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History Matters: The evolution of the kosher food industry

Courtesy Roger Horowitz

Delawarean and food historian Roger Horowitz knows a thing or two about food - including kosher foods.

The Director of Hagley Museum’s Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society recently penned the book, “Kosher USA – How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food.”

In it, he details kosher controversies surrounding popular mainstream products – from Coca-Cola to Jell-O to Oreos.

Listen to this story.

Since Coca-Cola’s kosher certification in 1935, the proliferation of ingredients involved in food manufacturing has led to what Horowitz calls an interesting combination of science, production engineering and kosher law.


“Which is a very curious combination, because kosher law is rooted in antiquity, and the Torah and the Talmud - literally going back two or three thousand years," Horowitz said. "Modern science is secular, it’s very recent.”


Horowitz says Rabbis were – and still are - the ones holding companies accountable for the inclusion of kosher ingredients in their products.


“In this way, these Rabbis really become production consultants – they go far beyond simply being inspectors," Horowitz said. "They end up being advisors, if you will – investigators of how firms can find the kinds of ingredients that will make their products kosher.”


Horowitz says the number of kosher-certified products spiked in the 1990s, and 30-40% of the products manufactured today carry the certification.


Horowitz says food manufacturers are continuously using kosher standards to appeal to non-Jewish consumers.


“Consumers who are lactose intolerant, i.e. they’re concerned about milk allergies, consumers who are vegetarians, consumers who are Muslims are using these Kosher symbols to get information about what’s in their foods in a reliable manner," he said.


Horowitz says market research conducted in the late 1980s found that only one in four consumer who looks for kosher symbols was an observant Jew.


He calls companies’ desire to make more products kosher-certified the “food chain effect,” because of the ingredient changes needed during the manufacturing process to make products kosher-friendly.


Today what’s called the Universal Kosher Database catalogs over 700,000 kosher-friendly ingredients.

Horowitz has written more about food in books “Negro and White, Unite and Fight: A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking,” and “Putting Meat on the American Table: Taste, Technology and Transformation.”



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