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The Kosher-vore’s Dilemma: Kosherfest 2010

If you shop in almost any grocery store in the US, chances are you have bought a product that is certified Kosher. According to Sue Fishkoff’s new “Kosher Nation” “one third to one half of the food for sale in the typical American supermarket is kosher.” This is big business, “$200 billion of the country’s estimated $500 billion in annual food sales is kosher certified.” Kosher food is often perceived to be more pure or cleaner than treyf, yet it seems that there are many parallels between the Kosher and mainstream food industries.

Kosherfest, which is taking place this week in New Jersey, is an annual gathering, highlighting this big business. It is the time a year where Kosher food producers gather to tout their wares to industry professionals, supermarket buyers, chefs, and other food service providers.

In his keynote presentation, Menachem Lubinksy, founder and president of LUBICOM Marketing and Consulting, and co-producer of Kosherfest, claimed that the industry is moving towards offering healthier products. Apparently schmaltz is out, and olive oil is in. Yet, spending a day at Kosherfest made me wonder, is the kosher industry actually trying to produce healthy and sustainable products, or are they just greenwashing (promoting a product as environmentally friendly, when it actually isn’t)?

As I wandered the aisles of the show floor, and spoke with representatives of various companies, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Michael Pollan. In “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” Pollan describes a phenomenon that he calls “supermarket pastoral”, where foods are promoted with a, “pastoral narrative in which farm animals live much as they did in the books we read as children, and our fruits and vegetables grow in well-composted soils on small farms.” Today’s industrial food system is hidden behind labels, advertising, and store decorations telling the story of idealized farm life. Many displays and products at Kosherfest were remarkable examples of supermarket pastoral.

Take for instance the display from Wise Organic Pastures and the packaging of David Elliot Farms chicken. The display and packaging depict an idyllic scene of farm life. A beautiful rolling hill of grass, a red barn and silo, a blue cloudless sky. Although this product is certified organic and “free range” this stock farm photograph bears no resemblance to where the chickens are actually raised, in cramped coops with only a small door to provide access to the “free range yard.”

Vegetables are also an issue in the kosher world. With heightened awareness of bugs, especially in highly observant communities, companies have turned to high-tech growing, inspection, and freezing in order to provide customers with vegetables that meet standards of supervision. Yet packaging still hearkens back to the idealized scene of the farm or the backyard garden. Or it suggests at least that you, “recognize all of the ingredients,” as the packing Doctor Prager’s Sensible Food reads.

I spent some time speaking with a representative of the Manischewitz Company about their attempts to create a healthier product and inform consumers. Many of Manischewitz’s new products carry a new “L’Chaim – To Life!” label, that tells customers the natural or healthy aspects of a product. Although many of the ingredients in this all natural vegetable broth are from concentrate, it seems to live up to its natural designation. In contrast to industrial chickens hidden behind pretty pictures, this labeling seems to be a step in the right direction towards helping consumers to make informed choices.

Ultimately, the final decision about a product lies with the consumer. Kosherfest only proved to me that while kosher producers say that they “answer to a higher authority,” they really operate on the same playing field as everyone else. Marketing trends in the kosher and non-kosher markets are very similar, and until we clean up our food production systems, much of the food industry will continue to do their best to hide the realities of the industrial food system. The higher authority that kosher companies answer to is actually the kosher consumer. We must vote with our stomachs (and dollars) and begin to demand healthy and sustainable products that are good for us and for our planet.

Daniel Infeld is the Food Programs Fellow at Hazon, and is a recent graduate of Clark University in Worcester, MA. In his free time he enjoys anything to do with food, and exploring Jewish life in his new hometown of Brooklyn.

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