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Adapted from an address presented at the symposium on Global Kashrus at the 1997 Food International Europe, November 6, 1997 and reprinted with permission of the author.
 
HOW TO CHOOSE A KOSHER CERTIFICATION

 
by Dr. Avrom Pollak, President , STAR-K KOSHER CERTIFICATION,
122 Slade Avenue, Suite 300, Baltimore, MD 21208
 

Many of you here this afternoon are already fully aware that kosher certification can offer your company a distinct sales advantage. Numerous market studies have demonstrated that consumers will most often select a product with a kosher certification over a similar item that is not certified. Furthermore, these same studies reveal that kosher certification is considered a plus among a wide spectrum of consumers both Jewish and non-Jewish.

There are many factors responsible for the explosive growth in kosher certified products, and many reasons why kosher consumers have an influence in the market place that goes way beyond their actual numbers. This is particularly true in the United States with its huge supermarket chains that strive to have the same items in all of their stores all serviced from one regional warehouse. In recent years Europe has experienced a dramatic increase in the demand for kosher, while in Australia, the interest in kosher is just beginning to become popular. If you are planning to export products to Israel then certification is an absolute necessity.

Assuming that your company has done some market research and determined that it would probably benefit by acquiring a kosher certification, how does one go about selecting the right kosher certification that will satisfy your company's particular needs? Unless you are a local retail establishment whose kosher certification needs are best satisfied by the local rabbinical council, you are about to undergo a bewildering journey of trying to compare the merits of several different certifications. They are certainly not all identical to each other!

In today's brief talk I would simply like to familiarize you with the kinds of questions you should be asking a prospective certification agency. It is most important that you go about this process in the same manner that you choose an attorney, financial consultant or a key employee. In short, do your homework! Asking the right questions and exploring all the options available in kosher certification may very likely spare your company an experience that can turn out to be a very unpleasant and expensive mistake.

Before you begin the task of interviewing and studying the pros and cons of individual certification agencies ( the same is true even if you already have a certification and would like to consider a change) you need to understand that a reputable organization will not certify your company's products based solely on their trust of your company. Among many other things, the kosher certification agency requires plant visitations, extensive review of formulas and equipment, and knowing the sources of your raw ingredients. They will also insist on the right to audit documents pertaining to kosher matters. Expecting the kosher agency to issue a certification based on "trust" is unrealistic. In fact, if an individual Rabbi or agency offers a certification based only on written communications you ought to immediately suspect that such a certification is unlikely to grant you broad acceptability, since other reputable agencies will be unlikely to recognize the validity of such a certification. This in turn is likely to force you into starting the whole procedure of obtaining a certification all over again. Obviously, an unwelcome exercise!

How does one determine the level of acceptability of a certification? The best way to begin is by asking your customers, distributors, or companies selling products similar to yours what their experiences are with a particular certification. Also try contacting local Rabbinical groups in several different cities where you are already selling your product or hope to do so in the future. A Rabbi responsible for kashruth in his own city will easily be able to tell you which certifications are most popular among his congregants. Any kosher certification agency should easily be able to supply you with the name and phone number of individuals who are responsible for kashruth in any given local area. You should be aware that customer preferences may not be the same in different geographical areas, and kosher consumers in one American or European city may not accept the certification of another local Rabbinical group. In such cases you are best served by seeking a certification agency that is national or international in scope and that is likely to give you worldwide acceptance. Even with a reputable international agency do not expect 100% acceptability as there will always be some small groups insisting on their own local rabbi's certification. Another factor to consider is whether the certification is likely to be accepted by Moslem, 7th Day Adventist or Vegetarian groups who regularly look for kosher certification before making a purchase.

Along with acceptability you should be equally concerned about the level of service provided by the agency under consideration. How quickly can they respond to your needs? If you are a flavor company and your customer is requiring posthaste a kosher certified flavor, does the agency have adequate and sufficient staff to provide assistance on very short notice? If you are having difficulty obtaining a kosher certified raw ingredient does the agency have the resources to help you locate an acceptable source for this ingredient? If information regarding the kosher status of an ingredient sourced from a distant location needs verification does the agency have experts in kashruth all over the world who can easily do a plant inspection? Or do they always seem to demand, at considerable expense and delay in time, to visit the distant manufacturing plant themselves?

If your customer has a problem with the kosher status of an ingredient that you are selling will the agency offer to contact your customer's certifying rabbi to resolve any misunderstandings or otherwise seek to assure that your product meets all of your customer's kosher specifications? When you call with a question or you submit a new ingredient for approval do you get a response in a reasonable amount of time? Is the agency willing to help with marketing suggestions on how to best target kosher consumers with your newly certified product, or to suggest names of distributors familiar with the kosher market? These are the types of pointed questions you should be asking to determine if the agency is really serious about servicing the companies it certifies. Ask the rabbi for a list of all the companies under certification by this particular agency. Then, make some phone calls to determine if other companies have been satisfied with the level of service they have received.

It is also imperative that you make inquiries regarding the level of expertise and knowledge that the various agencies have about your particular industry. For example, if you are producing a food chemical such as citric acid or an amino acid be sure that the Rabbi making the initial plant visit is familiar with industrial fermentations. Otherwise, his lack of understanding will almost certainly interfere with a smooth trouble-free certification. Likewise, Rabbis offering certification for dairies, beverage plants, bakeries, canning operations, etc. need to have a basic understanding of the technology and systems commonly used in each of these industries. I have often observed certain individual rabbis erroneously preventing companies under their kosher certification from employing certain new procedures or from using previously unapproved raw ingredients. Often this was due to their own inability to comprehend and determine that these new procedures do not affect the kosher status of the final product.

One issue which may not be so obvious when first negotiating terms of kosher certification, but can be a very serious concern later on, is your need to know in advance if your raw ingredient suppliers will require kosher certification, and if they do, will their present certification that they may already have, be acceptable. Although in most instances reputable agencies accept the certifications of other reputable agencies there are a disturbing number of exceptions to this rule and you should be forewarned if one of your suppliers is going to present a problem.

You have a right to expect a certification agency to be perfectly candid and to offer a rational explanation if they reject any of your suppliers. If they fail to provide you with a convincing explanation, it may very well be your signal to begin looking elsewhere.

With respect to fees charged for kosher supervision there is some very significant differences even between the large and well-known agencies. Making sure that you fully understand a particular agency's fee structure is worth the time and effort spent acquiring this information. It is not a bad idea to get quotes from several different agencies. Ask in advance about annual fee charges, travel reimbursement, per diem charges, if applicable, and initial inspection charges. I am strongly against the practice of companies paying kosher certification based on the volume of sales. In my opinion the certification agency in effect becomes your partner and thus they have no business certifying themselves. If the fees quoted seem unreasonable try using your negotiating skills, as many agencies are willing in some circumstances to reduce their regular charges for a period of time. This may allow your company to test the kosher market and make a final determination if kosher certification is in your company's best interest.

In summary, I wish to stress once again the importance of doing the necessary homework and being sure that before you engage a kosher certification agency you understand both the positive and negative aspects of that agency. If you are about to sign on the dotted line and you have the feeling that you are now about to become a member of their family and that they will be there working for you, you have probably made the right choice.


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