October 21, 2013

25 Years of Kosher Ñ How Kashrus Standards Have Changed

Seventh in a Series Marking the 25th Anniversary of Kosherfest, October 29-30, 2013

Kashrus or kosher certification has undergone dramatic changes in the past 25 years, so much so that many rabbis who are veteran kosher certifiers say that there is no comparison to what the kashrus situation was like back in the 1980’s. When Kosherfest was first launched in 1989, many companies simply included a “k” on their products, often changing kosher certifiers for others that may have won a bidding war. With time, consumers demanded the removal of the “k” mask for a symbol or rabbi that stood behind the kosher status of the products. There was to say the least confusion in many areas. For example, in some cases the “p” meant that the product was kosher for Passover; on others that it was pareve.

Some kosher consumers back then were still making their own determinations of the kosher status of a product, simply by reading ingredients. An establishment with an owner who sported a yarmulke might have been an automatic sign of a good hechsher (certification). And so it went. But as kosher exploded, so did the demand for tougher standards. Ironically, the only real protection consumers had in a state like New York was struck down as unconstitutional. But as Timothy Lytton in his recent book “Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food”  points out the kashrus industry has stepped up to the plate not only to meet the demands of the soaring kosher market, but also to satisfy customers that what they buy as kosher is indeed kosher. Today, despite the existence of a staggering number of kashrus organizations, certifiers and symbols (more than 1300, according to Kashrus Magazine), there are universal standards in many areas, including the common acceptance of such symbols as P (used only for Passover nowadays).  Today there is the Association of Kashrus Organizations (AKO), an effective umbrella agency that is playing a major role in establishing universal standards. There is an appreciation by the food industry for the need to market kosher products that meet strict standards.

Today, almost every city with a significant population of kosher consumers has a Vaad, or a committee supervising local kosher establishments. The belief that a yarmulke owner or manager is sufficient evidenced of kashrus standards is largely disappearing as is the infamous “k.”