughly 15 percent per year over the past eight years, said Menachem Lubinsky, editor of the weekly newsletter Kosher Today. The newsletter estimated 2004 sales of products with kosher certification at $185 billion.

"Kosher is hot," said Rabbi Moshe Elefant, executive rabbinic coordinator of the Orthodox Union's kosher department.

And, he said, it's getting hotter. OU's certifications grow about 10 percent per year and involve 6,000 facilities and more than 500,000 products, according to Elefant.

Trudy Garfunkel, author of "Kosher for Everybody," gave several reasons for increased popularity and availability:

- A return by many Jews to different levels of observance of traditional dietary laws.

- A desire for meat processed at plants that have "an extra layer" of inspection. Kosher inspectors visit plants - and restaurants - more frequently than those from the

government, Garfunkel said. In addition, the kosher butchering process provides more protection against organisms like those that cause mad-cow disease finding their way into meat. Also, in order to be kosher, poultry must be raised without hormones or growth stimulants. Plus, kosher meat is inspected for any sign of possible disease or injury.

- Allergy concerns. For example, since Jewish dietary law forbids the mixing of meat and milk due to passages such as Deuteronomy 14:21, kosher foods are labeled with "dairy" indicators if they contain any milk products so they wouldn't be mixed at a meal with meat. That dairy indication, though, also serves as a handy warning for people with allergies to milk or who are lactose intolerant. And since shellfish is forbidden by kosher law, those with sensitivities to such food can be confident it won't be part of any kosher seafood package.

- Vegetarian diets. Those who don't want to eat meat products or byproducts that are even minutely present can buy food marked as either parve, which means it has neither milk nor meat ingredients, or as dairy.

- "Ecokosher." Garfunkel said those concerned about the impact of food processing and preparation on society sometimes prefer the kosher process. Some consider the kosher butchering process, for example, to be more humane than other processes, though animal-rights activists sometimes dispute that contention.

- A growing U.S. Muslim population. Like the Torah, the Quran forbids the eating of pork. A kosher certification symbol assures a Muslim that the food they're buying is halal, or is lawful according to Islam. Muslims also have their own halal-certification agencies, such as the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America.

Food corporations are aware of the popularity of kosher products and making efforts to get existing and new foods certified.

"Kraft continues to watch this area for existing opportunities and is consistently seeking new markets for kosher," said Alyssa Burns, a spokeswoman for Kraft Foods Inc.

One example is the junk-food staple Oreos, a Kraft-owned Nabisco product which made big news when it became certified kosher starting in 1997.

Even former Brooklynite Langsam wasn't sure when he moved to Peoria in 2001 to start the Chabad chapter how easy it would be for him and his wife to keep kosher. He quickly found out it was pretty easy.

"When I came here I realized I can buy about everything here," he said.

That includes not only name brand food, but increasingly store-brand or generic foods. Many Wal-Mart brands of food, for example, can be found marked with the OU symbol. That's because, Langsam said, the products are typically processed in the same plants as brand-name products that are kosher.

"It's so much easier today to keep kosher," said Langsam.