Chinese Exporters Use Kosher Certification To Quell Food Safety Concerns

Kosher certification is the new darling of health-conscious consumers who misguidedly believe that biblically blessed health standards can reign in the excesses of commercial food production. Even Chinese exporters are betting that kosher certification can convince foreign consumers that their wares are safe. To companies, certification is just a marketing tool: it lends the aura of safety without offering any actual food safety benefits.

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.

Almost 5,000 new Kosher products hit U.S. shelves last year, but they aren’t any safer than traife goods.

Whether kosher foods are actually less likely to be contaminated with, say, E. coli bacteria remains up for debate. While research is scant in this area, experts say it makes sense that kosher food could be safer because it’s more closely monitored. “Jews aren’t allowed to ingest bugs, so produce must go through a thorough washing and checking to ensure that no bugs are found within the leaves or on the surface of the fruit or vegetable,” says Moshe Elefant, a rabbi and chief operating officer of the Orthodox Union KOSHER, a kosher certification organization based in New York. But bacteria can remain even after this type of washing, so consumers can’t assume they’re less likely to get food poisoning with bagged spinach marked kosher than with a conventional bag.

The same caveat applies to poultry and beef. A salting process that removes blood from the meat has antibacterial effects, but salmonella and E. coli can still survive, says Joe Regenstein, a professor of food science who teaches a course on Jewish and Muslim food laws at Cornell University. Kosher beef, though, is much less likely to contain the misshapen proteins that cause mad cow disease, rare as that is, probably because the animals are slaughtered young, before the disease sets in.

Kosher certification is especially ill-suited for the Chinese marketplace. Contamination is caused by corrupt suppliers who substitute cheap poisons for relatively expensive ingredients. We use kosher certification for one thing, and one thing only: finding really good Coke.

Health-conscious consumers put their faith in kosher certification [The Globe and Mail via BarfBlog]
China going kosher after recalls [Mercury News]
(Photo: nicasaurusrex)

Comments

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  1. topgun says:

    Rabbi or round eye?
    That’s the question.

  2. Greasy Thumb Guzik says:

    Let’s start a pool as to when the first Chinese company forges a kosher certificate for pork or shrimp!
    I have no doubt that we’ll be seeing all sorts of products from China with a “K” on them soon.

    Legit or not.

  3. chiieddy says:

    And how long until Chinese companies put counterfeit Kosher certifications on their products, totally negating their affect?

  4. So it’s a LITTLE safer, then, just not in the ways we look for. However, yes, Greasy is right. They’ll start stamping stuff Kosher without certification in a matter of weeks.

  5. bohemian says:

    My guess is forged kosher everything popping up in dollar stores within six months. Kosher bacon in walmart within three.
    I am surprised they have not been forging USDA organic labels yet.
    We only get kosher coke here during passover. But the Russian grocery store has cane sugar Fanta.

  6. humphrmi says:

    @Greasy Thumb Guzik: Which is why most people who are actually trying to keep kosher don’t buy things marked K. The U-O marking is trademarked. You can’t trademark a letter, so there’s no control over the use of K.

  7. Consumerist Moderator - ACAMBRAS says:

    I once saw a newspaper article about a Louisiana man who’d come up with a new purification process for oysters. He’d recalled that he’d once asked a Jewish man what kosher meant. The man had responded with the short version: “pure.” So this well-meaning guy started marketing his “kosher oysters.” Reportedly, the local Jewish community was more amused than outraged.

  8. youbastid says:

    Wait a sec, eel isn’t Kosher? I thought it was just shellfish. Either I’m a bad Jew or those facts aren’t straight. The former is already true, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the latter is.

  9. @youbastid: I thought shellfish were excluded because they were bottom feeders. I know eel are bottom feeders, so maybe that is why?

    Also, how many Chinese Rabbi’s are there?

  10. @humphrmi: I think it would be funny if any of the marks mean something other in Chinese. So if the K or UO symbol was almost identical to the Chinese symbol for the word “spoiled”.

  11. Samby says:

    shellfish are not kosher at all, and all other types of fish must have fins and scales to be kosher. So, no, eels are not kosher

  12. AnnieGetYourFun says:

    @gitemstevedave: Not many, but if memory serves me correctly, there’s a Jewish community in Kaifeng, China.

  13. uricmu says:

    Kosher food is not healthier. Kosher laws dictate several hours of wait between ingesting meat and dairy, so there’s an excessive use of milk substitutes to make it parve or meat-based. Hence, one cooks with margarine instead of butter, and uses trans fat instead of cream in ice cream.

