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Mar. 24–Matzoh is back on display at the local supermarket, the sign of another high holiday on the Jewish calendar.
Grocers know observant and even not-so-active Jews want kosher foods for the two Seder meals that highlight the eight days of Passover, which starts Monday night. They stock up on foods that comply with the Kashrut, the ancient body of law that dictates how foods are to be stored, prepared and eaten.
But interest in kosher food isn’t limited to special seasons such as Passover, when the law says Jews should avoid all leavened foods. Non-Jews with dietary restrictions and consumers who want more inspection of the foods they eat are among those looking year-round for the kosher seal of approval.
Walk the aisles of a mainstream market, and you’ll see kosher certification symbols on hundreds of products, ranging from salsa and wasabi to boxes of macaroni and cheese. They’re evidence that kosher is second only to organic food when it comes to the fastest-growing food categories, market researcher Mintel International says.
About 2,000 products are added to the list of approved kosher foods each year, and the list already numbers more than 111,000. That popularity inspired Publix to create a 12-page list of the certified products it carries.
Tampa Rabbi Mendy Dubrowski, who is trained to inspect and certify kosher foods, says vegans and people who are intolerant of gluten or dairy are most likely to see a kosher symbol on products targeting their specialized diet. Passover foods, in particular, often are considered gluten-free.
Although kosher food is designed to “feed your spiritual diet,” about 50 percent to 60 percent of all supermarket foods today meet some level of kosher observance. The inventory is larger at specialty grocers such as Publix Greenwise or Whole Foods.
“They’re already catering to a certain niche; they figure they’ll go ahead with others. It’s a dollars and cents issue,” says Dubrowski, director of Chabad of South Tampa, a Jewish learning and activity center.
Foods deemed kosher must meet a strict set of rules, and there’s no wiggle room in the interpretation. For example, meat and dairy always are stored, prepared and eaten separately, and they require separate utensils and flatware. If rabbis inspecting kosher food factories find a violation, they have the authority to scrap the entire inventory and order the operation cleaned and purified.
“It’s not as simple as a blessing,” Dubrowski says.
It’s a difficult standard to maintain, says Ellen Goetz, who for 27 years has co-owned Jo-El’s Kosher Food with her husband, Joel. The St. Petersburg store is the only kosher butcher, deli and grocer on Florida’s west coast and has broadened its appeal to include people with food allergies, animal rights activists and Muslims who want to follow their own religious dietary laws.
Lois Gherman of Ocala says she has non-Jewish friends who use the kosher label to help them avoid certain ingredients. Although she will travel two hours to keep Kosher, her friends instead will search local supermarkets for clues, such as a “parve” label, which guarantees there are no meat or dairy ingredients in the product — a plus for people intolerant of such foods.
“They know to look for it,” she says.
The making of kosher meats is very stringent and involves far more than the widely known prohibition on pork. Only certain breeds of fowl and cuts of beef qualify as kosher, and the slaughter must happen by hand and more humanely than traditional factory methods. Blood also must be removed. Seafood is kosher only if it includes both fish and scales.
These practices appeal to people wary of industrial food manufacturing plants and the threat of contamination, says dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, author of “Read It Before You Eat It,” to be released this summer by Plume publishing. That’s because Jewish law is black and white, compared to, say, federal guidelines for certified natural and organic products.
“This is dealing with a much higher authority than the government,” says Taub-Dix, who co-authored “Kosher by Design Lightens Up,” with Susie Fishbein (ArtScroll/Shaar Press, $35.99).
The cookbook dismisses the idea that kosher applies only to certain foods, such as borsht or inexpensive Manischewitz wine. The variety is endless as long as it follows the laws and is approved by one of dozens of certified rabbinical groups or institutions, Taub-Dix says.
However, eating kosher is not cheap, especially when it comes to meat. A frozen kosher turkey at Publix Greenwise, for example, costs $2.79 a pound. The more conventional bird goes for $1.29 a pound. Kosher briskets, rib eyes and London broils also cost twice as much.
Dubrowski argues that in matters of faith, that’s a price he’s willing to pay.
“It becomes a part of you,” he says. “You are what you eat, after all.”
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