In a sign of the growing influence of haredi consumers in the United States, Empire Kosher Poultry, regarded as the nation’s largest producer of kosher poultry, has added a second kashrut supervising agency, one more accepted by fervently Orthodox consumers.
Empire, trying to increase its dwindling market share, this week announced that it will be offering poultry products with the KAJ label of the K’hal Adath Jeshurun supervising agency in addition to the Orthodox Union’s OU label, which Empire has carried for some 40 years.
KAJ, affiliated with the Breuer’s community of Orthodox Jews from German backgrounds, is more acceptable in the growing number of haredi households.
“This is going to be a big, big, big deal,” said Rabbi Yosef Wikler, editor of the Brooklyn-based Kashrus magazine. “This product will be used in more kosher homes than ever before.”
Empire’s decision is part of a recent trend in the Orthodox community toward supervision regarded as conforming to higher standards, including the replacement of supervising agencies with more-haredi ones, and the adoption of dual-certification on many products.
Hebrew National, a major purveyor of kosher products, last year replaced its in-house supervision with the independent Triangle K kashrut organization.
Robert Van Naarden, CEO of Empire Kosher, said the KAJ label is “an addition, not a change. OU is still there.”
Empire, a privately owned company, does not reveal its sales figures, but “over the past 10 to 12 years there has been some decline in market share — a decline that has ended in recent years”, Van Naarden said. “There are more kosher poultry manufacturers in the United States than there were 10 to 12 years ago.”
Van Naarden said Empire added the KAJ supervision to reach “some segments [of the kosher market] that for some reason will not eat our product.”
He added, “We see an expansion of the kosher market, especially in the right wing of the Orthodox community.”
Rabbi Wikler said that “Empire definitely has lost market share” and that the firm made the move as part of an ongoing effort to reclaim its once-dominant place in kosher homes.
“It is not the granting of the KAJ certification that is significant here,” said Rabbi Wikler, but rather the “recognition … that Empire products [have] upgraded to [standards acceptable to] a wider audience.”
Rabbi Wikler said the Empire plant in Mifflintown, Pa., has been conducting an ongoing campaign to raise its standards.
“Empire was ready for this move,” he said. “This step is a crowning achievement in their efforts.”
KAJ kashrut experts have visited the Empire plant for several months, and began sharing supervisory responsibilities with OU personnel this week, said Rabbi Moshe Zvi Edelstein, KAJ kashrut administrator. “We authorized them to print the [dual-certification] labels.”
“We are working in conjunction with the OU,” said Rabbi Edelstein, declining to name specific changes in OU procedures that the KAJ will institute. “We will look through all the procedures, and implement changes when and if found necessary.”
In adding the KAJ to the OU symbol, Empire has adopted the dual-certification practice of the half-dozen other poultry firms in the United States and Canada, said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the OU’s rabbinic administrator.
OU jointly supervises kashrut with KAJ or chasidic agencies at the other firms, Rabbi Genack said. In addition, several other kosher products, especially those made for Passover consumption, bear the symbols of several supervising agencies, many of them from Israel.
“It’s only unusual in the sense that it’s new” at Empire, the brand best known to most kosher consumers in the U.S., Rabbi Genack said.
The Empire decision, which was done for “marketing considerations,” is “effective immediately,” and will enable Empire to “reach other communities” that are more comfortable with the supervision of KAJ and other smaller-scale agencies that are geared to the haredi community.
“The KAJ is well respected,” Rabbi Genack said.
The OU, which bills itself on its Web site as “by far the largest of the kosher certification agencies — and by far the most extensive in its global reach,” is in charge of supervision at about 6,000 plants in 77 countries, Rabbi Genack said. Its 50 administrative rabbis and “hundreds [of supervisors] in the field” supervise some 300,000 products.
“My guess is that it is at least 200 times as big as Breuer’s,” Rabbi Wikler said.
The OU has served as the sole kashrut supervisor at the Mifflintown plant.
While “Empire has abided by the OU standards for many, many years — obviously the product has always been kosher certified,” Rabbi Wikler said, “The Breuer’s community had enjoyed a reputation in the haredi world and in the chasidic world as specialized in mehadrin [strict] standards.”
Mehadrin usually refers, in the area of meat or poultry products, to glatt supervision and inspection standards required by haredi consumers.
“The OU represents the standard of kashrut in America,” Rabbi Wikler said. “But you can have more exacting standards in any industry.”