November 30, 2006
Growing taste for kosher boils in U.S. melting pot
Hispanic and Asian foods are so different -- in taste, textures, ingredients (even the utensils with which they are eaten) -- that it seemed a strange pairing when the annual Expo Comida Latina was combined with the All Asian Food trade show at the Los Angeles Convention Center recently.
Yet among the 500 exhibitors offering food service establishments everything from refrigeration equipment to signage, etc., there was one with an "intangible" asset: kosher certification, something that intrigues ethnic food providers of all stripes.
Sitting alone in a simple booth with a few brochures and a backdrop banner declaring, "Star-K Kosher Certification / Kosher Supervision Worldwide / A Vital Ingredient in Your Success," Steve Sichel, director of development for the Baltimore-based agency, fought off fatigue. He had raced to the airport right after Simchat Torah to fly across the country overnight.
Sichel is no stranger to conferences where he is the only man wearing a kippah: "I attend these kinds of shows all over the world."
Kosher has come a long way from designating merely a set of obscure dietary restrictions that are strictly observed by only a minuscule fraction of the world's population. According to a 2005 Mintel Organization International report, Kosher is a $14.6 billion industry and ranks among the fastest-growing segments in the retail food business.
"Outside of Israel and North America, Star-K has offices in Europe, Asia and Latin America," Sichel reported. "Obviously, our consumers are not in India and China, but a growing number of food processing plants are interested in kosher certification in order to broaden their export markets, and they call on our mashgihim based in Bombay and Shanghai."
The increased availability and desirability of kosher food, whether imported or domestic, is reflected in its astonishing growth rate. "While retail food sales grew at a rate of 6 percent last year, kosher food sales grew 15 percent," Sichel told the audience attending his expo seminar, "Kosher Certification 101."
The turnout for Sichel's workshop was small: only a minyan of men and women, both foreigners and locals. Undiscouraged, Sichel went through his complete bilingual (English and Spanish) slide presentation: "The Latest Wrap About Kosher Hispanic Food -- Lo Ultimo en Comida Latina Kosher."
As Sichel likes to tell his audiences, "You don't have to be Jewish to have kosher products." In fact, Star-K is a member of the American Tortilla Industry Association, and Los Angeles' own Tumaro's Gourmet Tortillas -- the country's best-selling flavored (savory and sweet) tortilla brand -- is certified kosher.
Nor do you have to be Jewish to buy, consume and enjoy kosher products. "The second largest consumer group for kosher food is Muslims," Sichel noted. "There are 10 million Muslims in the United States, and in the absence of widespread halal certification, they have come to rely on kosher certification."
According to Sichel, others who prefer to eat kosher include Seventh-day Adventists, vegetarians and health-conscious consumers.
"The kosher symbol is seen as an indication that there is another set of eyes keeping watch on what the company is doing," he said.
The growing number of non-Jewish consumers of kosher food has not been lost on the supermarket chains.
"Given a choice, supermarkets prefer to stock kosher products -- particularly products whose kashrut certification comes from a reliable agency." he said.
Nor did this growth escape the attention of Diversified Business Communications, the company that owns and operates Expo Comida Latina and All Asian Food Expo, as well as Kosherfest, the country's largest exhibition of kosher foods. In fact, Kosherfest -- which was founded by Menachem Lubinsky 18 years ago and purchased from him by Diversified four years ago -- was combined with New York City's joint Expo Comida Latina and All Asian Food Expo in mid-November.
According to Brian Randall, Diversified's group vice president for ethnic and cultural foods, Kosherfest, was not held in Los Angeles this year because of an unwritten agreement with Kosher World that the latter would hold kosher trade shows on the West Coast, as it did last spring in Anaheim.
In the meantime, Kosher World has been sold, and the brand dissolved, leaving it up to Randall and Diversified to decide whether to bring Kosherfest to Los Angeles next year.
Randall predicted more avenues for the growth of kosher products.
"We are going to see kosher kid products in all cuisines," he said. "In addition, organic food is a nexus with kosher food for the growing healthy food market. Jewish parents want the best for their kids. Look for major kosher food producers, like Manischewitz, to introduce organic lines under their labels."