This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Keeping Kosher: When Jewish Law Met Processed Food, first released on July 25, 2016. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
ROGER HOROWITZ: I mean Jello doesn’t look anything like an animal carcass, you know. It’s kind of soft, it’s sweet and flavorful, and the gelatin itself doesn’t look anything like something prohibited. It doesn’t look like a pigskin or beef bones or anything like that.
NICOLA TWILLEY: I can’t argue with that. Jello does not look like an animal carcass for sure. But so what?
CYNTHIA GRABER: Well, the problem is: does Jello possibly look like a thing that you can’t eat if you keep kosher? If I didn’t know that gelatin comes from an animal, it’d just look like dessert to me.
TWILLEY: Oh I see. Well I didn’t even know that you can’t eat gelatin if you keep kosher!
GRABER: It’s actually even more complicated than that. That’s right, this episode is all about kosher law—or, really, what happens when an ancient set of religious food rules collides with the modern industrial food system.
TWILLEY: And why that matters to anyone who eats in America, not just Jews. You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley and I am a know-nothing Gentile.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and I’ll be your Jewish guide this week. I grew up keeping kosher, so I have a little first-hand experience.
HOROWITZ: The term means fit and proper, and these are rules articulated in the five books of Moses, the basis of the Jewish religion.
GRABER: Roger Horowitz wrote the new book Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food. It’s the story of how science got involved in this ancient religious food practice.
TWILLEY: Well, science, history, and food is what we’re all about. But first, for those of us like me who know next to nothing about kosher law, what is it exactly?
HOROWITZ: These are rules that the Jews were supposed to follow to show they would follow God’s laws. And to be a Jew, and to be one that God would accept as a Jew, you needed to follow these laws. So that’s the origin of kosher law. It’s rooted in antiquity, two, three thousand years before the birth of Christ, and they are then articulated over the course of several millennia to be usable in the homes of Jews.
TWILLEY: So the first, most basic set of rules comes from the Torah, which is also the first five books of the Christian Bible.
HOROWITZ: I mean, there’s some long sections in the Torah which tell you what animals are or are not acceptable to eat. That’s the biggest section in the Torah. Then there are some other phrases that are relatively limited and have to be interpreted for the meaning.
GRABER: Leviticus: “Any animal that has a cloven hoof that is completely split into double hooves, and which brings up its cud, that one you may eat.”
TWILLEY: But, but, but you shall not eat among those that bring up the cud and those that have a cloven hoof, the camel, the hare, and the hyrax, whatever that is. I’m paraphrasing, but basically, all unclean.
GRABER: “And the pig, because it has a cloven hoof that is completely split, but will not regurgitate its cud; it is unclean for you. You shall not eat of their flesh, and you shall not touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.” Weasel, mouse, toad, starling, hedgehog, chameleon, lizard, locust, snail—all also, by the way, off limits.
TWILLEY: And, just in case you were wondering, you cannot cook a kid—a baby goat—in its mother’s milk.
GRABER: That does not sound like much of a problem in daily life. But here the thing: that one sentence is also the reason why I never ate a cheeseburger at home. Or why my Orthodox friends couldn’t eat ice cream after finishing up a chicken dinner.
TWILLEY: Because those simple statements in the Torah—they got elaborated on a lot, by lots and lots of rabbis.
GRABER: Over the millennia, rabbis debated the laws in the Torah again and again—all Jewish laws, not just the dietary ones. And they wrote millions of words on the topic, adding new interpretations and nuances and commentary. And those interpretations became law too.
TWILLEY: Some of these debates happen because not everything is covered in the Torah. Like, the Torah doesn’t get specific about which fish you can eat, it just says fish have to have fins and scales.
GRABER: So for instance, the Torah never details whether you can eat sturgeon. The thing about a sturgeon is the scales are so deeply embedded that you can’t scrape them off. So are they actually scales? And Jews have been debating that for literally a millennium.
HOROWITZ: And, of course, Jews continue to move around and new things happen, new foods are discovered, new challenges come to the fore as to what observance should mean.
GRABER: And a lot of these debates and laws exist because of an idea that you need to provide “a fence around the Torah.” Basically, to make sure that you don’t break any of these Torah laws by accident, these extra, even more stringent and super detailed rules are added into the mix by rabbis over the centuries. Things like that cheeseburger prohibition. To make sure that we never accidentally cook a kid in its mother’s milk, now we can’t eat meat and milk together at all. There’s more—to be super extra sure that they don’t cook a kid in its mother’s milk, observant households have two sets of dishes. One for meat and one for dairy. That might sound weird to a lot of you, but it’s super normal to me. And you’re not supposed to just clear the table of meat and then have some milk. You have to wait.
