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Trend Watch: Kosher market expands

Mainstream consumers view kosher certification as a quality indicator

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
By Lauren Kramer
January 01, 2007

For Harold Willner, executive VP of the Shindler Fish Co. in New York, the 10- to 20-percent cost increase for certifying 50 of his products kosher is well worth the price. "Kosher consumers are at least 50 percent of our buyers," he said. "If we had to remove our certification we'd see a significant drop in sales."

Today, the expanding kosher market represents an opportunity for seafood companies to distinguish their products from the competition.

A few decades ago, Kosher was a term used exclusively by those of the Jewish faith. Today it's become a household word in a marketplace where kosher products are sought out by the general public. Growing at an annual rate of 15 percent, according to Lubicom Marketing Consulting LLC in Brooklyn, N.Y., there are more than 92,000 kosher certified products with 3,000 added each year.

The kosher market appeals not only to Jews who observe the dietary rules of kashruth but also to vegetarians, lactose-intolerant consumers, Muslims, adherents of other religions and a growing number of mainstream consumers who believe that kosher means better quality.

To be considered kosher, fish must have fins and scales, and the scales must be easily removable without damaging the skin. Many seafood products are kosher, notably canned salmon and tuna and smoked fish, says Rabbi Chaim Goldberg, rabbinic coordinator at the Orthodox Union, the world's largest kosher-certifying agency.

"When it comes to breaded products however, kosher certification is either non-existent or the certification is unsatisfactory for many kosher-buying people," he says. Every ingredient used to bread fish adds another level of kosher requirement and supervision. A rabbi would need to be onsite pretty much all the time to certify breaded fish, says Goldberg.

Getting kosher certification for a product can be time consuming and expensive, particularly if non-kosher seafood products are processed at the same plant.

"Kosher certification can be given to products made in such a facility, but usually only during special productions under on-site rabbinic supervision," Goldberg says. But the advantages of obtaining kosher certification are considerable, particularly for products sold in large metropolitan areas.

"This past week I got an e-mail from a company in Canada sourcing frozen fish products from China," Goldberg says. "They had several stores interested in their product but [the buyers] would not consider it without the OU symbol. After completing the certification process, the product was sent off to stores and literally required restocking multiple times the first day. Was all the demand from kosher consumers? Maybe not, but the supermarket did carry similar products without kosher supervision, which did not experience the same level of demand."

One seafood product with particular demand for kosher certification is lox with the skin on, says Rabbi Avraham Feigelstock, who heads BC Kosher, a kosher-
certifying agency based in Vancouver, Canada.

"Lox with skin off there's a lot of, but a lot of orthodox Jewish communities today want the fish to maintain its skin to make the process of identifying the fish easier," he says. "There are Jewish communities in North America and beyond looking for this kind of product, but no one has agreed to do it."

Whether kosher consumers accept product with skin on or 
off is an orthodox tradition handed down from one generation 
to the next, says Willner of Shindler Fish.

Certifying a seafood product as kosher can be an arduous process, says Dr. Avrom Pollak, president of Star K, a certifying agency in Baltimore. "The reason is that we have to have a rabbinical supervisor present during production to identify every single fish and ensure that it's kosher," he says. "Each fish has to be visually examined before it is skinned and filleted."

Of course it's an expense for the companies. When you consider the salary and travel expenses for the supervisors who are there, particularly if the location is remote and the plant is running 24 hours a day, the costs can be high. But at the end of the day, it's really a marketing decision," says Pollak.

Shindler Fish has 50 products certified kosher by Star K, including fish sticks, fish portions, beer-battered fish and a line of raw fillets including orange roughy, among others. Due to the high cost of obtaining kosher certification, the company also carries a few products that aren't kosher certified, but that still constitute kosher species, to offset the more expensive kosher products. "There are different levels of keeping kosher - some consumers require greater levels of kosher supervision than others," Willner says.

BC Kosher has created higher standards in kosher-certified seafood by introducing Bishul Yisrael, a process whereby the supervising rabbi lights the fire that will cook the product, says Feigelstock.

"We have a reputation worldwide, and in some places they will only accept BC Kosher-certified seafood, because it is considered a higher standard," he says. "I remember a couple of years ago, a large chain store in Montreal ordered kosher canned salmon from one of the large producers in British Columbia. What they received was two truckloads of product without the BC Kosher certification, and the store refused to stock it and sent it right back."

Consumers are spending more on kosher products, some propelled by religious beliefs and others interpreting kosher certification as a higher quality product. Moreover, consumers are willing to pay for the assurance of kosher certification, making this an unbridled opportunity for seafood manufacturers that are willing to go the extra mile.

 

Contributing Editor Lauren Kra m er lives in British Columbia

 

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