Symbols of quality

by Charlotte Atchley
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Over the years, gluten-free, fat-free and low-carb have all ruled as the claim of the moment for the baking industry. One universal claim has been around for centuries: kosher.

In fact, kosher has become a standard held by most large food companies, according to Chris Brockman, global food and drink analyst for the Chicago-based research firm Mintel. That’s because kosher puts consumers’ minds at ease by addressing many of their concerns involving food production.

Moreover, when a bakery goes kosher, it taps into consumers restricting their diets for religious reasons. “There are kosher consumers who feel if it’s not kosher, it just won’t do,” said Rabbi Chaim Fogelman, director of public relations/education, OK Kosher Certification, Brooklyn, NY. “It’s not like if there isn’t a kosher option, we will buy what is available. It’s either kosher or it’s not.”

Many groups certify kosher compliance. In addition to OK and Star-K, other agencies include the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations (OU), the Organized Kashrus Laboratories (O/K) and Kof-K Kosher Supervision.

However, reasons beyond religion make kosher a popular claim. Many consumers think kosher is healthier.

“There is a perception among the general consumer population that kosher certification enhances the value of food,” said Avrom Pollak, PhD, president, Star-K Certification, Baltimore, MD. “I’m not saying it’s always an accurate perception because I will be the first to admit that we certify all kinds of junk food, but there is that perception.”

With more consumers paying attention to labels, health and nutrition, kosher can provide a safety net. “For some, it’s another feel-good stamp,” said Tim Lotesto, director of marketing and communications, Alpha Baking Co., Chicago. “It’s an extra quality marker.”

Going kosher — or halal — can be worth the investment, but it isn’t without its misconceptions or pitfalls. Evaluating costs against benefits and navigating the certification process are made easier by the guidance of those who have gone before and those who do it every day.

Observant and beyond

Up front, the obvious reason a bakery should incorporate kosher is to attract new consumers.

“Bakers invest a few thousand dollars and get a completely new segment of the market that was not buying their product before,” Rabbi Fogelman said. “I would find it hard to believe that there are more than a handful of companies that have not benefitted from going kosher. Very rarely do we have a company that says, ‘It wasn’t worth it for us.’ ”

Many bakeries may not have a large, concentrated Jewish population in its immediate market. If a company hopes to reach a nationwide audience, not being kosher-certified can keep it out of regions with heavy Jewish populations. Big chain stores often expect food companies to be kosher-certified so they can offer the same products in all their outlets regardless of location. This has given the kosher community more clout, according to Dr. Pollak. “The honest truth is that the kosher consumer represents a very small percentage of the consumer base in this country,” he said. “The reason so many products today are kosher-certified is really because the kosher consumer has an influence on the marketplace that goes further than their numbers.”

Muslim consumers represent a growing population segment, with about 9 million now living in North America. By 2025, Halal Product Development Services (HPDS), Oakville, ON, estimates that 30% of world population will be halal consumers. “The bakery sector has a great opportunity to capture a slice of the untapped and underserved halal market,” said Ehsan Sairally, HPDS director. “Companies that will go the extra mile will reap the benefits of the potential growth of the halal market.” Companies selling products internationally can benefit from a halal certification by opening up a market of 1.5 billion Muslims.

The reasons to stamp a specialty certification onto a package do not stop at those observing kosher or halal for religious reasons. Non-kosher consumers gravitate to the kosher stamp because it ensures the processing facility has been audited by a third party.

“We have a lot of people who don’t keep kosher who are still happy that we are overseen,” Mr. Lotesto said about consumers’ response to the bakery going kosher in the 1990s. “They see it as a mark of quality and that we have someone overseeing our product and process. They see it as more of a quality stamp than for any religious reasons.”

Taking inventory of ingredients

Some misconceptions still exist when it comes to gaining kosher certification. “A lot of people think that kosher certification requires that the rabbi needs to bless the product in the facility,” Rabbi Fogelman said. “I get that phone call all the time, and I say, ‘Sure, if you have a speaker phone, I’ll do it right now,’ but basically what we are doing is investigating the ingredients you are using and making sure they’re kosher.”