TWILLEY: And that raises more questions and, before you know it, you have more fences. And Jews in different parts of the world put those fences in slightly different places. Like, okay, how long should you wait after eating meat before you consume any dairy? Sephardic Orthodox Jews are supposed to wait six hours, German Orthodox Jews tend to wait three hours, and the Dutch are good to go after just one hour.
HOROWITZ: And a lot of it goes down to the kind of dispersion of the Jews and the different practices that result in Jews being in very different places in a time in our civilization when communication was often uncertain and travel was very hard to engage in.
TWILLEY: So there are lots of rules, but there’s also endless debate and discussion.
HOROWITZ: We’re used to thinking of the law as the law. Well, you know, the law in Jewish law is kind of argumentation among the rabbis. They take these rulings and they say what about this, and what about that, and suppose we did this and suppose we did that? So this is Jewish law and the food law is a subset of this extraordinarily rich tradition, very powerful intellectual tradition of understanding the world, the actual prosaic world around us and how deciding whether this piece of flesh is acceptable to eat fits with the Talmud and the Torah and God’s idea about how Jews should behave on this earth.
TWILLEY: Yeah, that was going to be my next question—why do these rules actually exist? Why all this fuss about hedgehogs and sturgeon?
HOROWITZ: That’s one of the great questions which people which people have been writing about for centuries. You know, it’s tempting to read back from our concerns now and attribute that to the ancients, about the food laws. You know, our concerns for cleanliness and safety and all those sorts of things
GRABER: Right. I was taught growing up that there were health benefits. Like that pork had a higher risk of trichinosis. But we learned in our pig episode from last summer that’s not the case.
TWILLEY: Super interesting episode, if I do say so myself. You should go listen to it if you haven’t already.
GRABER: Growing up, I also learned that just like you might hear today about oysters making people sick, there was a higher risk of getting sick from eating shellfish in the past, too. And that’s maybe why shellfish aren’t kosher. But, really, Roger says health didn’t have much to do with it. There may have been some instances where certain animals just looked unclean.
HOROWITZ: Well, yes. I mean the rule against eating animals that are already dead, that are not ritually slaughtered, yes, there could well be elements that you can attribute to this. And you shouldn’t pick up, you know, roadkill, probably not good for you. But I’m always wary of reading back into the ancient world what we’re worried about today, it was a very different world and a very different set of concerns.
GRABER: It’s unclear whether there were any health benefits to keeping kosher in the ancient world. Any that there were were probably just bonus. But all the laws of Judaism—not just the laws of kashrut—these generally fit into what I’d say are two main camps. The first important one is to help people live a moral life. Like the idea of not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk? It was likely seen as immoral to cook a baby animal in its mom’s milk. That’s one reason—and there’s another big one.
HOROWITZ: I think you need to try to imagine yourself a Jew in, you know, the ancient world, or a Jew in the Islamic world or a Jew in a Christian world to try to answer that question. And ultimately I think the reason for these laws was keeping Jews together as a nation in a world in which Jews were a tiny minority and often a persecuted minority. And by persecuted, this didn’t mean that you were treated badly or discriminated against, it meant that you might be killed or raided or destroyed or your property seized. It was about creating a community there above all
GRABER: The rules around wine are a great example of how kosher laws create community. Wine’s not kosher if anyone but an observant Jew has helped make it.
HOROWITZ: This is deliberately to obscure and hinder fraternization between Jews and those from other religions and to inhibit intermarriage and assimilation of Jews in societies that are hostile to Judaism or at best tolerant of Judaism. So I think that’s the core of these laws, it’s about the coherence of Jews into a society, as a civilization that can exist hundreds, thousands of years of being a minority.
TWILLEY: It’s clever: I mean, if you can’t sit round a table and break bread with people who aren’t Jewish because they eat foods and drink wine that you’re not allowed to eat and drink—well, it’s harder to get to know them and so it’s less likely you’ll marry them. So there’s a logic there, even if at first some of the rules—like about the camels or the starlings—they sound crazy. But my next question is how on earth are you supposed to remember all of this? It seems like just going grocery shopping would be like sitting an exam.
