Kosher food made headlines last week in the aftermath of a multi-state Salmonella outbreak that killed one person and sickened 17 others. Illnesses spanned September 25, 2017 to June 4, 2018 – a shockingly lengthy amount of time in the food safety world. The CDC is not taking any further action, and no products have been recalled.
The tainted brand, Empire Kosher chicken, issued a statement that read, in part, “We take food safety and the health of our consumers very seriously and any illness, even potentially linked to our products, is unacceptable. We continue to very aggressively work to ensure the quality and safety of our products.”
This statement piqued an interest – aggressive quality assurance and …Kosher? Even as an infrequent consumer of Kosher foods, I began to dig, and what I found surprised me: A study from Mintel estimated 21 percent of Americans eat Kosher foods, a market trend driven in large part by consumer confidence in food safety procedures in both the Kosher and Halal (i.e., religious) certification schemes. Further, Kosher certification systems have been described as a model for private agencies that audit food production and processing facilities globally.
But beyond the basics of religious doctrine, what are the specific benefits of Kosher certification, particularly in this day and age? What can the secular world learn from the largest religious labeling scheme in the world – one that appears on half of all packaged food products?
First, some basic terminology is necessary. Hundreds of hechsher (Hebrew: seal of approval) labeling schemes exist – including text in Hebrew or English, symbols, and even decorative logos. The labels serve to illustrate adherence to religious dietary laws by differentiating between meat, dairy, or neutral foods. They are also used to denote the utensils used for preparation, other production process, and even food service venues with specific kashrut-related needs. Generally, dairy foods have a small “D” or the word “dairy” next to the Kosher label, though meats usually do not have extra labels. Neutral foods, those that are neither meat nor dairy, include a P for Pareve.
Just as there are hundreds of Kosher labeling schemes, there are thousands of Kosher certification agencies, in fact, 1,400+ as of July 2018. The agencies span regional to international food systems and include specialty as well as Israeli-specific foods. However, agencies known as the “Big Four” certify over 80 percent of kosher food sold in the US: Orthodox Union (“OU,” designated by a U inside a circle), Organized Kashrut (“OK,” designated by a K inside a circle), Star-K Kosher Certification (a K inside a star), and Kosher Certification and Supervision (“KOF-K,” ). In any given secular grocery store, the most frequently seen symbols are OU and OK, respectively, the two biggest kosher certification agencies.
Above all else, the Kosher certification process enhances traceability – allowing consumers to know where their food was sourced, processed, packaged, and finally, distributed. Quite unlike federal regulatory food safety systems, Kosher labeling is notable for fulfilling consumers’ most desired traits in their food products: traceability and transparency. The lack of traceability, monitoring, and enforcement is a systemic problem in today’s global food system, and can easily be called the culprit in the lengthy process to identify the source of E. coli contamination in the recent Romaine lettuce outbreak.
The agency responsible for overseeing the Kosher certification process at Empire Kosher chicken was OU, . But given that OU is a private, independent certification agency that oversees 1 million products at 8,500 processing plants, we can only expect pathogen risk to be reduced, not eliminated. If anything, the recent outbreak of Salmonella linked to Empire Kosher chicken ultimately shows the strength of Kosher labeling and safety regimes, given how few outbreaks have been linked to Kosher foods in the last decade. Moreso, it provides a much needed model for the federal government to modernize using systems-based approaches (i.e., from farm to fork) for all measures of food safety testing, public communication, and importantly, compliance.
While Kosher certified products do have a better safety record with less risk of being involved food safety outbreaks, even Kosher certification is not perfect, as we see from the Empire chicken outbreak. Clearly as this story shows, we have a lot of work to do to get our entire food system up to a level where all of us can be sure that we are safe from dangerous foodborne illness.