At the same time the kosher food industry is experiencing record growth, the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division has undergone a major transformation as it keeps up with the burgeoning demand of companies seeking the organization’s well-known OU endorsement.
When he first became the rabbinic administrator of the kashrut department 19 years ago, Rabbi Menachem Genack said the Orthodox Union provided kosher supervision for about 750 food production plants. Today, that number has grown to more than 4,000 plants in 62 countries. In fact, one of its kosher inspectors, Rabbi Joseph Tirnauer, was caught in the earthquake in Turkey last month after he flew there from Israel to inspect a tuna fish plant. And another inspector, Rabbi David Thumin of Lakewood, N.J., died in a private plane crash Aug. 3 while flying to inspect tuna fish plants in Ecuador. “I now have a staff of 50 rabbinic coordinators and an equal number of secretaries and support staff,” he said, in addition to 300 to 400 full-time and part-time field inspectors. “We have also changed the nature of the operation,” said Rabbi Genack. “We used to have a lot of local rabbis working for us [to conduct plant inspections]. We eliminated a lot of them and hired full-time people who have industrial expertise. It is more expensive but it is a more effective way to handle it. The more plants you see, the more you develop a level of expertise that is hard to acquire on a part-time basis.”
Rabbi Moshe Elefant, the division’s executive rabbinic coordinator, said his organization now attracts an additional 400 to 500 food processing plants each year. “We now certify close to 200,000 products, including many ingredients that the consumer doesn’t see,” he said.
Once the Orthodox Union certifies a plant’s operation as kosher, Rabbi Elefant said, “we have regular unannounced visits” to ensure that nothing has changed.
Rabbi Genack said his organization provides kosher certification for twice as many companies as all of the other major kashrut agencies combined.
Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union, stressed that his organization does not solicit business. And he said the increasing number of companies seeking kosher certification from his organization has “given us greater visibility and recognition throughout the world.” He said the kashrut department has been modernized to keep up with the increasing number of companies requesting kosher certification and that the organization’s film department recently made a film that explains the work of the department.
Rabbi Elefant said companies are charged a fee based on several factors, including how often an inspection is required, how many ingredients the product contains and whether all of the ingredients are inherently kosher. In addition, the remoteness of the processing plant is taken into consideration.
“If there is a plant in Wyoming and we have to fly a rabbi there, the cost would be more than for a plant located in Brooklyn where there are plenty of rabbis,” he said.
Although Orthodox Union officials declined to say how much money the organization’s kashrut division earned each year, Rabbi Genack said “millions” are left after expenses to support the Orthodox Union’s programs.
“Every penny, over and above expenses, goes to our National Council on Synagogue Youth, Yachad, a project for the developmentally disabled, and another project for 1,000 Jewish deaf,” said Ganchrow.
Menachem Lubinsky, president of Integrated Marketing Communications, which specializes in kosher and Jewish markets and runs the annual kosher food trade show called Kosherfest —held next month at the Meadowlands — said an estimated $130 billion worth of kosher food was produced in the United States last year. That represented, he said, about one-third of all food manufactured here and is evidence of an “explosion in the food industry, in which companies are rushing to get kosher certification.”
In major cities, half of supermarket shelves may be filled with kosher products, Lubinsky noted. He said there are an estimated 10 million kosher consumers, 2 million of whom are Jewish.
“They represent a $4.5 billion market,” he observed. “Years ago, kosher food was reserved for kosher grocery stores or for a tiny shelf in the supermarket. Of the 30,000 supermarket stores in the United States, about 18,000 carry Manischewitz products and 5,000 have a designated kosher section.”