HOROWITZ: I mean there are some things that weren’t an issue, that you could just go and eat. Vegetables and grains and things like that were not an issue. But if you had a question you went to your local rabbi and the rabbi would pasket, he would rule and tell you you know if that chicken was kosher or not.
TWILLEY: And this worked just fine in traditional food systems.
HOROWITZ: Imagine you’re in Germany in the 1850s, and where you’re getting your food from. It’s probably overwhelmingly from your local area. If you’re getting beef, you’re getting it from, you know, your local slaughterhouse, bread from your local bakers, cheese from your milk shops that are there. There’s no branded goods, you don’t have cereal. The food system is overwhelmingly a local food system. There’s manufacturing of course, but it’s overwhelmingly, you know, within a certain area. So in that situation the ability of the local rabbi to determine whether it’s kosher is feasible, because he can go there and look, he can investigate whether these practices are okay.
TWILLEY: So, when in doubt, who you gonna call?
GRABER: Not Ghostbusters. Unfortunately. You’re gonna call the local rabbi.
TWILLEY: Until the age of Coca Cola.
GRABER: It’s the 1920s. Coca Cola is huge. And Rabbi Tobias Geffen is an Orthodox rabbi in Atlanta. Where Coke is made.
HOROWITZ: He suspects that there’s glycerin in Coca Cola in the mid 1920s. And he goes to the chief chemist of the state of Georgia to determine this to test it and verifies that yes, indeed, it has glycerin in it.
TWILLEY: Jewish people in the 1920s who want to treat their kids to a Coke—they don’t know this. And they probably don’t even know what glycerin is, or where it comes from. But they want to be like everyone else and enjoy a Coke. So they do what they’ve always done, and they ask their rabbi to make a ruling.
HOROWITZ: The assimilating generations want to participate in American culture—is it kosher? Can they get a hot dog and a Coke if they go to Coney Island? What do they do if they want to go to the theater, can they have a popcorn? How about ice cream, can you have an ice cream cone? It’s all around you, this industrial food, if you are in urban areas in the mid-twentieth century and that’s where the Jews overwhelmingly live.
GRABER: A rabbi knows the rules for kosher law. But there’s a problem now—why would a rabbi know what glycerin is? But to make a ruling, he needs to.
TWILLEY: All of a sudden, rabbis need to understand chemistry and engineering and the complicated ways that industrial food gets made. And they really need to know what glycerin is.
HOROWITZ: Glycerin, I should say, is widely used in our food system—was and is. And Coke is using it for, or what I believe they’re using it for, is to disseminate the flavor throughout the liquid. Glycerin is used throughout soft drinks—all sorts of foods have glycerin because it has a property of taking a flavor and pushing it into the molecules throughout a particular drink. If you’ve ever tried to make sure that the sugar in your iced tea dissolves and goes all through the drink, you’ll understand the problem: that you can put a flavor in a drink and it can sink to the bottom. Glycerin has a wonderful property of forcing it to disseminate throughout the liquid, but it’s also widely used in ice cream, it’s widely used in cake icings, it’s used in lots of products.
GRABER: That’s what glycerin does. But—here’s the big question—what is glycerin? Where does it come from?
HOROWITZ: Well the problem with glycerin is that glycerin originates in animal fat.
GRABER: And mostly pigs. Which, as we know, are not kosher.
TWILLEY: So Geffen goes in to visit Coke, and he’s actually on top of this issue.
HOROWITZ: And it’s Geffen who I believe is the first rabbi to take science seriously and to use science to understand the nature of products.
GRABER: This is why it’s a big deal that Geffen went to a chemist for the information, as Roger stressed earlier. Geffen’s pretty clear that he doesn’t think glycerine is kosher. But other rabbis? They don’t agree with him.
TWILLEY: Because there’s a loophole. In the endless debates and rules and fences around the Torah, there are also some leniencies. These are like handy little get-out clauses to help Jews negotiate the real world, rather than the ideal one in the rule books.
GRABER: This particular loophole that the rabbis who are arguing with Geffen—the loophole they want to apply to Coke and glycerine is called bitul b’shishim.
