Kosher Certification Isn’t A Tax, But It’s Surely Worth Discussing

Louise Mailloux, Parti Québécois candidate and professor at Cégep du Vieux Montréal, was criticized earlier this month by the Centre for Israel and Jewish affairs (CIJA) over her past remarks about what is known as “kosher certification”, the process of authenticating food products as kosher and therefore fit for consumption by observant Jews.

CIJA cites an article Mailloux wrote in L’Aut’journal and a 98.5 Radio interview with Benoît Dutrizac two years ago, in which she claimed that kosher certification, which has become commonplace among products sold in any supermarket, is enriching rabbis.

 

She has elsewhere suggested that the proceeds from kosher and halal certification fund religious wars.

 

“According to Mailloux, kosher certification is a ‘rip off’, ‘robbery’ and a ‘tax’ paid ‘directly… to the synagogue’ unbeknownst to Quebecers,” Del Negro said on March 13, “…thereby contributing to unfounded resentment toward Quebec Jews by their fellow citizens.”

CIJA went so far as to describe Mailloux’s views on the subject as “anti-Semitic propaganda”, and a “conspiracy theory”, and there seems to be little doubt that Mailloux is blowing things grossly out of proportion. A “Judaism 101″ page explains how kosher certification actually works, and it sounds reasonably benign:

The task of keeping kosher is greatly simplified by widespread kashrut certification. Products that have been certified as kosher are labeled with a mark called a hekhsher (from the same Hebrew root as the word “kosher”) that ordinarily identifies the rabbi or organization that certified the product. Approximately 3/4 of all prepackaged foods have some kind of kosher certification, and most major brands have reliable Orthodox certification.

 

The process of certification does not involve “blessing” the food; rather, it involves examining the ingredients used to make the food, examining the process by which the food is prepared, and periodically inspecting the processing facilities to make sure that kosher standards are maintained.

Kosher (or “kashrut”, yet another derivative of the same Hebrew root) certification is a business. Companies pay certification agencies, such as the Kashruth Council of Canada (whose hekhsher is the letters “COR”, inside an oval), to ensure that their products meet kosher standards. Mailloux’s comments reflect a conviction, shared by certain other suspicious minds, that ordinary consumers are unwittingly buying certified products at prices that are significantly inflated by the cost of certification, and that the certification agencies are using their profits to fund religious causes. One sees unhinged references to a “kosher tax”, and even (rather cleverly, I suppose) a “kosher nostra“.

There seems to be little dispute that kosher certification, at least in Western countries, is so widespread that it’s easy to buy certified products without meaning to do so:

Still, a lot of consumers are oblivious to kosher products. Those in the know tend to be familiar with Jewish culture. Lazarus, for example, is Jewish but not observant.

 

She suspects many shoppers are unknowingly tossing kosher products in their carts. Others don’t know enough about kosher rules to realize they may fill particular dietary needs.

The essence of the counter-argument to dark “kosher nostra” speculations, then, is that kosher certification has no significant effect on prices. Back to Judaism 101:

There are some who have complained that these certification costs increase the cost of the products to non-Jewish, non-kosher consumers; however, the actual cost of such certification is so small relative to the overall cost of production that most manufacturers cannot even calculate it. The cost is more than justified by the increase in sales it produces: although observant Jews are only a small fragment of the marketplace, kosher certification is also a useful (though not complete) point of reference for many Muslims, Seventh Day Adventists and vegetarians. In addition, many people prefer kosher products because they believe them to be cleaner, healthier or better than non-kosher products.

At this point, though, another term enters the equation: simple exasperation. Yes, some kosher rules may promote greater health and cleanliness, but the whole concept is still rooted in a futile desire to obey a non-existent deity. Honest explanations of the practice come out and say this, if not necessarily in so many words.

Though an ancillary hygienic benefit has been attributed to the observance of kosher, the ultimate purpose and rationale is to conform to the Divine Will, as expressed in the Torah.

I have no trouble believing that the cost of kosher certification is negligible in the grand scheme of things, but the fact that many Canadian food producers apparently find it necessary to jump through this superstitious hoop nevertheless sticks in my craw. In principle, I would rather buy food that had not been rigorously checked for conformity to the Divine Will, even if it were slightly more expensive! All this applies equally, of course, to halal certification, which seems to work in about the same way as kosher certification but with a different set of semi-arbitrary rules.

Fortunately, I live in a country where kosher certification is an issue only for products intended for export, although halal certification is another matter (Islam is more widespread in China than most Canadians probably realise). I’d be interested, however, to hear from people who live in Canada. Are there, in fact, hekhshers (or the Islamic equivalent) all over the products in your local supermarket(s)? Are non-hekhshered alternatives readily available, and is there any obvious difference in price and/or quality? Kosher certification isn’t a tax, and certainly isn’t robbery, but I would argue that it’s something Canadians should know about and should be discussing. Comment here or write to me at doubting_corwin (at) fastmail (dot) net.

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