The letter U in a circle is the Orthodox Union's kosher seal of approval.
The letter U in a circle is the Orthodox Union's kosher seal of approval. Wilfredo Lee/AP
This week, high holiday preparations will begin in Jewish homes. As always, in Orthodox kitchens, that means kosher food. This very old way of eating has become a very new way of shopping — one that crosses religious lines.
It's more about fear than faith. The majority of shoppers who buy kosher products think the food is safer. Only about 15 percent of those who buy kosher food keep kosher. Another 10 percent — a lot of Muslims and Seventh Day Adventists — buy kosher products because they follow similar food rules.
After mad cow disease, peanut butter recalls and e-coli in spinach, shoppers want to know what’s in their food and where it comes from.
The same USDA standards apply to all food. But to be certified kosher, there are even more rules — religious ones. Even then it depends on the quality of the operation. A few years ago, what was then the biggest producer of kosher meat in the country was repeatedly cited by state and federal officials for food-safety violations and animal cruelty.
A capital D means a dairy product that has never been near meat.
A Quick Guide
Kosher, which means "fit" or "proper" in Yiddish, follows biblical references to unfit foods. No pork, rabbit, catfish, sturgeon, shellfish. No cheeseburgers — milk and meat can’t be eaten together.
Animals that can be eaten must be slaughtered a certain way: quickly, with a razor-sharp knife — a method Jewish tradition views as more humane.
The only way to know if food is kosher is to find a symbol of one of the many certifying groups, like the Orthodox Union's letter U in a circle, or Star-K Kosher's five-pointed star with a K inside.
Kosher rules help shoppers with food allergies, too. If you’re lactose intolerant, anything marked "pareve" is for you. That means there's no trace of meat or dairy. If there's a capital D on the package, it's a dairy product that has never been near meat. Many "Kosher-for-Passover" foods are made without wheat — perfect for those who need to avoid gluten.
The Koshering Of America
All of this, of course, presents a significant marketing opportunity.
Sales of certified kosher foods skyrocketed 64 percent between 2003 and 2008.
And it's gone far beyond borscht and matzo. Coke, Heinz ketchup, Cap'n Crunch, Budweiser — all kosher. One of the biggest moments in the koshering of America came in 1997 when the Oreo — originally made with lard — became kosher.
There’s even a book coming out next month called Kosher Nation.
Only a tiny percentage of Americans will observe the high holidays in synagogues. But plenty of non-Jews will be eating kosher.