In Judaism, we have kosher dietary laws governing what we can and cannot eat. These are based on several places in the Torah and based a whole lot more on Rabbinic interpretation of the Torah text – which is how we get from “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Ex. 23:19; Ex. 34:26; Deut. 14:21) to requiring separate dishes and separate silverware for meat and for dairy. I am oversimplifying both the laws of kashrut and the derivation of halacha (Jewish law) a lot.
Now, if you want to ensure that everything you eat is kosher, there are essentially two ways you could do this. One option is to prepare everything yourself, from start to finish, to ensure that it’s done properly. But if you don’t want to grow every grain, fruit, and vegetable, and if you don’t want to raise cattle, dairy cows, and chickens or go fishing, you can purchase products with a hechsher (kosher certification). This means that a kosher certification agency has gone into the food processing facility, inspected all the ingredients and processing are kosher, certified that the food item is kosher, and allowed the brand owner to use their kosher certification logo on packages of food that met the criteria.
There is clear demand for kosher certified products. The kosher food market was valued at $19.1 billion in 2018 and the global kosher food market is projected to reached $28.6 billion in 2028, so there is incentive for more food producers to seek kosher certification for their products. In a perfect world, this is exactly what the kosher certification agencies would do – make more reliably kosher products available through objective criteria and rigorous inspections and supply chain audits.
You have probably guessed this, but we do not live in a perfect world.
We live in a world where we have kosher certification agencies feuding with each other (yes, even in Canada, which I think of as more peaceful place than the USA), reports of extortion as documented in Kosher Nation by Sue Fishkoff, and instances of kosher certification being denied to otherwise kosher establishments due to the presence of sit-down seating (which could lead to men and women intermingling) or their name. (To be clear, many people denounce the politics of kosher certification agencies.)
I think the decision by the Orthodox Union (the largest kosher certifying agency, often abbreviated as “OU”) to not certify Impossible Pork because of the product’s name falls into the same category of kosher certification agency’s losing sight of the mission.
Impossible Pork and The OU
The news that OU won’t certify Impossible Pork is over a month old, but it still annoys me which is why I am writing this post. Times of Israel reports (bolding in all quotes is mine):
“The Impossible Pork, we didn’t give an ‘OU’ to it, not because it wasn’t kosher per se,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division. “It may indeed be completely in terms of its ingredients: If it’s completely plant-derived, it’s kosher. Just in terms of sensitivities to the consumer … it didn’t get it.”https://www.timesofisrael.com/worlds-largest-kosher-certifier-wont-endorse-impossible-pork/
The “sensitivities to the consumer” line makes me picture a stereotypical Chasidic man but clutching his pearls like an offended Victorian granny.
Reading further, it turns out that what Rabbi Genack really means is that their consumers are idiots:
But Genack said he and others at the OU recalled what happened when they once certified “bacon” that wasn’t made of pig.
“We still get deluged with calls from consumers who either don’t get it or they’re uncomfortable with it,” he said.https://www.timesofisrael.com/worlds-largest-kosher-certifier-wont-endorse-impossible-pork/
I have some sympathy for Rabbi Genack here. There have been times in my career when I have worked with our Customer Service team, and I can confirm that there are some deeply stupid customers out there. So I am sympathetic to the challenges of customer service dealing with confused customers.
I’ll even admit that the first time I saw kosher imitation bacon bits, I was pretty confused myself. Particularly because I was a naïve 10-year-old, and I was with my family at a Shabbat meal at the house of the Rabbi, who was not only known to keep kosher, but also to be a vegetarian.
So I did what every Jew is advised to do when they have a question about kashrut: I asked my local Rabbi (who, conveniently, was sitting right at the table) how this product could be. And he explained that the product was soy or some other plant-based miracle of food engineering and it was indeed kosher. Question answered! No need to contact the certification body.
Unfortunately, the OU seems to be making its decision based on the will of the idiot customers:
The OU certifies other products that might seem to conflict with Jewish dietary law, explaining on its website that “a fish sauce may display a picture of a non‐kosher fish, the OU may appear on artificial crab or pork, or there may be a recipe for a non‐kosher food item on the label.” It even certifies other products that aim to replicate the pork experience, such as Trader Joe’s “spicy porkless plant-based snack rinds.”
But ultimately agency officials decided that a product called “pork” just wouldn’t fly, Genack said.https://www.timesofisrael.com/worlds-largest-kosher-certifier-wont-endorse-impossible-pork/
That “‘pork’ just wouldn’t fly”? Is the OU now providing marketing consultation services in place of kashrut certification services? What happened to determining whether the food is kosher based on its ingredients and processing? Since when is it the OU’s role to help the marketing department decide whether a product name will be a hit with the kashrut-observant consumer?
The author interviewed two potential consumers deciding whether to try Impossible Pork:
For Held, the issues related to dietary law pale in comparison to the ick factor of consuming something that replicates one of Judaism’s strongest taboos — and even that isn’t enough to keep him away.
“The word pork is definitely a gross aversion to me,” he said. “But knowing it’s not [pork], I will try it.”
Rena Kates, an attorney in Baltimore, isn’t sure she will. Like Held, Kates keeps kosher and also uses ingredients, not an agency’s certification, as her guide for whether food is acceptable.