HOROWITZ: And bitul b’shishim says—it’s nullification of the sixtieth, which means that if it’s less than one sixtieth of the portion then it can be nullified. This is really widely available in the early modern world to deal with problems in the kitchen, to deal with problems of not being completely sure if a food was 100 percent kosher. So I mean the classic example is, you know, you’re making a stew, beef stew. Accidentally you drop a bit of butter in the stew, of course meat and milk is prohibited combination, does that mean you have to toss out the stew? And, you know, the answer is no, if the piece of butter is less than one-sixtieth the proportion of the stew. The idea behind it is of course it has to be accidental, it’s not deliberate, it’s not something that’s part of your practice. It’s a way of addressing a mistake. Now this works I think reasonably well in the pre-industrial era, but when you have industrial food in which there are so many minute ingredients, it creates an enormous challenge for kosher law.
GRABER: The rabbis who think glycerin is fine say the amount of glycerin is so tiny that it’s way less than one-sixtieth of the final bottle of soda. So they say that you can use bitul to say it’s kosher.
TWILLEY: And Geffen says not so fast. Put the Coke back down.
HOROWITZ: Geffen’s ruling is a landmark, because he says no. He says that if it’s introduced deliberately in this kind of mass production industry, if it’s essential to the creation of a product, it can’t be nullified. Nullification is only for mistakes. It’s not if you’re doing something deliberately in large quantities.
GRABER: Luckily for Jews headed out to Coney Island or the local ballgame, there is a solution. Glycerin can also be made from vegetable fat.
TWILLEY: Phew. And now Coke is kosher, everyone can relax and enjoy the wonders of twentieth century America.
GRABER: But the point is, this whole business of whether Coke is kosher or not, what it’s really about for rabbis and observant Jews in twentieth century America is—it’s not so simple to understand what’s in processed foods.
TWILLEY: Suddenly you need science to understand whether Coke is fit and proper for a Jewish person to drink. This is a completely new development in Jewish history. And the rabbis step up and solve the Coke question. But it’s like whack-a-mole—there’s so many new and exciting products arriving in American grocery stores in the mid-twentieth century. Like Jell-O.
GRABER: The Great Jewish Jell-O Kerfuffle is coming right up.
HOROWITZ: I mean, Jello doesn’t look anything like an animal carcass. You know, it’s kind of soft, it’s sweet and flavorful and the gelatin itself doesn’t look anything like something prohibited—it doesn’t look like a pigskin or beef bones or anything like that. So if you’re using your eyes and you’re using your nose and you’re using essentially your five senses to determine if Jell-O or some gelatin desserts are acceptable, it sure looks acceptable, it doesn’t look anything like one of the products prohibited in the Torah. But if you investigate the science of it, that’s behind it, then you find out that it’s more complicated.
GRABER: I’m going to make a crazy statement here: I don’t see anything complicated. If you know anything about gelatin, you know it’s an animal product. I always assumed Jell-O wasn’t kosher.
TWILLEY: But until the 1950s, gelatin desserts and even specifically Jell-O—they were considered kosher by even the most Orthodox Jews.
HOROWITZ: It has to do with bones. And the common story is, can bones of non kosher animals become kosher? And there is a whole long rabbinic tradition which says, well, they could be because the prohibitions against eating animals refers to only those parts which are edible, so how can prohibition against eating a prohibited animal continue if—how can it be applied to a part of the animal that isn’t edible, you follow me?
GRABER: Slightly confusing, but yes, we do. Roger is saying bones are not edible—they’re not flesh—and the Torah only addresses edible parts of the animal, so anything you make from bones isn’t prohibited.
TWILLEY: This bone loophole—it goes back to twelfth century France and a problem with honey. Honey often has bee’s legs caught in it by accident. Bees are insects. Insects are pretty much unclean for Jews. So medieval French Jews were anxious—could they eat honey or no? And their rabbi came up with a work-around: bee’s legs are part of its skeleton, not its flesh. And like Roger explained, Leviticus just says, of their flesh you may not eat. It doesn’t mention bones. So maybe bones are okay. And so that meant Jews in medieval Europe, where there wasn’t cheap cane sugar—that meant they could eat honey, despite any bee bones that got caught in it. This whole bone loophole, it was an adaptation that allowed medieval Jews to get by in a world without a lot of other sweeteners. But it remained controversial outside of the context of honey.
HOROWITZ: There is actually quite a lively debate about whether bones are prohibited and it’s not clear, there are different traditions and arguments inside this tradition of whether bones are prohibited.
GRABER: But basically in early twentieth-century America, Jews relied on this bone loophole to enjoy some nice gelatin dessert after dinner.