The certification for either the kosher or halal stamp starts with a look at the bakery’s ingredient inventory. The certifying organization will alert the bakery to any ingredients that do not meet kosher or halal requirements (see “Inherently kosher” on Page 42). These ingredients will need to be replaced with kosher- or halal-certified ingredients before the bakery can be certified.

“Your rabbi won’t allow you to bring a product to market or even bring it in the plant unless it’s kosher certified, so that level of scrutiny on the ingredient supply makes you sit up a little straighter,” said Trish Karter, co-founder and chief deer of Dancing Deer Baking Co., Boston.

Depending on how many ingredients the organization will need to comb through and how many need to be replaced, this process can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. However, kosher-certified ingredients have become more commonplace and easier to find during the past 15 to 20 years.

“If you wanted to commit to kosher, there were only one or two suppliers of the raw ingredients. Going kosher was a big commitment,” Rabbi Fogelman said. “Now, you have 30 different kinds of sugar, 50 different kinds of flour and 50 different kinds of shortening to choose from.”

Today, the challenge is sourcing halal-certified ingredients. S. Rasheed Ahmed, founder and president of Muslim Consumer Group, Huntley, IL, said many ingredient suppliers do not have halal-certified ingredients, so he will often accept kosher-certified ingredients, which meet halal requirements, when certifying a company as halal. “If the bakery uses kosher-certified dough conditioners or whey, I consider it halal,” he said.

When it comes to halal, Mr. Ahmed said the main principles bakers must remember are no animal fats or alcohol. Bakers need to use vegetable-based shortenings and oils exclusively and flavors that do not use alcohol as a solvent.

One major difference between kosher and halal criteria is kosher requires that the equipment must be used exclusively for kosher production. Nothing non-kosher can touch the equipment or else it must undergo kosherization, a sanitation process that brings equipment back to its original state. Mr. Ahmed suggests that if bakers must run halal products and non-halal products on the same line, halal should be rim first thing after the line undergoes its regularly scheduled sanitation. If non-halal foods are processed first, then the line must be cleaned before halal products can be processed. 

The certification process even involves packaging. Halal requires no animal byproducts be present in packaging material. Kosher certification ensures that the package is sealed properly so it won’t become contaminated by non-kosher foods before reaching the end user.

Going through inspection

While the certification process may sound daunting, it isn’t something bakers should shy away from. “It’s not a complicated thing today anymore. Sometimes, they just need to tweak one or two things,” Rabbi Fogelman said. Ingredient inventory checks have gotten simpler and quicker with most suppliers offering kosher-certified items.

The plant inspection also should not be feared. “Bakeries think ­rabbis are there to catch them making a mistake,” Rabbi Fogelman said. “We’re not here to catch you making a mistake. We are here to help you and guide you. We are on your side. We want you to be successful.”

A rabbi from a certifying organization will inspect the plant and help bakeries organize everything from paperwork to production to ensure transparency is maintained and cross-contamination is impossible. “Just the other day, I had a company thank me for helping them organize their paperwork,” Rabbi Fogelman recalled. “We help you with your paperwork because you have to be organized so we can see what is going on.”

Halal certification is much the same with an ingredient inventory and inspection. Mr. Ahmed stressed, however, that bakers should research a halal certification organization before selecting it. Some organizations will allow alcohol in baked products and still certify them halal. While this may be easier on the baker, the baker risks losing consumers. According to Mr. Ahmed, many Muslim consumers will not buy halal-certified products if alcohol exists in the ingredient list or is used during processing.

A kosher label may be the standard for major food companies, but halal is a bit more on the frontier. Bakers can benefit from both by ensuring their products’ presence in national supermarkets and foodservice outlets or reaching an underserved consumer and prepping to reach a global audience.

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