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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

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Parties quiet on change in Sobeys hechsher

Tags: Food
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Rabbi Avrom Pollak

Amid reports the Montreal Vaad Ha’ir has been in talks to put its MK hechsher on the kosher bakery, meat and deli sections of Sobeys’ store in Thornhill, Ont., none of the parties said to be involved would comment on the possibility of the MK expanding its presence in the Toronto area.

At a Feb. 20 press briefing in Montreal, the Vaad Ha’ir’s executive director, Rabbi Saul Emanuel, spoke about the MK’s proprietary kosher database and said his agency has been approached by companies across the country to supervise their products. Rabbi Emanuel would not confirm for The CJN whether Sobeys in Thornhill is one of these companies

A national spokesperson for Sobeys told The CJN that “Sobeys does not release or provide comment on any information regarding its current or pending business partnerships.”

The Kashruth Council of Canada, which currently supervises Sobeys’ Thornhill kosher flagship store under its COR hechsher, also had no comment on the possible incursion.

If the Montreal agency were to win the contract, Sobeys would be the first store or restaurant in the Toronto area to be supervised under the MK.

The MK hechsher already has a beachhead in the GTA. Since 2009, the MK has been found on airline meals originating from a kosher kitchen at Pearson International Airport. The facility was originally owned by Cara Operations Ltd., which sold its airline catering division’s Canadian operations to Gate Gourmet in 2010.

The Kashruth Council also has a local competitor in Badatz Toronto, which supervises a number of food manufacturers and one synagogue caterer.

Montreal’s Vaad Ha’ir is, apparently, not alone in its goal of expansion, as kashrut organizations race to gain worldwide market share among industrial food manufacturers. But when it comes to local caterers, restaurants and individual supermarkets, most consider them off-limits to outside agencies.

“We feel very strongly that that’s best served by local [kashrut] organizations,” said Rabbi Avrom Pollak, president of Baltimore-based Star-K Kosher Certification. “They are much more attuned to what is going on… than somebody trying to do it from a distance.”

Kashruth Council spokesperson Richard Rabkin agreed.

“A community is best served by its local kosher certifier,” he said, adding that his agency has been approached by retail establishments in other communities, but has thus far declined.

Competing standards would lead establishments to pick and choose “which rules suit them the best,” Rabbi Pollak said, thereby confusing consumers: “Can I eat there? Can’t I eat there?”

That’s in line with the thinking of the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a leading 20th-century halachic decisor, who suggested it was not proper for an outside rabbi to supervise within the jurisdiction of an established organization.

Rabbi Pollak emphasized that while a national kashrut agency might supervise a chain of supermarkets, a single store is more appropriately served by a local certifier.

“I’m not going to say there aren’t instances, individual rabbis, or even organizations who, for whatever reason, try to come in and certify an establishment. From my experience, this is a result of some other deep-seated rivalries or something else going on,” he said.

But “the vast majority of organizations would very strongly disapprove of such a thing.”

He added that “it’s certainly not for the benefit of kosher consumers,” and that Star-K, like the Kashruth Council, subsidizes local kashrut supervision using revenue from larger-scale industrial clients.

It’s unlikely that competing hechshers would drive down the cost of local supervision for non-industrial clients, he said. “If it is… cheaper, they’re only doing it to undercut the local organization and for some reason want to do it at a loss.”

In the manufacturing realm, however, competition is generally considered beneficial to consumers and manufacturers, Rabkin said.

The March 2013 list of new Star-K-supervised companies shows the agency will go anywhere and everywhere, including Guatemala (for fruit blends and purées), Spain (olives), India (herbal extracts), Sri Lanka (coconut products), and even the GTA, where Star-K supervises Krinos Foods olive oil, among other food products.

“There’s no rivalry, no turf warfare in any sense,” Rabbi Pollak said.

The Kashruth Council has also expanded over the last five years, Rabkin said, certifying manufacturers “not only in Canada but in the United States, Israel, Europe, South America and Asia.”

Rabbi Benjamin Lisbon of the Los Angeles-based Kosher Supervision of America said, “Many companies around the world are seeking a certifying agency that can position them into the marketplace.”

Unlike the Kashruth Council and Star-K, KSA doesn’t supervise local eateries or caterers at all. Created 20 years ago in response to “a tremendous call for more west-coast certification,” KSA today supervises companies worldwide. In Canada, the hechsher is most commonly seen on baked goods such as Ace Bakery baguettes and New Moon Kitchen cookies.

“Whether they export it to the U.S. or Israel… [clients want] a symbol that can bring them outside their own little community.”

Steven Bager of Toronto, who started Grain-Free JK Gourmet with his wife in 2001, wanted a hechsher that’s widely recognized in the United States.

He approached “probably half a dozen” agencies, including the Kashruth Council, Star-K, the Orthodox Union (OU) and KSA. The OU was probably best known, but also more expensive.

“We decided on KSA, because we wanted to have a broader impact than what COR could provide us,” Bager said.

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