HOROWITZ: Rabbis believed fairly in the twenties and thirties that it was bones that were the source of gelatin.
TWILLEY: And then, in 1947, the Townsend Engineering company in Des Moines, Iowa, developed the world’s first mechanized pork skinner. Skins are also a great source of gelatin, and it only takes one day to prep them to extract that gelatin, whereas bones have to be soaked in lime for a month. So now, all of a sudden, with this machine to do the fussy business of skinning the pig, making gelatin from pig skins is much more economical than making it from beef bones.
HOROWITZ: Suddenly 50, 70 percent of the source of gelatin are pigskins and that’s different, you know, there’s no question that the, you know, pig is prohibited and how can you have acceptance of a gelatin that originates in pork products?
GRABER: This seems like it should be obvious after it becomes clear that gelatin comes from pig skins—there’s no way Jell-O can be kosher. But more and more Jews are enjoying it. And the rabbis are—I have to admit, to my surprise—they’re mostly approving it, because of another loophole. This one is called panim chadashot. It’s basically the idea that the original substance has been so completely transformed into something new that it’s no longer recognizable.
HOROWITZ: This concept originates from a spice called musk that was widely used in the early modern world, that originates from an animal and some blood and then it becomes dried and used as a flavoring and you know, it’s used. Is it kosher, is it acceptable given its origins in blood and given its origins of an animal? And the answer was yes, it is, because it’s obviously no longer blood. It’s been transformed by a natural process.
TWILLEY: Basically musk was very popular, again in medieval Europe. It’s this oily excretion and rabbis thought it came from the blood of an animal. And Jews aren’t allowed to eat blood. So how could Jews use it? Fortunately for them, a twelfth century Catalan Rabbi comes to the rescue and says that musk is different—so different, so transformed from its origins in the blood of this animal—that it’s actually something new altogether.
GRABER: So the pro-Jell-O rabbis in this debate say that animal bones and skin have been completely transformed in the process of making gelatin.
TWILLEY: That wibbly, wobbly Jell-O is not longer remotely the same thing as pigskin.
GRABER: But not everyone’s happy with this decision. There’s a key figure in this whole story: Abraham Goldstein.
HOROWITZ: An irascible man, cantankerous, blunt in sort of an early mid-twentieth century way, a chemist by trade, deeply committed to kosher law, who gets very angry at the rabbis for not understanding science. He himself is a is engaged in some level of manufacturing, he has a soap business and so he knows where stuff comes from.
TWILLEY: And Abraham does not buy that it’s OK for Jewish people to eat a dessert whose key ingredient comes from an unclean animal.
GRABER: This creates a huge debate. On the one hand, General Foods is marketing Jell-O as kosher with great delight. Lots of rabbis are supporting the company. There are radio ads. Ads in Yiddish newspapers. Jack Benny is endorsing Jell-O on his show.
(JACK BENNY SHOW CLIP)
On the other hand, Abraham Goldstein and those in his camp are working hard to combat Jell-O’s kosher status.
TWILLEY: And then the anti-Jell-O gang—they get their opportunity. In the early 1960s, a confectionery company comes to them and says, hey, is it OK if we start making a gelatin-based marshmallow chocolate? And these anti-Jell-O rabbis decide to use this as a test case to rule on gelatin and whether it is really kosher.
GRABER: The fate of Jell-O is about to be decided. Not surprisingly, the anti-Jell-O rabbis ruled that these chocolate-covered marshmallows—and gelatin—are not kosher. The panim chadashot loophole of transformation does not apply. They argue that musk is made by a natural transformation. But gelatin, it’s a mechanical and chemical one. In theory, gelatin could be kosher if it were made entirely from kosher cows. But Jell-O wasn’t.
TWILLEY: Jell-O itself didn’t care. It didn’t wobble. Unlike Coke, it didn’t change in any way in response to this ruling. From a business point of view, it was just so much more expensive to make gelatin any other way. And so Jell-O basically became off-limits for orthodox Jews. And for those who couldn’t imagine living without its wibbly, wobbly delights, rival, more expensive kosher gelatin brands grew up, that did use kosher cows or fish, rather than pigskin.
