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A Higher Authority : Overseeing the Kosher Boom

October 19, 1995|JOSEPH HANANIA

The executive administrator for the Kosher Overseers Assn. of America won't set foot in Europe because he thinks Europeans didn't do enough to avert the Holocaust, yet he drives a '62 Mercedes.

He tells a visitor not to bother buckling up, yet he speeds 70 m.p.h. in the fast lane, swerving across solid white lines so as not to miss a freeway exit.

He always wears a traditional Jewish skullcap, yet he likes to vary his appearance by sometimes wearing over it the white straw cowboy hat he recently picked up in China.

And though this rabbi recently told a reporter that only orthodox Jews are "real" Jews--that the members of the large reform and conservative branches are merely "going through the motions"--he has been criticized in the past for bucking mainstream orthodox thinking over what can and cannot be considered kosher.

Meet Rabbi I. Harold Sharfman, leader of one of a handful of national kosher certifying organizations, who has thus carved himself an increasingly prominent role in the food industry. For in these environmentally troubled times, kosher is no longer a niche market.

With little fanfare, an increasing number of national and international corporations have gone kosher, with combined sales of more than $3 billion. By far, most of the sales increase comes from health food fans and Christians, says Steve Walz, kosher editor for the Jewish Press. "They regard the kosher seal as the equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval," he says.

Muslims and Hindus, whose religious food requirements are similar to Jewish ones, make up much of the rest of the increase, says Sharfman, with Jews constituting less than a quarter of kosher sales.

Nor are kosher foods always the obvious picks. They range from See's Candies to Dole pineapples, from Ronzoni macaroni to Bazooka bubble gum, from Sunkist orange juice to Knudsen's dairy products. Kosher foods also include King's Hawaiian Bakery and Country Hearth corn bread; A & W Root Beer and Seven-Up; Pillsbury Dough and Campbell's Soups--as well as the drinks and snacks on American, Delta and Northwest Orient Airlines.

Even Thrifty Ice Cream is kosher. Silvia Geiger, quality control supervisor for Thrifty Ice Cream, says her Los Angeles division went kosher a year ago after many customers demanded it. Thrifty estimated it would lose about 20% of its ice cream business if it lost its certification.

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Because kosher standards are stricter than those of the FDA, kosher meats sell for a premium. Some merchants take advantage of the price difference to sell non-kosher meats as kosher, Sharfman says. The practice has become so widespread that more than a dozen states have made it illegal for merchants to falsely advertise their products as kosher.

All of this gives Sharfman's Kosher Overseers and other the many other natinoal and local kosher certifying organizations more than a little power. It's a power the organizations are not reluctant to use.

In 1990, a kosher meat inspector for the Rabbinical Council of California climbed into the dumpster behind a once-popular Westside kosher market and discovered a poultry box from a non-kosher supplier. The Rabbinical Council promptly shut down the business.

But Sharfman, who has been called a maverick rabbi, gave the controversial butcher shop the blessing it needed to reopen two months later, defying the ruling of the Rabbinical Council of which he is not a member. In response, the Rabbinical Council took out an ad in a local Jewish weekly declaring that the organization could not recommend the market. An informal boycott by orthodox Jews followed, and the market eventually closed for good three weeks later after Sharfman withdrew his independent certification.

Sharfman was criticized at the time for allowing the shop to reopen. But, he told The Times in 1990, "I did it not for money, but out of empathy, sympathy and compassion." And, he said at the time, he issued the certification as a temporary measure so the owner--who has since relocated to the Philadelphia area where he is successfully selling kosher meat--could stay in business while the Rabbinical Council reconsidered its decision.

Today, Sharfman is unapologetic for his action. "The RCC found certain boxes in the alley which contained non-kosher products," he says. "But these could have come from anywhere, not just from the store."

Sharfman says the market met all kosher requirements and was decertified the second time "for political and economic reasons."

"In my opinion, [closing the store] was not proper," he says. "We had full-time supervision. This was ostracism. This had nothing to do with kosher."

Rabbi Binyomin Lisbon, who was then head of the RCC, maintains however that the RCC revoked kosher certification because the market's meat was neither butchered nor prepared in the required manner, which includes salting, soaking, and deveining. Nevertheless, he said, Sharfman remains a member in good standing of the kosher certifying community.

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