Once upon a time, Oreo cookies were made with lard. For many years, lard, made from the rendered fat of a pig, was used as a cooking fat, until vegetable shortening made its appearance in the 20th century. Lard is what makes fried chicken taste so darn good; it also does wonders for a flaky pie crust. But lard is also strictly forbidden in Jewish cuisine. Eating pork products is not condoned by Jewish dietary laws, called kashrut. In other words, lard is not kosher, meaning Oreos weren’t either.
The road that Nabisco took to make Oreo cookies a kosher-certified product was an expensive one that took three years. By 1997, they were officially certified by the Orthodox Union (OU), the largest kosher certification agency in the world. Today, they join millions of other products at grocery stores around the country with a tiny “U” symbol on the package.
The Pew Research Center estimated that in 2020, there are 7.5 million people in the United States who identify as Jewish. That’s only 2.4% of the total US population. Why, then, should a company go kosher? The answer lies in what being kosher represents, an identity that is not limited to the bounds of religion.
Walk along the aisles at your local grocery store and pick out ten items at random. Chances are, four of them are certified kosher, marked by either a “U” or a “K” symbol encased in a circle. The symbols are so small that unless you’re looking for them, you might not see them—but their presence can mean everything. It indicates that a company has gone through the process of being certified kosher, though thankfully that process doesn’t always take years as it did for Oreos.
For a product to be kosher, it has to be entirely kosher. Kosher comes from the word kasher, which means “fit” or “proper” for a Jewish person to eat. Keeping kosher means adhering to Jewish dietary laws that were determined thousands of years ago. That includes keeping dairy and meat separate at all times, eating only certain types of mammals and a limited number of birds and poultry, and staying away from blood and other parts of the animal, as well as any insects and reptiles.
Once a standard aspect of Jewish culture and cuisine, kosher food now carries the mark of quality and healthiness, of purity and high standards, across a range of consumer demographics. It’s a choice that many can make, even if they’re not adherents of the Jewish faith. Kosher-certified products are also for those who observe other religions; Muslims, for example, who cannot find halal meat can go the kosher route. Those with particular allergies (such as lactose intolerance) and followers of specific diets like veganism can also find suitable alternatives in kosher products.
For most of our history, food was produced and consumed locally. Thus, it was easier for people to determine whether or not something was kosher. Technological advances in industrial food production changed all of that as more and more food became produced in factories thousands of miles away.
“Today we live in a global community,” said Rabbi Chaim Fogelman of the Jewish Learning Institute. “Products can start in one continent and be shipped to another part of the world.” The result? More ingredients are in nearly product purchased today. Many of those ingredients are preservatives used to extend a product’s shelf life.
Kosher food is a $24 billion industry, with a healthy 15% annual growth rate. Having a mark of quality on a product means that consumers are better equipped to make choices relevant to their diet, but it also gives the company a competitive edge to compete with those products who aren’t certified kosher. Simply put, kosher certification widens a brand’s potential customer base.
Becoming certified kosher takes about to four to six weeks, according to OK Kosher, a kosher certification agency. (This timeline may differ with other organizations and circumstances). While there are hundreds of certification agencies around the world, OK Kosher and the OU are the two biggest ones. The OU has thus far certified over 1.2 million products in over 105 countries from around the world. It provides the “OU” symbol, while OK Kosher provides the “K” symbol on product packaging.
The process involves a lengthy application and fees paid to the certification agency, followed by a comprehensive evaluation of the facility’s raw materials and equipment. If the equipment has previously been used to produce non-kosher goods, it must be fully sanitized; as OK says in its certification materials, “This can entail one or more of several procedures such as boiling, sanitizing or running with use of a bittering agent.”
A Rabbinical Coordinator (RC) assigned by the agency oversees the certification process at each facility. The RC visits the production site to observe changes and make any appropriate recommendations if necessary—even the way items are transported to and from a kosher facility must adhere to proper standards. Like any health and safety inspection, site visits from either the RC or a certified professional in the area might happen without warning, to check that the facility is continuing to comply with dietary laws.
Some items, such as pork and lobster, cannot be certified kosher no matter what procedures are adopted to produce it. For those items that are able to be made kosher, dairy and meat must always remain separate at the facility, potentially requiring some companies to reconfigure production lines. Dairy itself involves a secondary, even more rigorous oversight from the RC.
Finally, when everything is deemed kosher, the company receives a contract and approval to print the “OU” or “K” symbol on their products. As a consumer, all of this has happened behind the scenes; you need only look for that little symbol, the symbol that changes everything, the next time you shop.