GRABER: This is a bigger deal than just whether you can make a Jell-O fruit mold for dessert in the 1960s and 70s. Because it has a huge impact on what foods can be considered kosher in the modern food system. You can see in these two stories—Coke and Jell-O—there are major leniencies that Jews have used for centuries that they just can’t use anymore. That idea of a tiny bit of food not spoiling the batch—hat was fine for a mistake in your stew, but not for industrial Coke that was using a tiny amount of glycerine on purpose. And now with the Jell-O ruling—it was fine to use this transformation loophole for a natural product, but not when companies are deliberately turning treif animal byproducts into food additives. There were no more leniencies in the modern food system.
HOROWITZ: If a very lenient approach towards ingredients had become prevalent, it would have made it a lot easier to say food was kosher. Manufacturers would not have had to change as many of their ingredients or processes. The kind of regulation would have been far simpler and you might well simply not needed certification organizations, because you would have had—you would have read labels. The labels would have simply been enough for, you know, Jews to determine whether it was good or not.
TWILLEY: You know, it’s interesting. It’s like in medieval France and Spain, it was OK to have these loopholes because you needed them to eat. But here, amidst the abundance of industrial American food, it was actually not OK to use these loopholes just because you wanted to assimilate and drink Coke and eat Jell-O like everyone else.
GRABER: And this all leads to the rise of the hechsher. A hechsher is a kosher label. Abraham Goldstein is on team anti-Jell-O, and he comes up with this idea of a label. And the whole business of kosher labeling and kosher certification organizations—that ends up transforming food not just for Jews, but for everyone.
TWILLEY: So the thing that Marc didn’t notice on his Soy Vay Veri Veri Teriyaki bottle was a little mark on the label—a circle with a U in it. And that mark was the brainchild of our cantankerous chemist, Abraham Goldstein.
GRABER: The two stories about Coke and Jell-O—they tell us that ancient loopholes no longer apply. But they also tell us something else. They show that as the industrial food system is getting started, nobody knows what’s in their food because food companies don’t have to tell us.
TWILLEY: That changed slightly when the U.S. government passed a law in 1938 that required packaged foods that were sold nationally to carry labels that stated their principal ingredients. But the funny thing is, those labels didn’t really help. Because you might read gelatin on a Jell-O label, and not know that it was now made from pigskins. And glycerine is such a tiny ingredient in Coke that it didn’t even have to be on the label.
GRABER: And Abraham understands science. So he responds to this new need by putting out a kosher food guide. And it’s clear that people are worried about what’s kosher and what isn’t, because they write to him from all over the country. He gets 30 to 40 letters a day, from housewives wanting to know, could they buy Campbell’s soup or Uneeda biscuits or Velveeta cheese? And his guide becomes really popular.
HOROWITZ: He understands this level of science, and he sees this old system of rabbis determining about food without having to refer to science is not going to work. That these food companies are too clever—there’s too many ingredients in these foods that have been changed, that are hidden, that the source is not known or even knowable to the rabbis who might just go and look at them. Abraham Goldstein really begins advocating for the creation of larger organizations to oversee a kosher certification a kosher law. In the 20s, he is the key person behind the creation of the Orthodox Union.
TWILLEY: The Orthodox Union—actually the Union of Orthodox Rabbis—it’s a powerful force in all aspects of Orthodox Jewish life. And Abraham, he isn’t a rabbi, but he persuades them to launch a kosher certification program in the 1920s. He negotiated the first deal with Heinz in 1923.
GRABER: He even comes up with the symbol for that hechsher—the U inside an O—because he didn’t want something that looked too obviously Jewish, given the anti-Semitism at the time.
TWILLEY: And kosher certification goes on to become big business.
HOROWITZ: Right, I mean, you now really have a kosher oligopoly. Which is to say four or five large organizations that dominate the kosher certification field.
GRABER: Those five organizations certify more than 80 percent of the kosher food in the U.S. today. And it’s now an insanely huge percentage of the food we all eat.
TWILLEY: Between a third and a half of all processed food in an American supermarket will have a kosher label on it. It adds up to more than $200 billion of the country’s estimated $500 billion in annual food sales.
GRABER: Which is kind of amazing. Roughly 2 percent of the population is Jewish, and only a small fraction keep kosher. That’s a tiny percentage of the American public. So why in the world did this hechsher business explode?
TWILLEY: This is all the more mysterious because it costs money to get that kosher certification. Like, quite a lot of money. Businesses pay for kosher certification, and depending on the size of the business, and how complicated it is, that can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars or a few hundreds of thousands of dollars.
