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Organic food, is it kosher?

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Friday, March 9th, 2012

Two of the world’s fastest growing food sectors are the kosher and organic segments. Although these two consumer groups have not traditionally had much in common there is movement towards some overlap, and a growing range of products available that are both kosher and organic.

Israel’s organic food sector is growing at an astonishing 25% annual rate to meet the demands of health conscious consumers worldwide. While almost all of its exports are kosher, not all of the consumers are. Many people perceive kosher products to be healthier and due to its strict supervision process kosher consumers include many Muslims, Seventh Day Adventists and those who are on special diets including consumers who are lactose intolerant, vegetarian and vegan.

The kosher certification process, like the organic certification process, is a rigorous procedure, designed to ensure accurate labeling that provides peace of mind for consumers about what exactly is in the products.

What is kosher food?

For food to be considered kosher it must not only be allowed according to the Jewish dietary laws, but its production must be closely supervised to ensure that no non-kosher food (treif) has come in contact with it in a manner that will invalidate the utensils or food itself. Animals must be killed by a ritual slaughterer (shochet) and all blood must be removed from the meat. Meat and dairy products cannot be eaten together. The Old Testament outlines which animals are permitted; those which have a split hoof and chew their cud, as well as fish with fins and scales, while those that are prohibited; including pigs, rabbits, birds of prey, shellfish, insects and reptiles.

In Australia there are two main kosher certification agencies, one in NSW (The Kashrut Authority of Australia and NZ) and one in Victoria (Kosher Australia). With their supervisors (mashgichim) they oversee the production of almost all the kosher products in Australia. Many of the items they certify as kosher do not have kosher certification marked on the packaging. This is in contrast to many other countries where the kosher stamp is visible and used as an incentive for customers to buy the product. In the US 70%+ of kosher products are marked as kosher. Over 28% of all products sold in the US are kosher certified, even though the vast majority of the consumers aren’t Jewish.

Rabbi Aaron Groner from the Kashrut Authority of Australia and New Zealand explains that this trend is changing in Australia. “Companies today are doing it tough, they have faced the GFC and want their product to appeal to as many sectors of the community as possible. If it’s marked as organic, kosher, or vegan it means more people may buy it,” he explains. This is particularly true for Australian companies looking to export their products abroad he adds.

For products without the kosher certification stamp on the packaging, Australian shoppers can refer to the various Kosher Authority’s lists, available in hard copy, online and more recently through one’s smart phone, making it much quicker and easier to navigate the supermarket aisles.

A broad range of kosher products are available today in Australia, many products are locally produced plus numerous imports from abroad; primarily Israel, the US and Europe which have the largest Jewish communities. A growing number of these products are both organic and kosher. Products include tahina spread from Prince Tahina, Organic Bubs baby food, and even kosher organic sweets including chocolate, lollipops, and toffees from Carmit Candy.

Groner points out that it is hard to know exactly why consumers buy a product. Do they purchase it because it is kosher? Organic? Gluten-Free? They like the taste? The packaging? “It is hard to quantify the kosher market here, but it is definitely growing both here and abroad,” he explains. The estimated 100,000 Australian Jews primarily live in the capital cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. Not all of them keep kosher.

Many people do not even realise they are buying an organic kosher product, particularly those available in the larger supermarket chains like Gippsland yoghurts, Bill’s bread, and Pure Harvest products. These products are mainstreamed and are not necessarily found in either the “kosher” section or the “health food” section of the supermarkets. Additional products can be purchased both at dedicated kosher grocery stores, in health food stores and online at sites like mykosherstore.com.au

The increased demand for kosher products abroad is partly fueled by health-conscious consumers who believe kosher products are healthier and safer as a result of the strict supervision process. Particularly for those on a restricted diet such as gluten-free or dairy-free this peace of mind is critical. As meat and milk products cannot be eaten together there are numerous kosher products produced that are dairy-free, including many desserts, biscuits and chocolates.

Over the annual Passover holiday, many Jews eat no bread and consequently increasingly sophisticated ranges of products without yeast or gluten have been developed. A growing number of these products are now available year round. Certification of Kosher for Passover goods is even more stringent than during the rest of the year. Today consumers can buy kosher gluten-free products including pasta, cereal, pretzels, marshmallows and bread, produced by large Israeli conglomerates like Osem and Carmit, as well as more specialised products like quiches, pizzas, puddings, juice gels and more made by smaller companies like Angel’s Touch, GreenLite and Zen Soy.

Many customers with dietary restrictions are also interested in organic products. They are using their purchasing power to buy products that are both organic and kosher. This trend is still in its infancy in Australia, but as more products become available that are kosher and organic, demand is expected to increase.

Priced out of the market

Organic kosher meat is one area that appears to be a clear exception to the case. In Israel and the US there is a small but growing demand for, and availability of, kosher and organic meat, primarily poultry. In Australia, kosher organic meat is not available. There was a short period when it was offered, but consumers found it prohibitively expensive.

“Kosher meat is so expensive as it is, no one has the money these days to pay for organic as well,” explained Shaun Johnsohn from Sydney’s Kosher Butchery, Eilat at Hadassah. “Regular chicken prices here are what organic chicken costs normally,” he adds. When they offered kosher organic chicken the cost was close to $35 a chicken. Considering many families who keep kosher have large families, the cost was too high for ongoing consumption.

This sentiment was clearly echoed by Victoria’s main kosher chicken supplier, Solomon’s. Solomon’s Karen Leverenz explains, “We looked at the costing and kosher is already ridiculously expensive and it wasn’t viable for us to do organic.” She adds that demand is also very low. Over the last five years, only a handful of customers have requested organic kosher meat. “People who buy kosher know that there are no sick animals, they feel they are already paying enough on meat,” she adds.

Kosher meat is more expensive than regular meat because of the supervision process. Animals are killed by a trained slaughterer and are examined for blemishes and damage to the lungs. Groner points out that free-range organic chickens are more likely to have consumed small items that may perforate the lungs and internal organs making them unkosher. The kashering process is time consuming and in the case of beef and lamb involves the removal or forbidden fats and the animal’s hindquarter, increasing the price per kilo of the remaining meat.

Non-factory farm chickens have a greater possibility of fertilization, which may explain the increased number of eggs with blood spots found in organic eggs. Eggs with blood spots are not kosher and must be discarded.

Bugs are not kosher and as organic fruit and vegetables are not treated with pesticides there can be a higher rate of insects and bugs found. All fruit and vegetables, particularly green and leafy ones like lettuce, spinach, etc. must be meticulously checked leaf by leaf before being used in kosher products. Groner explains that they undergo a rigorous washing and inspection regime but if the product is organic they usually have to discard a greater percentage. This increased wastage and the increased time to check each fruit and vegetable also translates to higher costs.

These issues make it more challenging to buy products that are both kosher and organic. However if international demand is anything to go by, it is a question of time until these two product sectors see greater intersection. Last year Tel Aviv launched its first all-organic weekly farmer’s market, Orbanic. Israeli supermarket chains successfully opened organic markets within their major stores, offering customers an additional 10,000 organic products not previously available outside of health food stores. CSA style organic food boxes are increasingly popular across Israel. As demand for kosher and organic products rises, it should translate into improved economies of scale, helping make the products more affordable for those who want them.

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