Having grown up in a religiously observant Jewish home in the 1960s and 70s, Jeff Jacoby remembers that such commonplace packaged foods as Oreo cookies and Sara Lee cakes were off-limits, since it was impossible to know if they were kosher. Now these are among the many items—40 percent of all packaged food and drinks sold in the U.S.—that bear kosher certification. Jacoby reflects on the radical expansion of what he calls “the kosher-industrial complex” in his own lifetime:
America has undergone a kosher revolution. It wasn’t all that long ago that demand for kosher food was restricted to a tiny niche of the public—Jews amount to less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, and only a minority of Jews keep kosher. . . . The first company to [receive rabbinic supervision] was Heinz, whose canned vegetarian beans began carrying kosher certification in 1923—a distinction the company played up in advertising targeted to Jews. But other companies were slow to follow suit. In 1945, the OU’s kosher symbol appeared on just 184 products made by 37 companies; by 1961, that had grown to 1,830 products from 359 companies—still a mere drop in the food-industry bucket.
Gradually, though, market demand for kosher food was spreading beyond observant Jews. Vegetarians began to see kosher certification on a dairy product as a guarantee that it contained no animal byproducts whatsoever. Muslims, for whom pigs are anathema, learned that the kosher symbol on a package meant there was no pork or lard inside. Other consumers came to associate kashrut with a higher level of purity than U.S. law mandates. . . .
With kosher food as with so many other things, where there is a need, a free market will satisfy it. In the rise of the kosher-industrial complex, all parties have come out ahead. It has generated a vast array of formerly inaccessible options for a small religious minority. It has enabled a key industry to meet a growing market demand and reap billions of dollars in revenue. It has enriched contemporary American culture with one of the most ancient food traditions of all. And it has done it all not through top-down coercion, but through voluntary private cooperation.
What could be more quintessentially American?