By Sylvain Charlebois,
Director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab, Dalhousie University
Canada’s largest kosher meat plants have had their licenses suspended, as we have recently learned from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Ryding-Regency Meat Packers, a Toronto-based company, has been in operation since 1983. This, of course, could spell trouble for the consumers who regularly buy kosher meat products, and for the Jewish community.
Ryding-Regency, which also operates under other names, had its license suspended mid-September for “non-compliances related to control measures,” according to the CFIA. The federal agency did not release any more information and we still don’t know what happened, but this shutdown could put pressure on kosher supplies. More worrisome, kosher is all about trust, belief, and authenticity. Historically, the sector has been affected by fraudulent behaviour and mislabeling practices, which is why many certification bodies exist now, making sure companies remain in compliance.
For kosher neophytes, the word means “acceptable,” and is based on writings in the Bible and in other Jewish legal works. The kosher diet restricts the consumption of certain animals, such as pigs, rabbits, shellfish, and insects. Kosher meat from acceptable animals must be slaughtered according to strict protocols, and by a trained butcher or “shochet.” Practices prohibit causing pain to animals. Other rules also apply. Milk and meat products must never be mixed. Also, certain food products must be prepared either in whole or in part by Jews. This includes products like wine and cheese. Rules are typically rigorous and quite strict. In foodservice, very rarely will kosher-observant restaurants get fined by a city for not complying to food safety rules. In fact, some restaurant owners typically do not have access to their own fridge. Access is controlled.
Kosher certification is a serious matter, and Canadian courts have upheld kosher standards in the past. In January of this year, an Ontario judge ordered a company to pay a fine of $25,000 for not following trademark rules. The cake mix company, Adee Flour Mills, was accused of causing “spiritual trauma” by not adhering to strict kosher rules, even though they were certified by the largest certification body in the country, the Kashruth Council of Canada. This case marked the first time the CFIA had proceeded with a case of misrepresentation of a kosher-certified food product. Consequently, we now know the CFIA is watching.
The market for kosher products in Canada is fascinating. According to a recent survey, there are 1.5 million Canadians who buy kosher regularly. In fact, more than 3.5 million non-Jews in Canada buy kosher products. That’s the equivalent of the population of Montreal. The kosher market in Canada has expanded by more than 10 per cent over the last year, and kosher products can be found everywhere. More than 195,000 kosher products are available to Canadians, and almost one company a week in Canada becomes kosher certified. The kosher market in Canada exceeds that of gluten-free products. The city of Ottawa even held a kosher meat cook-off recently, a first in the country.
In an era in which food fraud is becoming an issue for a growing number of consumers, kosher products have become synonymous with trust and legitimacy. Faith-based certification and other credence labels, including organic, and fair trade, suggest heightened emphasis on care and rigour. Many will buy these products as a result of their trust in the embedded process and what it signifies. Kosher certification goes beyond just food safety or dietary regimes. Its symbolic and religious virtues are critical to the currency of this category. A simple recall can jeopardize any perception of the degree of reliability of the process. And the Ryding-Regency case is not just a recall but a complete shutdown. Gutsy move from the CFIA, which does not bode well for the category. The CFIA appears to be more active and willing to support certification agencies and preserve the integrity of the entire kosher system. This is long overdue.
Again, causes for the Ryding-Regency shutdown are unknown, so it would be premature to make any conclusive statements at this time. But the shutdown can potentially be detrimental to the kosher market in Canada. Let’s hope the situation gets resolved soon, or else more kosher products in Canada will need to be imported, in order to respond to a growing domestic demand.