From Oreo cookies to Diet Coke, and even some Subway and Dunkin’ Donut chains, today’s kosher-observant Jews have more options than their ancestors ever dreamed of. In her new book, “Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority” (Schocken), veteran journalist Sue Fishkoff, a contributing editor and national correspondent for JTA, investigates why almost half of all food sold in supermarkets today is kosher certified. Her book explores various kosher scandals, the emergence of kosher-certified plants in China looking to gain market share in the United States, the 2008 immigration and labor raid at the Agriprocessors kosher meat plant and the slow emergence of an environmentally conscious new kosher food movement. Fishkoff, who previously wrote “The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch,” discusses her new book and the journey it took her on.
Q: How long did it take you to research and write this book? Where did your research take you?
A: The full-time writing and research only took me a year and a half. I traveled across the country, went with mashgiachs into grape juice factories in Washington State, the Tropicana factory in Florida and even to Shanghai.
You talk a great deal in the book about how the majority of kosher food isn’t bought by kosher-observant Jews. Do you think this changes how companies create and market kosher products?
The vast majority of people who buy kosher foods aren’t even aware they’re buying kosher food. But in terms of the 11 to 12 million Americans who buy kosher food on purpose — most of whom are not Jewish — I think it does affect how foods are marketed. I think words like healthy and natural appeal to that market.
The book discusses kosher supervision from Chinese factories to New York restaurants and Napa Valley vineyards — was there anywhere you were stopped from going?
No. The hardest places to get into are slaughterhouses, but eventually I was able to get in. … I would have loved to go to the herring harvest, in Nova Scotia, and any of the fish runs, because you never know when the fish are going to come in.
You write that the “big four” kosher supervising agencies — the OU, Kof-K, Star-K and OK — control the “vast majority” of kosher products in this country. How much do you feel the politics of kosher plays a role in certification?
Well, the big four certify 80-85 percent of the kosher food that’s sold in this country. I would say that the competition between them is friendly but competitive. I think the real fighting is much more at the neighborhood level. Among the big four, they say they won’t certify a company that drops one of their competitors to come to them — that’s what they say, so there isn’t any blatant [client] stealing going on.
Do you think the eco-kosher movement that is developing today would have happened without the Agriprocessors scandal?
Eco-kashrut really emerged in the 1970s as a movement; the term was coined by Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi. And a decade ago it really started to flourish. Certainly and unfortunately the Agriprocessors scandal pushed it into the mainstream in a way that I don’t think would have happened without it.
How did the research and reporting of this book affect your own attitudes towards keeping kosher?
I’ve grown to appreciate the spirituality behind it and to appreciate the spiritual motivation of the men and women who are kosher supervisors. You always are going to find cheaters and charlatans in any business, but the mashgiachs that I met were always purely spiritually motivated and grossly underpaid, from the top executives to the field workers. After the slaughterhouses, I eat much less meat and I appreciate it much more.