Keep Kosher Special

The past few years have seen a slew of articles, studies, press releases and pronouncements that kosher food has been mainstreamed. It is claimed that many non-Jewish consumers view a kosher insignia as a symbol of quality and that a large number of people with various special interests – vegetarians, devout Muslims, etc. – also look for the kosher symbol. Supporters of this notion will point to the tremendous kosher ingredient market and a large number of mainstream food companies that are getting their own products certified kosher.

Though this picture of broadened interest and robust growth is true, it is also easily misinterpreted as a sign of health for the kosher food industry. Instead, it is more likely to lead to weakness in the kosher food industry than strength.

There are certain segments of the trade – for example, the rabbinical certification agencies that declare items kosher – that benefit simply because more items are kosher. These boards get paid fees to certify products as kosher, and the more such products exist, the more fees they raise. Besides, as rabbis, they want to encourage people to eat kosher food, so the more products out there that are kosher, the happier they are.

But as an industry, the kosher food industry crucially depends on kosher food remaining a specialty item, and the mainstreaming of kosher poses a risk to the whole kosher “ecosystem.”

The problem starts at the consumer level. To the extent that mainstream products are certified kosher, the mainstream consumer loses any need to shop in specific stores or sections of stores that feature kosher product. In other words, if Coca-Cola is kosher, then consumers don’t have to search out specialty beverages that are kosher.

This fact reverberates throughout the system. Buyers at the supermarket no longer will be specialty food buyers or kosher food buyers or anyone with any particular investment or commitment to the specialty or kosher food industry. Instead, they will be mainstream buyers who look for kosher certification as a mere product attribute, much as an appliance buyer might look for the UL of Underwriter’s Laboratory.

Take it one step further and the distributor of this new kosher mainstream product is unlikely to be a kosher food distributor or even a more general specialty food distributor. Instead, it will be a mainstream distributor who distributes items that have varying attributes – some are chocolate, some are organic, some are all natural, some are shelf-stable and some are kosher – but kosher means no more to these distributors than the fact that a shelf-stable product means something to these distributors. It is just one more product attribute on a long list of product attributes.

When you get to the manufacturer level, the problem is the same. The fact that Kraft or Nestle may have some or even all of their products certified kosher doesn’t transform them into kosher food manufacturers. It simply means that they found the additional sales generated by having their products certified kosher compensates for the cost of producing a kosher product and having it certified as such.

But throughout the manufacturing and distribution chain, the mainstreaming of kosher weakens the companies that are passionately dedicated to selling kosher products. These are the companies that care if kosher is successful because their brands and their very companies are intricately tied up with the success of kosher.

It is these companies that will support the associations, publications, trade shows and consumer education efforts that, together, make up an industry.

To put things in another way, if kosher goes mainstream, it loses its specialty character, and it is the specialty character that makes the kosher food industry an industry.

We may be thinking incorrectly of what really matters to the specialty food industry when we sell kosher food. What doesn’t matter is clear: the total number of products certified as kosher or the total dollar sales of products certified kosher or even the share of total food sales that are certified kosher.

What matters to the specialty food industry is those companies that have a “kosher state of mind” and, in the end, that revolves around companies that are selling Jewish ethnic food more than it revolves around kosher certification.

Sure, kosher certification is a necessary condition if one is to sell Jewish ethnic food, but it is not a sufficient condition. The type of food produced, the way it is marketed and merchandised, all change when the focus is going after a specific consumer.

And perhaps that word ‘consumer’ is the key to all specialty food definitions. An ingredient or characteristic cannot define specialty food products. They have to be defined in reference to a consumer. Perhaps the product is marketed to an upscale consumer, perhaps it is marketed to an ethnic group, and perhaps it is marketed as a regional specialty. Whatever the case, the specialty food industry needs to be aware that kosher can boom, even as specialty kosher shrinks away.