TORONTO — Vegetarians and vegans here have often wished for the same reliable supervision that kosher consumers take for granted.
“Other parts of the world have had certification systems going back 10, 15 years,” says David Alexander, executive director of the Toronto Vegetarian Association (TVA). Now, at last, Canada has a vegetarian certification program run by COR, the kosher certifying agency of the Kashruth Council of Canada.
The Kashruth Council’s VegeCert symbol is a “companion symbol” that would either stand alone or be accompanied by a COR symbol, says Richard Rabkin, VegeCert’s managing director.
Several products already bear the logo, including Sweets from the Earth desserts and the Raw Foodz line of dressings and spreads.
Rabkin, who’s been with the Kashruth Council for a year and a half, says when he first came on board, he was startled to learn that according to some estimates, only 15 to 20 per cent of consumers looking for a kosher symbol are actually Jewish. Others are vegetarians, vegans, individuals eating kosher for religious reasons, and those seeking an additional measure of food quality and safety.
Rabkin realized it was time to find out how the COR could better serve this constituency. He was surprised by how much TVA leaders knew about kashrut.
“They were asking about all the differences between dairy, pareve, even D-E [a designation meaning a product is pareve, but produced on lines that have been used for dairy foods].”
Ultimately, the TVA sent out a survey to its members to gauge how receptive they’d be to a certifying agency and what standards they’d like to see as part of that certification. From that feedback emerged the VegeCert certification.
While many vegetarians have relied for years on kosher symbols, “not every single vegetarian knows about kosher,” Rabkin says.
Additionally, the new logo assures vegetarians that their unique needs – as identified by the survey – are being met.
Certifying vegetarian products is not exactly the same as kosher.
“Vegans may not necessarily be able to rely on [a kosher symbol] alone” because ingredients that are kosher, and even pareve, may not be suitable for those who avoid all animal products. Forbidden ingredients include eggs and, for many, honey.
Some vegetarians indicated that they rely on reading ingredient lists, yet Rabkin says that’s not enough, because dairy, egg and even insect ingredients (though not kosher) lurk behind chemical-sounding names and abstractions like “artificial colour.”
He hopes to maintain an ongoing relationship with the TVA to keep up with mainstream vegetarian and vegan standards.
Currently, several U.S organizations offer vegetarian certification, including the most widely recognized, Vegan Action (a heart with a V inside and the words “certified vegan”). But the VegeCert model differs in two major ways, Rabkin says.
“First, we give both certified vegetarian and certified vegan designations. Second, we make actual inspections, real-time in the facility.”
He adds that other organizations simply give approval to a list of ingredients, with a yearly review. “Our experience with the Kashruth Council of Canada is that it’s extremely important to make physical inspections of the facilities. You’ll never know what’s going on… unless there’s some sort of control mechanism in place.”
For vegetarians and those with food allergies, Alexander agrees that “an inspection process is a really helpful and reassuring thing… We have confidence [in the Kashruth Council] because of their track record.”
Rabkin says certification will mainly appeal to companies who are already kosher-certified. While vegetarian certification on products that are not kosher may be possible – it’s been approved in theory by a rabbinic advisory board – in practice, it’s unlikely.
“Why wouldn’t you want to open yourself up to the kosher market?” he asks.
Plus, the price might prove prohibitive. Once a business is kosher, “it’s very easy for us to make VegeCert inspections… the costs aren’t going to be that much more significant.”
Raw Foodz’ Sher Kopman is confident the new VegeCert Certified Vegan logo will extend her products’ reach beyond the Jewish community.
“Not everyone in the general population will really understand what the COR [hechsher] is,” she says, while the VegeCert logo, which joins existing COR and EcoCert (organic) symbols on her labels, reinforces “the thought and care about every ingredient that we put into our product line.”
Several COR-certified companies have already embraced the new symbol, which Kopman says she received for the first year at no charge as part of her company’s initial kosher certification.
TVA’s Alexander is looking forward to seeing more companies embrace the new logo. “It is useful not to have to read all the ingredients… a symbol can be really time-saving.”
While COR is the first kashrut organization in Canada offering vegetarian certification, Earth Kosher, a small New Jersey organization, does offer a joint kosher/vegan certification program. Another organization in L.A., Kosher Vegan Raw, certifies vegan raw and live foods.