Meet the new kosher consumer: No, it is not a rabbi with a beard down to his navel and payot that graze his shoulders, but practicing Seventh-day Adventist Kay Meager, a mother of three and a first-grade teacher at Conejo Adventist Elementary School. Meager's husband, Larry, is senior pastor at the Thousand Oaks Seventh-day Adventist Church and when Meager goes to the supermarket to buy food for her family, a kosher label is the first thing she looks for.
"If I see hot dogs labeled as kosher, then I know that we don't have to investigate any further," said Meager, whose religion has its own set of dietary restrictions, including a prohibition on eating pig-derived meat products. "And that goes for any type of processed meat or meat products. If something is labeled as kosher ... we would feel comfortable that it would be fine for us."
She is one of the estimated 11 million in the United States who make kosher a factor when buying food. Of those 11 million, kosher industry experts estimate that only 1 million are Jewish -- the rest are a collection of Seventh-day Adventists, Muslims, lactose intolerants, vegetarian inclined, celiacs (gluten- and wheat-free) and others who feel that a kosher symbol ensures quality and purity of the food. Combined, these people make up a new food market -- the kosher consumer, which both manufacturers and retailers are starting to understand has, if captured correctly, a great profit potential.
"I tell all the food manufacturers that don't have kosher supervision that in this market it is nothing but a plus," said Jim Small, specialty and ethnic foods buyer for Ralphs. "I'm not going to make the vendor incur the expense, but I am going to open their eyes to the potential [of kosher]."
According to Kosher Today, a kosher industry trade publication, there are $130 billion worth of certified kosher food produced in the United States yearly, and it is an industry that has been growing at the rate of 15 percent per annum since the early 1990s.
This month, the kosher industry is going to be staking a claim to new headquarters -- California. The kosher industry trade show, Kosher World Conference and Expo, will be held at the Los Angeles Convention Center Jan. 27-29. The Kosher World organizers chose California as the locale for its international trade show for a number of reasons: California has the third largest Jewish community in the world; it is also home to 1.2 million Muslims who consume Halal products and 185,000 Seventh-day Adventists. There are also at least 10 million Californians who are vegetarian inclined -- which means they would benefit from knowing about pareve-labeled kosher food. Many Californians are health conscious, and they strive for a balanced eating plan with high-quality food selections. Furthermore, the latest trends in American cuisine -- fusion, California cuisine and spa cuisine -- emerged from California. And, of course, it's the most populous state in the union, which means that it has a great deal of hotels, restaurants and food-service companies that could benefit from hearing about the ways kosher can be an advantage.
Kosher World's mission is to "bring kosher to mainstream and mainstream to kosher" -- in other words, the organizers want to see more kosher products in mainstream supermarkets, and they also want mainstream supermarkets to appreciate the financial potential of satisfying kosher consumers. At the event, kosher food manufacturers will have the chance to meet buyers from the major supermarket chains like Gelson's, Costco and Ralphs, and the buyers will be able to attend the Buyer Certification Program that will educate them about what kosher is and how it can be used to increase sales.
So far, there are about 80 exhibitors at the event, including such doyens of U.S.-processed food as Campbells, which recently had its vegetable soup kosher certified; Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, which are certified kosher in California and elsewhere; and the Kraft Food Co., which produces a large number of kosher products.
All this brings kosher to a whole new level that seems light years away from the original biblical injunctions. Eating kosher -- which is the Hebrew word for "fit" or "proper for use" -- is generally regarded as a chok -- a halachah that, regardless of the marketing spin that organizers of Kosher World might put on it, has no rational reason for its existence but must be kept anyway, because God said so. Kosher has its source in Leviticus 11, where God commands the children of Israel to only eat animals that chew their cud and have split hooves, to only eat fish that have fins and scales and to not eat insects or birds of prey. Any animals that Jews do eat need to be ritually slaughtered, i.e, they can't have died from natural causes. Additionally, the Torah forbids the consumption of blood, which is why all kosher animals are salted after they are slaughtered, and "cooking a kid in its mother's milk," which the rabbis interpreted as meaning that milk and meat should not be eaten or cooked together.
Kosher food got its start in the United States in the mid-17th century, when Congregation Shearith Israel, a Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in New York, started supervising the production of kosher meat. Packaged kosher products hit store shelves in the late 19th century, when entrepreneurs like Israel Rokeach and Dov Behr Manischewitz started producing and marketing kosher foods like boxed matzahs and jarred gefilte fish. Back then, there wasn't organized kosher supervision as such -- Jews relied on the reputation of the manufacturers or peddlers.
Around the same time, U.S. food manufacturers started to notice the market potential in kosher. In 1911, Procter & Gamble started advertising Crisco -- pure vegetable shortening -- as a kosher product. In 1930, Maxwell House Coffee published its first Passover haggadah to complement its kosher coffee. In 1935, Heinz sought Orthodox Union endorsement on its newly invented vegetarian baked beans, so that it could have a recognizably kosher product to market to Jews living on the Lower East Side of New York. This was the first instance of a kosher certification symbol appearing on a mass-produced product.
Today, more than 60 percent of the items found in supermarkets are certified kosher, and not only are buyers for supermarket chains seeking out kosher products, manufacturers are seeking out kosher certification for their foods. According to Kosher Today, large companies that added kosher symbols to their products -- like Coors or M&Ms -- all experienced a noticeable growth in sales. Statistics show that kosher-specific consumers spend $100 more on groceries per week than their nonkosher counterparts.
"I have yet to find a situation where a company says, 'Yes, I was kosher but it didn't make sense for me from a dollars point of view,'" said Neil Ticktin, CEO of Kosher World. "What happens across the board is that when you become kosher, it pays for itself without an issue."
"For mainstream corporate America to spend money on kosher supervision makes dollars and sense," said Rafi Litenatsky, sales manager of Kosher World. "It's a way for them to expand their sales horizontally, to branch out into other markets."
Kosher advocates say that kosher labeling and supervision is really the only way to ensure that the product is completely what it says it is. Nondairy creamer, for example, is likely to contain dairy ingredients, unless it is labeled pareve. Seemingly benign items like canned vegetables, may, according to U.S.D.A. laws, contain up to .2 percent of animal byproducts -- anything from insect pieces to rat hair -- unless certified kosher. Noncertified red food dye is likely to be made from crushed cockroaches. Keeping kosher can even reduce your risk of contracting salmonella. Since kosher chickens are salted and drained of all fluids, the odds of salmonella occurring are severely decreased.
In other words, if you want to avoid these and other culinary pitfalls, kosher is the way to go. Organizers of Kosher World hope that in the next few years, 75 percent of the products in supermarkets will be kosher, and that more consumers will recognize the word "kosher" (in the same way that people understand the word "vegetarian") -- and see it as a "seal of approval."
How much the kosher landscape will change in America is yet to be seen.
"I don't see the average McDonald's going kosher," Litenatsky said, "but three people from McDonald's signed up to come to the show, so maybe they are planning something I don't know about. But look at companies like Nathan's [hot dogs] -- who have kosher outlets -- and Krispy Kreme, where almost every Krispy Kreme is kosher certified. Whoever thought that would happen? I never say never."
The Kosher World Conference and Expo will take place at the Los Angeles Convention Center Jan. 27-29. It will be open to the public Jan. 29 from 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. For information call (805) 494-9797 or visit www.kosherworld.com .