GRABER: Right, because there are inspectors all over the world, wherever all the ingredients are made. And they have to be paid for their work. And that’s not even taking into account the costs on the industrial side—the company might have to make different foods on different days, they might have to raise certain pieces of equipment to a certain temperature to kasher them, they might have to separate out particular ingredients from one another. They might have to source more expensive ingredients. It all adds up. Again, why bother?
HOROWITZ: Well there’s a couple of different paths into that decision to become certified kosher. One is that you want to enter the Northeast market for food, and there’s a lot of Jews there, a lot of observant Jews, and you don’t want to have any inhibitions to expanding sales of your product. One of the great examples of that is Coors beer, that decides in the 90s to move from being a, you know, Rocky Mountain West Coast beer to being a national beer. And they want to enter the New York market and they get kosher certified, because they don’t want to have any opposition or any restrictions on who they’re selling their beer to. It just opens up that market, eliminates a barrier.
GRABER: And then there’s the fact that getting rid of these loopholes—the whole thing with Jell-O and Coke—that made the whole kosher system more stringent. And that had an unexpected side benefit.
HOROWITZ: One thing that I argue though is that the more stringent approach had an entirely unintended consequence, which was enormously positive for kosher food and that was the appeal of kosher food to non-Jews. For Muslims who want to make sure there’s no pork products in there, to vegetarians who want to be able to eat kosher pareve.
GRABER: Kosher pareve means it contains neither milk nor meat.
HOROWITZ: I don’t think kosher food would have been anywhere as attractive to these groups as if it had been lenient. If, again, if kosher law accepted gelatin and glycerin, meat-based glycerin and other kinds of derivatives of various animal products, then Muslims would not have accepted it as being a surrogate for halal requirements. Certainly vegetarians would be unlikely to adopt neutral kosher food if they thought that it could have traces of materials derived from animal products in there, and so on and so forth, so there’s a wonderful sort of irony here that the stringent approach makes kosher food more attractive to non-Jews.
TWILLEY: There’s another factor, too. Roger says that nearly half of all the food eaten in America is eaten in an institutional setting rather than at home—the military, prisons, schools, cafeterias, but also chain hotels and restaurants. And many of those institutions rely on the same three big food service companies: Aramark, Sodexho, and the Compass Group.
HOROWITZ: Part of what producers are making food for is not you and me, but other institutions, food service providers, institutional distributors. You know, the army, the prison systems, the school systems. And these institutional providers favor kosher products. They definitely prefer kosher to non-kosher if it’s a similar price, because part of the populations that they’re serving involve observant Jews or other portions of the population that would like to prefer to eat kosher food such as Muslims. Great example with food is something like Sodexho. If they’re supplying salad dressing, right, they sell a lot of salad dressing. Some people who buy their salad dressing want kosher salad dressing, so if you’re going to create say an oil and vinegar dressing that you’re going to sell, you want it to be kosher because you don’t want two oil and vinegar dressings, you want one oil and vinegar dressing. Inventory control, sales, all sort of reasons—you just want one. So there are all these pressures in the food system towards standardization that now work in the favor of kosher food in many, many places. It’s a really remarkable development.
GRABER: And there’s yet another reason for the popularity of these hechshers. And that’s that people just don’t trust the industrial food system. In a weird way, hechshers have become shorthand for some non-Jews that a kosher labeled package of food is trustworthy, that someone else is watching out for them—like in this Hebrew National hotdog ad from when I was a kid.
(HEBREW NATIONAL JINGLE)
TWILLEY: And the end result of all of this is that more than 9 out of 10 kosher-certified products that are bought in America are being bought by someone who isn’t an observant Jew. I mean, my mouthwash is kosher.
GRABER: Some of that is clearly accidental. I’m sure, Nicky, that you weren’t looking for a hechsher on that mouthwash. But for all those reasons—vegetarians and Muslims and people overall concerned about their food—a lot of customers are looking for a hechsher.
TWILLEY: So that’s why kosher certification is such big business. It’s had a huge effect on what we eat. And it’s had an equally big effect on the practice of Judaism. It’s cut out some of that debate that was so much a part of Jewish life.
