When Alana Elliott launched a company producing nut- and dairy-free snacks two years ago, one of the first decisions she made was to call up a rabbi and have her products certified kosher.
It wasn't that Ms. Elliott, president and founder of Victoria-based Nonuttin' Foods Inc., believed Jews were going to be especially big consumers of her nut-free granola bars and trail mixes.
She had her sights on bigger markets - the legions of health-conscious shoppers who populate the West Coast of Canada and the United States, as well as vegetarians, vegans and those with allergies to milk, who are all known to look for kosher certification to ensure that their foods are meat- and dairy-free.
"It's often the first thing people look for on a package," Ms. Elliott says. "It has nothing to do with religion."
Demand for kosher products is skyrocketing. As health-savvy consumers become more concerned about what is in their food, many non-Jews are equating kosher with safety and quality.
"Consumers perceive that a kosher product is a well-looked-after product," says Gustavo Sherman, co-owner of Tree Hugger Organics Inc., an organic-orange-juice distributor based in Toronto that is certified kosher.
Even though they may be popular in health circles, there is no guarantee that kosher products are good for you. Plenty of kosher snacks contain processed sugar and fat, such as soft drinks, cookies, chocolate bars and chips. Kosher deli meats and salami often contain the same additives and preservatives as their non-kosher counterparts.
Rather, the value of kosher products for non-kosher consumers comes from the extra set of inspections manufacturers are forced to go through to maintain certification, the rabbis say, adding that the inspections force producers to adhere to higher cleanliness levels.
Mr. Sherman says the kosher symbols on packaging - that declare products free of either meat, dairy or both - are often more widely recognized than designations showing a product is organic or peanut-free. Muslims purchase pork-free kosher foods when halal is not available, and those with allergies to shellfish, which is prohibited under Jewish law, also look for kosher products.
The Orthodox Union, North America's largest certifier of kosher foods, has seen booming demand for its services, with the number of companies it certifies jumping 50 per cent in the past decade to 2,500, says Rabbi Aharon Brun-Kestler, head of certification. "It's not coming from what you'd think of as traditional markets," he says of the demand.
The group deploys rabbis to oversee production at 6,000 facilities in 85 countries around the world.
In Canada, local kosher authorities also say they have never been busier. The Jewish Community Council of Montreal received a record 20 applications for kosher certification last August, up from an average of four or five applications a month.
Loblaws sales surpassed expectations when the grocery retailer opened a kosher meat section last year in downtown London, Ont., leading the retailer to believe a portion of sales are driven by non-Jewish consumers, says Wes Brown, a Loblaws spokesman.
Loblaws' other kosher counters in Ontario and Quebec posted double-digit growth last year, Mr. Brown adds, even in small markets such as Windsor, Ont.
In Vancouver, a new kosher restaurant opened last year, while a major downtown hotel recently put in an application to certify its banquet hall, says Rabbi Avraham Feigelstock, chairman of BC Kosher, the certifying body of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of British Columbia.
The rise in demand for kosher products in North America has led to a corresponding rise in kosher certification of overseas production facilities, especially in China and India, where North American food suppliers are increasingly looking to source ingredients.
Five years ago, the Orthodox Union flew a rabbi to India once a year to oversee a handful of food suppliers. Now, the OU certifies 60 companies in India producing pickles, spices and vinegar with a full-time staff of four, and brings in a rabbi from Israel once a month for additional support.
In China, flavourings such as citric and ascorbic acids are certified, along with food colouring, dried herbs and extracts. "No matter how small," Mr. Feigelstock says, "every ingredient must be certified."
To be certified - which entails receiving a hechsher, a symbol on the package that shows the product is under the supervision of a rabbinical authority - a company must prove all the ingredients have been certified kosher, and that the equipment used to manufacture the product has never been touched by a non-kosher item.
Products are designated meat, dairy or pareve - containing neither meat nor dairy - to comply with the Jewish law prohibiting the mixing of milk and meat. Rabbis make unannounced visits to inspect facilities as often as every month, depending on the type of food in question.
Companies pay to maintain supervision. A small outfit such as Ms. Elliott's Nonuttin' is charged about $1,800 annually for inspections every six to eight weeks. Larger companies can be charged twice as much or more.
Mr. Feigelstock says he has come across all kinds of practices that could make a product non-kosher.
While inspecting production facilities, for example, he learned that fish-processing plants sometimes smear calf intestines on smoked fish as a preservative. (The practice would be prohibited because the fish was designated meat-free, among other reasons.) On another occasion, he found lard was used as a lubricant on plastic wrap.
Caryll Carruthers, whose Mountain Meadows Food Processing Ltd. in Edmonton produces a nut-free spread called Peabutter, says the four surprise rabbinic inspections she receives annually have caused her to be more careful about plant maintenance and cleanliness than any government
"The rabbi is more thorough than the guy from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency," she says.
Jewish law includes a set of dietary rules that have been interpreted and expanded upon by rabbis over the centuries.
The ancient laws of Kashruth explain that to be kosher, a fish must have both fins and scales, and a land animal must chew its cud and have cloven hooves .
Animals must be slaughtered according to a ritual that is designed to cause as little pain as possible. They must then be inspected for abnormalities. Meat is salted or broiled to remove blood before cooking, since it's forbidden to eat an animal's blood.
The Torah forbids cooking "a kid-goat in its mother's milk." Rabbis have interpreted the rule to mean that milk and meat should not be consumed at the same meal or prepared on the same dishes. Observant Jews keep separate sets of dishes, pots and cutlery for milk and for meat.
Some foods including fruits, vegetables and grains are considered pareve, which means they can be served with milk or meat and prepared on any dishes.
Traditional teachings on keeping kosher say that the practice is primarily spiritual rather than health-related. Some rabbis have suggested that overcoming the temptation to eat non-kosher food fosters self-discipline.
But there has also long been a belief that kosher meat is cleaner and more humane, in part because of the slaughter practices.
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