Kosher competition

Greed, profiteering and fraud are no strangers to the kosher supervision business.

gefilte fish 311 (photo credit: Bob Fila/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
gefilte fish 311
(photo credit: Bob Fila/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
In the memorable phrasing of a 1972 Hebrew national hot dog TV ad campaign in the US, kosher food “answers to a higher authority.” But, unfortunately, the reality is sometimes more mundane.
Greed, profiteering and fraud are no strangers to the kosher supervision business. While keeping kosher might be a mitzva, setting up the apparatus to provide consumers and restaurant-goers with food that meets Orthodox standards is generally driven by a desire to make money. As in any business, there are straight and crooked characters.
In what appears to be a sincere effort to improve the way the supervision is performed, a group of Jerusalemites – restaurateurs, rabbis and activists – have banded together to break the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over it. Restaurants that serve a religious clientele – but are not certified by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel – are independently keeping kosher.
Last Friday afternoon, Carousela, a cafe in the capital’s Rehavia neighborhood, hosted an event supporting restaurants that serve kosher food but refuse to receive official kosher certification from the Chief Rabbinate.
The event was organized by HaTenua HaYerushalmit – The Jerusalemite Movement social action organization.
In some cases, the break with the Chief Rabbinate came as the result of dissatisfaction with the services it provides. The rabbinate’s kashrut supervisors, who receive hundreds – sometimes thousands – of shekels a month – rarely came to make inspections, restaurant owners said. When they did arrive the examination was cursory.
In other cases, restaurateurs complained that the supervisors’ knowledge of the laws was lacking or that they behaved inappropriately when on the premises.
In an investigative report that appeared recently in Makor Rishon, it was found that in several cases the Chief Rabbinate declined to take away a restaurant’s kashrut certificate even after non-kosher food was found on the premises.
All these allegations seem to point to a rabbinate riddled with inefficiencies, substandard personnel and, perhaps, corruption.
Complicating the situation is the fact that the Chief Rabbinate has no incentive to change. That is because it has a monopoly over kosher supervision that is enshrined in law. The 1983 Kosher Fraud Law makes it a crime to advertise a food item or a restaurant as “kosher” unless the Chief Rabbinate provides certification to that effect. A restaurant that is unhappy with the services provided by the Chief Rabbinate cannot simply abandon it and turn to another kashrut supervision operation. Its only option is to pay more to supplement the supervision provided by the Chief Rabbinate with an additional supervision apparatus such as Badatz or Beit Yosef. The capitalist forces of free competition that exist, say, in the US kosher supervision market, are nonexistent in Israel.
The best solution to this situation is to break the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over kashrut supervision and adopt the sort of model that exists in the US.
Instead of entrusting the Chief Rabbinate with both providing kashrut supervision and enforcing kashrut fraud laws – which creates inherent conflicts of interest – a state-run, secular consumer protection agency should be responsible for enforcing kashrut fraud laws.
It is generally accepted among consumers that “kosher” refers to undisputed Orthodox Jewish standards regarding food preparation. Any restaurateur or food producer who tries to sell food as kosher without meeting consumers’ expectations would be in violation of the law and subject to fines. Adopting such a model would open up the supervision market to competition. Restaurant owners and food producers dissatisfied with one supervisor would have the option of switching to another. Kashrut supervisors interested in maintaining clientele would be forced to provide high-quality services at competitive prices.
Kashrut supervisors may or may not answer to a higher authority. But the introduction of competition will provide them with the much needed incentive to strive for excellence. We hope the resulting improvement in kashrut supervision will give the organized Jewish religion a better name.