  14. Greasy Thumb Guzik says:

    @humphrmi:
    You & I know what the different certifications are, but the Chinese don’t & more importantly don’t care.
    The Chinese will forge the O-U & Circle K & Koff K & CRC & every other Orthodox certification there is.
    And wait until pareve shows up on something that can’t be as it has milk or meat in it.
    And I guarantee you that one of those will pop up on a pork or shellfish product sold in a dollar store or at Wally World by next year!
    And obviously you aren’t religious as your typing on Shabbos!

  15. milw123 says:

    This calls for my favorite Rabbi joke. 2 Rabbis are eating at a Chinese restaurant when one says to the other, “you know, I’ve met Jews from Africa, Jews from Russia, everywhere but China. Do you think there are Jews in China?” The other Rabbi replies, “I’ll ask the waiter. Excuse me sir, are there any Chinese Jews?” The waiter looks around and says, “We have orange juice, grape juice, and tomato juice; no Chinese juice!”

  16. Nighthawke says:

    That is such a double-edged sword that the Chinese have tried.

    First, considering that the ChiComs consider themselves godless, may bring the Jewish community upon their heads for associating the term Kosher with their foods.

    Next would still be issue of cleanliness. They are grasping at straws with this one and I’ll soon die off once they realize that it is not getting them anywhere.

    Chinese use pork products with just about everything in their cooking and food production so it will taint their use of the term Kosher.

  17. hhole says:

    Oh…that coke. I was wondering which Rabbinical organization signed off on blow.

  18. DallasDMD says:

    @Nighthawke: Well how many atheist food companies in the USA get the kosher certification for food products? Quite a bit.

    The kosher certification can be for specific food items anyway. There are plenty of companies that sell some items that are kosher and some are not.

  19. Parting says:

    I’ve met someone who was working as a food production inspector. He told me that in Canada, rabbis that do kosher inspection have the same training in food production as regular food inspectors. So, at least in Canada, overally kosher is no better than regular food.

  20. Nighthawke says:

    @DallasDMD: There is the difference between using the kosher certification to prove religious purity of a product and using it in an stupid attempt to cover up poor quality control. I’ve eaten kosher products and save for some items that have higher standards than the regular products, there is not much difference there.

    The ChiComs are dusting hamburger patties with fools gold and trying to sell them as Golden Calves. I’ll eat American, Canadian, or Mexican products.. At least I ain’t got that far to go tear someone a new one if I run into something that puts me in bed.

  21. FutureRoadie says:

    Until recently I was a kosher inspector for a national supervision, I can say the following, do to kosher laws there is concern for cross contamination which in of itself causes factories certified kosher to have certain rules and regulations in place for example one of the things we make sure of which isnt as much of a concern in the states but is a major concern in china is workers eating on the line or returning from lunch without washing their hands, the main issue with items coming from china is the complete lack of a health department, that is why certain products that are considered kosher without certification still requires certification if it is from china.
    Another thing that may be or may not be irrelevant is that during th E-coli story with spinach it was NOT a kosher certified plant, (in fact spinach is a product that due to infestation is not certified however in plants that have certification for other products they produce certification is based on them having a lab which checks for insects, facilities that go to the effort of having kosher certification show a dedication towards maintaining a higher standard and also invest in top labs that monitor for E-coli and other bacterial growth.
    At the end of the day, kosher does ensure a higher area in some levels, if its certified kosher non dairy then there is no issue for ppl with dairy allergens, if its certified kosher there is no issue for ppl with shellfish allergens, there will not be carmine (a beetle derivative) in your food, & there wont be grasshopper legs in your applebees salad.

  22. jonworld says:

    “…One furniture maker asked for kosher certification…”…I’m still laughing at that one!

  23. StevieD says:

    Kosher Chinese Food.

    Anybody else see something wrong with that phrase?

  24. StevieD says:

    Kosher Chinese Food.

    Anybody else see a problem with that phrase?

  25. Trai_Dep says:

    If Wal-Mart starts selling Chinese kosher food, how long before “KKK” shows up on the label?

  26. akalish says:

    Kosher certification labeling is for the most part regulated.

    Stateside: consumer protection laws have been invoked when there have been deliberate manipulations by companies (i.e. labeling a product with a certification when it is not actually certified), because this obviously falls under that category of law.

    Private regulation: this is what would apply to China since our laws can’t regulate them (the exception being to ban the import). With regard to private labeling, certification symbols (i.e. the O-U) tend to be trademarked as someone already pointed out, and the organization that owns the use of the trademark polices the companies who use it by way of oversight (i.e. surprise visits, conversion of a factory to kosher, etc.) purchased by the manufacturer from the regulating agency for a fee. Ultimately, known symbols are trusted and unknown ones tend not to be. There is a certain level of reliability associated with the marking. That is not to say that a company couldn’t illegally use it, and that’s where it enters the realm of consumer fraud.