An avid consumer of plant-based meat products, she doesn’t think she can stomach Impossible Pork.
“I have this visceral reaction to it,” she said. “There is something about pork that is just triggering.”https://www.timesofisrael.com/worlds-largest-kosher-certifier-wont-endorse-impossible-pork/
Based on these customer quotes, the OU
Kosher Certification Marketing Consultation Agency may not be entirely wrong. But reading this, my immediate reaction is that the Times of Israel managed to pick the two least relevant people to interview for their “reaction of the customer” section:
- Neither of these consumers actually relies on a certification to determine whether or not they can eat something. Both customers are described as making the decision based on reading the ingredients.
- Neither of these consumers really answer the question of the importance of the name. Would these customers be totally fine with eating the exact same product labeled as “Impossible Por’k: Pork-Flavored Plant-Protein” instead of “Impossible Pork”? Or is it the very concept of the product that makes them uncomfortable, such that even if Impossible Pork decided to change their name and the OU decided to certify it, they still wouldn’t feel comfortable?
- Neither of these consumers really answer the question of whether the presence of kosher certification would change their feelings about this product. Would it make them more likely to try it, or would it make them lose respect for the OU because the product goes against their sensitivities?
It would have been a lot more interesting if the Times of Israel had interviewed one or more of the following:
- A consumer who relies on kosher certification who is saddened about the decision because he/she would like to try Impossible Pork.
- A consumer who relies on kosher certification who supports the OU’s decision because he/she thinks that a plant-based product named “pork” should not be certified and that if the OU were to certify it, he/she would no longer trust the OU’s certification.
- A consumer who relies on kosher certification who does not think that a plant-based imitation pork product should be certified at all, regardless of the name, and that if the OU were to certify it, he/she would no longer trust the OU’s certification.
The latter two are of particular interest to be because I don’t identify with this mindset at all and am struggling to understand it. I read David Tzvi Kalman’s piece on JTA which seems to suggest that kosher-certified imitation pork would be a break from tradition. I think the tradition argument would have merit if we were talking about a tradition that has taken on a Jewish law status, eg. no longer observing a second day of Yom Tov outside of Israel, or G-d forbid, a question of certifying actual meat-from-a-pig pork! But this isn’t pork; this is a vegetarian soy protein imitation pork substitute that won a blind taste test. Also, we already have fake bacon. Fake crab. On Passover, when we cannot have leavened products, we have kosher-for-Passover muffin mixes and pancake mixes made out of matza meal, and we have kosher-for-Passover cakes made out of potato starch. By the way, I’m not knocking any of these – I love mock crab and kosher-for-Passover cake. Kalman seems to equate kosher-certified fake pork with using electricity on Shabbat (a technological innovation that allows for doing something once forbidden) but I’m struggling to understand why fake pork needs to be treated so differently from any other already certified veggie meat or veggie seafood product. Why this is the line that can’t be crossed.
Even Rabbi Genack of the OU seems to think this is a stupid line:
It was that reaction, Genack said, that swayed the OU’s decision-making — though he said Impossible Pork came close to carrying the agency’s label, and still could one day.
“It could have gone either way, frankly,” Genack said. He added, “This is something which we absolutely would be willing to review in the future.”https://www.timesofisrael.com/worlds-largest-kosher-certifier-wont-endorse-impossible-pork/
I unsure if this makes me feel happy, that Impossible Pork could get certified, or dismay, that the decision is based so much on feelings rather than actual objective inspection and audit of the ingredients, processing, and supply chain to determine if the product is kosher. It’s not surprising that kosher consumers are making decisions on what is acceptable to eat based on the ingredients (as evidenced by the two people Times of Israel interviewed for the article) rather than the presence of a kosher certification symbol; it doesn’t sound like the OU is making decisions with any objective criteria either.
This means an impasse with Impossible Foods:
For Impossible Foods, the word “pork” is here to stay.
“While Impossible Pork was originally designed for Halal and Kosher certification, we aren’t moving forward with those certifications as we wish to continue to use the term ‘Pork’ in our product name,” an Impossible Foods spokesperson told JTA in an email.https://www.timesofisrael.com/worlds-largest-kosher-certifier-wont-endorse-impossible-pork/
This is actually a pretty considerable loss with potentially bigger implications than I think the OU appreciates. I’ve worked for companies that make consumer products. There have been times when we have pursued a third-party certification on our products. (Not food products in this instance and not kosher certification in my case, but similar concept.) Third-party certification is a time-consuming and expensive process, but if we feel it’s important to the consumer, it’s something that we’ve been willing to pursue. But if there was a possibility that the third-party certification agency wouldn’t certify our product, a product that otherwise meets the certification criteria, based on vague feelings around the product name, we’d be disinclined to work with the third-party certifier again. It would not surprise me if after their contract ends, if Impossible Foods decides to forgo OU kosher certification on other popular products, like Impossible Burger and Impossible Sausage. One would hope that Impossible Foods would find another kosher certification agency, but who knows. I don’t work there and can’t speak for them. This is pure conjecture and maybe Impossible Foods is happy to continue the relationship with the OU, in spite of the experience with Impossible Pork, because OU-certified Impossible Burger and Impossible Sausage have been so successful. I certainly hope I’m wrong.