Culture, Global, Mishegas

From the "You Can't Make this S*** Up" Files

And how often do I get to post from my favorite blog, Consumerist, on Jewschool? I’m gonna grab this baby and run with it:
We all know that people have been -for quite some time- acting under the mistaken notion that kosher = healthy. I seem to recall some major war in Poland between two different rabbis and their organizations over who got to oversee Polish vodka production because people there were convinced that kosher meant better product.
Now, Chinese exporters are betting that kosher certification can convince foreign consumers that their wares are safe. It’s just another marketing tool for them, of course.
Consumerist quotes the San Jose Mercury News:

Many Chinese companies were unfamiliar with the concept: One furniture maker asked for kosher certification, drawing a polite rebuff. Another facility asked to get certified as kosher even though it was smoking eel on site, a kosher no-no. The company was turned down; it is now building a separate, kosher-only facility.
And many companies weren’t ready for the grilling the rabbis gave them on their first visits to their plants, seeing it as a sign of distrust. “In China, everything works on relationships,” said Grunberg of the Orthodox Union, which certifies more than 400,000 products worldwide.

The News, also notes that according to the OU, Kosher certifications by rabbis have doubled to more than 300 in China in the past two years. Originally, it was apparently to get access to the kosher market, $11.5 billion U.S a year, but after the rash of problems with contaminated pet food, toothpaste, seafood and the like, Chinese exporters have turned to kashrut certification in order to assure people that their product is safe.
There might be some benefit to having kashrut oversight: since 2001, the Orthodox Union has required makers of products it certifies as kosher to place a code on their packages identifying the plant where it was made so the product can be traced in a recall. However, since September of this year, all Chinese food exports have been required to have this code by Chinese regulators.
It doesn’t especially bother me, really, though, I must admit. While I don’t think that hashgacha is likely to make the products safer (or at least not much) at least there’s the possibility that there will be more interesting products at my local cheapo grocery that I can buy. I can’t tell you how excited I was when I found some very tasty red bean flavored steamed buns with a nice OU on them!

5 thoughts on “From the "You Can't Make this S*** Up" Files

  1. Just out of curiosity, were those OU-certified red bean buns actually made in China?
    I doubt you’ll see many more exotic Chinese delicacies with hechshers as a result of this. It seems that most of what’s getting certified are the artificial colorings, flavorings and other multi-syllabic processed ingredients that Big Food here in the US rely upon in producing things like Froot Loops, Oreos and Pringles (note that these are just examples of processed food–I have no idea whether any of them actually contain Chinese ingredients). And I actually suspect that this whole thing about Chinese companies getting hechshered for the appearance of product safety is mainly an attempt by the kashrut industry to try to drum up business. No eel-smoking company is going to build a whole separate facility just so that they can put a seal on their product that they hope might convince end-consumers it’s not poisoned. Rather, my guess is that most Chinese manufacturers who get hechshered are doing it not because they want to convince US consumers their products are safe, but because they want to sell to big US food manufacturers who themselves produce kosher products and therefore need kosher-certified suppliers.
    Still, it’s definitely an interesting subject.

  2. The “kashrut industry” really doesn’t have much pull. It only exists at all because there’s a consumer base out there that desires/requires/respects kosher certification and the implications of that. Companies respect that consumer base.
    I used to work in foodservice and can tell you that quality control problems among Chinese-origin products are legend. Stories of bugs and other gross whatnots found in canned fruits and vegetables are just the beginning. Generally food standards improve drastically as industrialization and modernization (Westernization?) increase. But China right now is only semi-industrial and semi-modern.
    Getting kosher certification is a serious way of not only reaching out to kosher-eating customers but of obviating the totally inconsistent quality and safety standards that are implemented across China. That applies whether or not the consumer is committed to eating kosher food. This is more about basic health standards than religious commitments. In the case of kashrut the two broadly and happily intersect.
    China’s still industrializing, and it’s still formulating its quality standards–and thinking about ways to enforce them. But right now they’re inconsistent and unpredictable–at least to outsiders who aren’t intimately familiar with the Chinese system. Chinese products have a major image problem and a very real quality problem. A kosher certification is probably the fastest way to demonstrate that the quality on a particular product is high….at least high enough that you won’t encounter any manifest grossness when you take off the lid. (And yes, if the economics pay then of course a company will build a separate non-eel plant. It’s a straight business decisions and they’ll make it based on market projections.)
    (BTW for a slightly odd look at how Chinese society broadly views the Jews, listen to this fascinating and bizarro report from NPR’s Marketplace show. You really can’t make it up!)

  3. Kosher does not mean healthy – but provides many “health benefits.”
    – Many “Non-Dairy food” products may contain dairy. A product marked Pareve assures the allergic, lactose intolerant and Vegan that there is absolutely no dairy in the product.
    – When a plant is kosherized all equipment that comes in contact with food is scrubbed and cleansed well beyond industry standards and boiling water is run through the entire system (depending on equipment)
    – “American consumers, it seems, who made the “Kosher” label the most popular claim found on product labels in 2007, beating out “All Natural” and “No Additives or Preservatives,” according to figures from Mintel’s Global New Products Database, which monitors worldwide product innovation in consumer packaged goods markets”

  4. The kashrut industry may not have much pull, but they’re trying. If you go to any food convention, you’ll find all the certification organizations (OU, OK, Kaf-K, etc.) there with brochures talking about how Americans perceive kosher food as healthier–based on a study done by a PR/marketing firm called Lubicom that’s presumably in the cert-orgs’ employ. It’s all part of a well-coordinated effort to expand the market for their services. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this article (which is actually a reprint of a Bloomberg News article) was originally pitched to the reporter by the very same PR firm.
    Meanwhile, if you actually read the article, you’ll see what they’re talking about getting certified in China: “everything from spices and chemical additives to frozen berries, sliced garlic and beef” is what the OU hopes to certify. But the only actual example of a big Chinese company in the article is a company that sells “fructose, salts and amino acids to U.S. makers of sports drinks, pharmaceuticals and food flavoring.” I’d guess that the spices and chemical additives producers are the big OU clients right now, but they’d like to get the berry freezers and beef slaughterhouses, which is why they’re pushing this PR angle.

  5. I lived in China for several years and know people that actually work in kashrut there. The Chinese government doesn’t officially allow any foreign food agencies, but somehow the kashrut agencies get around this.

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