HOROWITZ: So you have a set of standards that are much more across the board than probably eighteenth century Europe would have had, you know. This is part of the modern world. This is driven in large part by the link with industrial food, because industrial food manufacturers don’t want to have competing notions of kosher law. They want the one kosher law: just tell us what we have to do and we’ll do it. So there’s a real relationship between the certification of kosher products that are industrially made and the pressures of that industrial system on kosher law. It’s a reciprocal relationship and it changes kosher law.
GRABER: And this whole development has shaped more than just kosher law. It’s literally shaped Judaism in America. Take the more liberal Conservative Judaism—that’s how I grew up—they had hechshers, too. But the Orthodox hechshers won. Because big companies wanted to deal with one type of certification, and they wanted the most stringent one so that everyone could eat their products. After all, people in my synagogue would be willing to eat food with a Conservative hechsher or an Orthodox one, but Orthodox Jews, they’d likely would only eat food with the Orthodox one. But that trend towards the more stringent label, that meant the Orthodox got to reap the major financial benefit of the hechsher system, too.
TWILLEY: Right, not only did the Orthodox interpretation of what was kosher become the final word on what was kosher, but all the money that those companies pay for certification—all of that goes to Orthodox Jewish organizations too. And they use it to promote Orthodox Judaism by funding youth programs, and so on.
GRABER: Roger writes in his book that it’s led to a real renaissance of Orthodox Judaism. So that’s kind of interesting to me as a liberal Conservative Jew, you know, who comes out the winner and who gets the cash—but, Nicky, why would this matter to you?
TWILLEY: Well, yeah, I’m not particularly invested in the difference between these different Jewish traditions, for sure. But what is fascinating is what kosher labeling tells us about the entire industrial food system. Like it doesn’t matter whether you’re Jewish or not: what researching this episode showed me is that you really can’t read labels and expect to actually understand what’s in your food.
GRABER: Right. My family—like many more liberal families—we just read the label when we wanted to figure out if something was kosher or not. I had no idea that I—well, that I had no idea what any of those products were or where they came from. Also, the other thing the popularity of the hechsher tells us is that, overall, people don’t trust the industrial food system.
TWILLEY: Yeah—the fact that all these non-Jewish people are buying kosher-labeled food because they just want someone to have watched over how it was produced—I mean, they don’t care who switches on the factory equipment on the Sabbath, but they are reassured by the thought that someone has actually followed all the ingredients that go into their candy bar from start to finish.
GRABER: But they shouldn’t be reassured, not necessarily.
HOROWITZ: You know, I think in a lot of cases kosher certified food is no better than it was before it was kosher certified.
TWILLEY: Because, of course, if you think about it, kosher certification has nothing to do with the kind of values and ingredient sourcing issues that I care about.
HOROWITZ: The origins of kosher certification, if you will, was for industrial food. And it’s really in the industrial food system where the kosher certification flourishes, in these large firms that can afford the regulatory apparatuses involved, the fees that are involved. It’s not something that is necessarily tied to the kind of local food production or the kind of artisanal food production that is popular today. So you have a curious opposition there.
GRABER: Roger’s point is, a kosher Oreo is still an Oreo. It’s not any more ethical, it’s not any more environmentally friendly, it’s not any healthier.
TWILLEY: But, you know, even though the kosher label doesn’t necessarily represent values I care about—and even though in some ways it reinforces the industrial food system, and shuts off alternatives—I guess, in some ways, it’s also a really interesting example of how a very small group can change a food system. Like we said, the number of Jews who keep kosher is really small, and yet nearly half the products in an average American supermarket are labeled with a hechsher. It’s something to think about, something that also holds true today when you have a small state—Vermont—fighting for genetically modified foods to be labeled, and kind of forcing the national conversation.
GRABER: Yeah, it’s true. Okay, so for regular Gastropod listeners, you’ll probably know that I don’t keep kosher anymore.
TWILLEY: I mean, you eat conch penis.
GRABER: Exactly. But the thing is, I probably look at labels more—or think about the origin of food origins—than I did even when I did keep kosher as a kid. And the story of the hechsher shows that other eaters are also looking at labels, they do want to know something about how their food is made. And some of those labels on food packages today, they can be ones that might be more of a shorthand for the types of things I want to know now. Like, the fair trade label. Or the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s label for sustainable seafood.
TWILLEY: Right, and that’s where the effort that kosher certification organizations go to, and the whole system they’ve set up to ask detailed questions about how food is made, and follow every last ingredient all the way up the food chain, to the point of sending hundreds of inspectors to China—it’s impressive. That’s something we could all stand to emulate.