Kosher follows the Jewish law of Kashrus, meaning suitable or pure, and is broken down into three categories: meat, dairy and pareve — food prepared without dairy and meat.
Kosher may be the original niche certification for food. After all, the first certified kosher product came out in the late 1800s.
Despite its long history, kosher certification continues to grow in demand, creating an industry that brings in $12.5 billion annually, according to the most recent study in 2012 by Lubicom, which tracks the industry.
Tuvia Berzow, executive director of Oregon Kosher, a regional certifier, said it’s not a question of if companies should get certified, but when.
“Consumers expect it,” he said. “Certification is not a complicated process that is going to change everything they’re doing. The market is there, and it’s an important value-added certification to reach a niche market that otherwise you couldn’t reach.”
Last year the Jewish population in Oregon was 40,650, approximately 1 percent of the state population, according to statistics from the Jewish Virtual Library. Not every Jew chooses to eat kosher, and Reform Jews tend to be more lenient on these laws.
Kosher follows the Jewish law of Kashrus, meaning suitable or pure, and is broken down into three categories: meat, dairy and pareve — food prepared without dairy and meat. Although many natural ingredients are kosher, once they are processed further, a certifying agency is needed to verify its status.
“In kosher law, the vessel can take on the status of food cooked inside of it,” Berzow explained. He used vegan sauce as an example.
“Ingredient-wise everything is essentially kosher, but if it’s made in a factory and they’re making meat sauces in the same equipment that vessel then becomes non-kosher, and any subsequent products will impart non-kosher status,” he said.
Any metal vessel can be “kosherized.” The machine has to sit unused and clean for 24 hours before being filled with water, which is then boiled.
There are over 1,000 certifiers worldwide, and each is distinguished by regional versus international domain. Berzow estimates there are six or seven major agencies that certify thousands of companies and millions of products internationally. The others, such as Oregon Kosher, are considered regional.
The certification agency’s fee changes with the complexity of the facility and products that are being made. Oregon Kosher is the only regional certifier in the state and Berzow said its annual fees range from $1,500 to $5,000.
While 85 percent of facilities go fully kosher, not all do, according to Berzow. Those companies have to constantly kosherize their machines and keep the non-kosher items separate.
Shawn and Mark Preble of Sunny’s Frozen Yogurt in Portland have the state’s first and only partial kosher certification.
Approached by Rabbi Dove Chastain about becoming a kosher shop, Shawn Preble said initially she couldn’t because not all of her toppings were kosher, and it was too expensive to switch to all kosher. Oregon Kosher decided to grant the Prebles partial certification, as long as the toppings were separated from the kosher yogurt.
Although the Prebles aren’t Jewish, their store is within a large Jewish neighborhood of Portland.
“We recognized that it was part of our neighborhood. To be honest, I don’t know if it increased business, but we’ve got nothing by positive feedback. I get, ‘I don’t keep a kosher kitchen, but I really appreciate the fact you’re kosher,’” Preble said.
Kosher consumers are not always Jewish. Berzow said it’s popular among other religious groups, as well as those with dietary restrictions and vegetarians because the level of supervision is higher in the kosher industry and — unlike organic certifications — are independent of the government.
Not every industry can easily become kosher-certified. Wine can only be kosher if the production was done exclusively by Torah-Observant Jews, and the kosher meat industry is complex and expensive. The animal needs to be slaughtered by a Schochet, a specialized Jewish butcher, and requires thorough inspection before and after the animal is killed.
“There’s a misconception that kosher just means a Rabbi blesses the food. The joke I always say is ‘if I was just blessing the food, I could do it from home,’” said Berzow.