    Lastly, to the comment by URICMU regarding unhealthy substitutions associated with kosher observance, I’ll put it simply: you’re making assumptions about something you demonstrably know very little about. I’ll encourage you to investigate market trends as well as socio-ethnic gastronomic habits before making such rash generalizations. The question of why people make certain food choices rather than others is the result of a multiplicity of institutional influences–and while one of them might be in part religion, historically speaking with regard to “substitute” products you will find that the roots lie in the marketing of the rise of a “science” of cooking and kitchen economy, and not in religion.

  27. Greasy Thumb Guzik says:

    @StevieD:
    There are a number of kosher Chinese restaurants in NYC.
    There is at least one in the Chicago area, in a Jewel in Evanston.

    @akalish:
    I believe you’re missing the point.
    The Chinese have pirated everything else, I have no doubt they will pirate trademarked kosher certification symbols or Photoshop them into reasonable facsimiles of them.

  28. clickable says:

    @jonworld:
    Kosher certification for furniture is definitely funny, but some of the oddest products are candidates simply because when they are used, they come in contact with food or a food container or implement. Thus – dishwashing or general cleaning products, wraps and disposables such as wax paper, foil, or paper plates, cosmetic or personal care products used near the mouth, etc.

    Not all kashruth-observing Jews limit themselves to kosher-certified aluminum foil or lipstick, for example, but most will only use a dishwashing soap that has a kashruth symbol. So “kosher” can definitely also be relevant to non-edibles.

  29. clickable says:

    @StevieD:

    Kosher Chinese food, and even “Glatt” kosher Chinese food (“Glatt” is an especially strict form of kosher utilized by ultra-orthodox sects) is a venerable tradition going back a couple of generations. There are a few kosher Chinese food places in NY and other cities.

    That being said, the fact that it’s been done doesn’t mean that it’s done particularly well. Maybe the quality has changed in the past decade, but until then, it was the stereotype of mediocrity. I guess the owners realized their observant Jewish customers had nothing to compare it to, since they had never eaten at authentic, non-kosher Chinese restaurants.

  30. asherchang2 says:

    Well, Kosher produce is required not to have any bugs in it, which means that generally, it has to go through a more thorough cleaning and checking process, although that still doesn’t protect us from pesticides and other toxic chemicals.

    @Greasy Thumb Guzik: I’ve been to a Jewel in Evanston, but I don’t know what you’re talking about….

  31. Erwos says:

    Forging certificates is more difficult than you think. The Star-K (the kosher authority in Baltimore, but also has a surprisingly large presence in China) specifically made mention of the problem at a recent conference, and noted that they had started working with other certifiers on ways to prevent the issue from occurring (databases, etc.). These guys are not fools, and they’re very passionate about making sure that the kosher certification is indeed a good one.

    Kosher certification isn’t a fool-proof thing – but if the producer gets caught cheating, it’s generally the end of their certification forever, and they’ve just sent a big old message to the entire industry that they’re not trustworthy. I would say that it at least dissuades the producer from trying to do some crazy stuff, which is relatively worthwhile.

    Someone else pointed out that kosher cert for produce doesn’t help you with pesticides, just bugs. That’s true and not true – considering that the way they get the bugs off is by washing it quite a lot, there’s some indirect help on the pesticide front. Clearly, nothing’s perfect, so always wash your fruit and vegetables, certified or no. :)

    Just to head it off: the amount that kosher certification costs is basically nothing on the large scales we’re talking about. IIRC, it’s something like .0001%. Advertising is a way bigger portion of the cost of your food.

  32. uricmu says:

    @clickable: Actually, Kosher for furniture is not that crazy. There are religious rules about the mixing of types of threads (not sure about the term in English but definitely nothing to do with kosher) so you these rules could apply to upholstry.

  33. uricmu says:

    @akalish: Go to any Institutional Kosher kitchen (e.g., a kosher hotel in Israel or at a wedding hall) and have desserts or pastries and you’ll see what I mean.

    Of course you can do better when you cook at home, but you still have to substitute something for butter in most recipes.

  34. Hello_Newman says:

    Well if they made leather furniture wouldn’t the cows have to be killed in a certain way?

  35. themicah says:

    I suspect that this whole thing about Chinese companies getting hechshered for the appearance of product safety is mainly an attempt by the kashrut industry’s PR folks 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.

    I therefore don’t think that you’re going to see many unauthorized hechshers (certification symbols) as a result of this. 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 since Big Food’s kosher supervisors are going to be checking what ingredients they use, unauthorized hechshers aren’t going to help the Chinese makers of the ingredients sell their products.

  36. Greasy Thumb Guzik says:

    @asherchang2:
    It’s the Jewel on Howard St.

    @Erwos:
    You’re joking aren’t you?
    The Chinese fake everything.
    They won’t care about a legit certificate, they’ll just ship the stuff to the US in a container with other foods & then have a distributor sell it.
    No one will really know what’s in it.