MONTREAL — An unprecedented publicly funded collaboration between the federal government and kashrut authorities in Canada has identified overlaps in the work of mashgichim and inspectors from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) in their surveillance of kosher-certified companies.
Montreal’s Vaad Ha’ir, which is spearheading the Canadian Kosher Food Safety Initiative (CKFSI), will recommend better co-ordination between the two groups, when it makes its final report to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada at the project’s end on April 1, said Vaad executive director Rabbi Saul Emanuel.
The initiative was launched in November 2011 with a federal grant of more than $763,000. The aim was to ensure the highest level of food safety at all phases, from the raw materials, to the processing, distribution and retailing, by standardizing processes across the kashrut industry in Canada.
This is part of a wider food safety strategy undertaken by the government.
The goal was also to enhance the marketability, especially internationally, of kosher food from Canada by branding it as high quality and a desirable consumer choice, regardless of religious beliefs.
Rabbi Emanuel said the Vaad will propose ways of streamlining the two levels of inspection in ways that will reduce the costs, particularly to small and medium-sized businesses, and help them meet the increasingly stringent requirements for export, especially to the United States.
Participation in the CKFSI was voluntary, and Rabbi Emanuel said about 40 to 50 manufacturers agreed to be inspected for the project.
The other kashrut authorities that are partners to the project are British Columbia Kosher, Badatz Toronto and the Ottawa Vaad HaKashruth.
Rabbi Emanuel acknowledged that the mashgichim and CFIA inspectors are looking for different things, but there are areas of common concern, for example, verifying claims that products are lactose-free. The kashrut certifier has an interest in assuring that the product is pareve, that is, dairy-free, he said.
He emphasized that mashgichim can complement the work of the CFIA, which had its budget cut by the government last year, but they cannot replace its inspection.
“We cannot certify food safety,” Rabbi Emanuel said. “But we are going to the same places anyway, we are asking some of the same questions, so maybe there can be a correlation.”
One result of this collaboration is that CFIA is now issuing public alerts that a company’s products are not, say, pareve because traces of dairy were found in the assembly.
The initiative was also about responding to the “tremendous demand” from the food industry for kosher certification. More and more producers of foods consumed by the general market, many from outside Ontario and Quebec, are applying, he said.
He said these companies rightly view obtaining a kosher seal of approval as good business because the demand for kosher products has increased greatly in North America, mainly from non-Jews.
“We try as much as possible to help them. We never turn anyone away because they say they can’t afford it. We can usually come to some accommodation,” Rabbi Emanuel said.
He pointed to statistics showing that the number of kosher products in North America increased 64 per cent from 2003 to 2008 and is now a $12.5-billion industry.
The CKFSI update was given in response to questions at a briefing to invited Jewish media, convened by Larry Rosenthal, a board member of the Vaad and hosted by Ernie & Ellie’s Restaurant.
Rosenthal and Rabbi Emanuel’s aim is to counter what they believe are misconceptions about kashrut and the Vaad’s work, both inside and outside the Jewish community. One of the “myths” is that the Vaad is a clandestine, money-making enterprise that inflates prices and, among the Quebec public, that the cost of kashrut supervision is being borne by those who do not follow this religious practice.
Founded in 1922, the Vaad, also known as the Montreal Jewish Community Council, today employs 120 mashgichim and seven inspectors, who assess establishments applying for certification, and has 10 rabbis on its administration. Rabbi Emanuel said the staff continues to expand to meet the demands from industry.
Most of its services are available online now and information is computerized.
He said charges to food companies are reasonable and vary according to the product, the level of supervision needed and the distance travelled. (Vaad mashgichim fly to Toronto for two days a week to oversee the main abattoir in Canada for kosher slaughter of cattle.)
“The companies have to be educated about kashrut. Many think a rabbi just comes and says a blessing,” he said.
As for the charge that has repeatedly appeared in the French-language media that kashrut is increasing food costs for everyone, Rabbi Emanuel counters that what companies pay to the Vaad is spread over such volume as to be infinitesimal per unit, if that.
In fact, he believes no actual cost is passed on to the consumer because companies absorb it in their marketing budget. A hechsher is thought to attract new buyers.
As for the questions that have been raised in Quebec about the humaneness of kosher slaughter, Rabbi Emanuel responded that the Torah strictly prohibits animal cruelty.
“The edge of the knife used for slaughter cannot have the slightest blemish… It must be razor sharp,” he said. “And it must be one swift cut so the animal dies instantly.
“I go to a lot of slaughterhouses and see regular, halal and our slaughtering, and ours is humane as any.”
There is one small abattoir for beef in Quebec, and two for veal, he said.
Out of 100 animals killed, only 27 to 30 are deemed kosher, he added. “They are not sick. It is only that their lungs are not smooth – glatt – they have marks on them.” This meat goes to the non-kosher market.
The Vaad estimates that 20 to 25 per cent of Montreal Jews are strictly kosher, both in their home and outside, but is really not certain about that, Rabbi Emanuel said. “I wish someone would do a study.”
He believes the rate is decreasing overall because there are fewer kosher butcher shops than in the past.
The Vaad is also getting tougher on traditional kosher retailers like bakeries, and not only if they do not meet the letter of kashrut. If they are found by municipal inspectors to be in violation of standards, the Vaad will also give them a warning to “clean up in 24 hours or be closed down.”