China takes on the specialty food market

By Seth Adam Grossman, China Today Staff Writer

There is an old joke that hints at the understanding two cultures joined through food have for each other: "If, according to the Jewish calendar, the year is 5770, and, according to the Chinese calendar, the year is 4707, what did the Jews eat on Sundays for those first 1,063 years?"

There has always been a great affinity between Jews and Chinese food. Chinese food is a staple of the Jewish community in the U.S. where it's often the traditional Christmas Eve dinner (mostly because they're the only restaurants open). But the connections run deeper than that between the Jews and Chinese, all the way back to the first and second millennia C.E. in China. Coincidentally, both the People's Republic of China and Israel [celebrated] their 60th anniversaries [in 2010].

New Markets Open Along Ancient Roads
By the 9th century the Silk Road trade route led to Jews settling in various parts of China. Today's world is even more interconnected, with China a leading manufacturer for almost every industry and with trade partners around the globe. It's little wonder that China would become the fastest-growing exporter of kosher goods on earth. Yes, China. The kosher food market represents around US$165 billion per year worldwide and much of it is produced here.

Kosher just might be the best known Judaic term. Jews and non-Jews alike, even if they know nothing about Judaism, are likely to have heard about kosher food. If you ask the average person what kosher means, the answers you will most likely hear are "Kosher means a Rabbi blessed the food," that "the food is very clean and sanitary," or "Kosher is part of the ancient Jewish health code." In fact, kosher is none of these. To sum up kosher in one sentence: "Kosher is a comprehensive dietary discipline designed to promote Jewish spirituality."

According to a 2007 report from the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, however, the world population of Jews is only around 13.2 million. This number is far less than the number of people in just one major city in China, and of those only around 3,000 live in China. Today there are only small pockets of Jewish people living full time in China and merely one kosher restaurant operating in Beijing. So how did the kosher food market get so big in light of such a relatively small market?

Overseeing the Certification
Almost all of the kosher food produced in China is slated for export, although more and more of the products, like additives, are being used domestically to produce the completed products for export. This figure has been estimated at close to US$1.25 billion in kosher certified exports annually worldwide. Its consumers are predominantly based in the United States and most are in fact non-Jews, simply people seeking healthy and safe products, according to a 2005 survey by Lubicom, a marketing firm specializing in research on kosher products.

Orthodox Jews in China have few places to buy the foods required by their diet outside of the Western supermarkets located in large cities. One such place – the Chabad in Beijing – is the base of Rabbis Shimon Freundlich and Nososn Rodian, both of whom are members of a small group of kosher certifiers, or mashgihim who travel back and forth across China on average three times a week. They are the only rabbinical team in China overseeing the 500 or so factories and plants that produce kosher products for export. The Chabad also serves as the temporary home of Beijing's only kosher restaurant. Dini's is named for Rabbi Shimon's wife, and it moved there when its previous spot was torn down to make way for some shiny new development.

Since the threat of contamination from non-kosher items is high, the factories must strictly be used for only kosher items and the rabbis must train them in the critical aspects of production. Factories that violate these rules can face fines or even [be] blacklisted by the certifying bodies.

Providing kosher supervision means paying strict attention to a product's components. Instead of conducting scientific health tests, kosher inspectors check a company's compliance with rules about its ingredients and preparation. Kosher certification costs US$3,000 to US$5,000 per year on average, with over 500 factories producing foods and additives sanctioned by the ancient dietary laws.

Often consumers tend to assume "kosher" is similar to "halal." Halal of course is a much larger market in China and the world at large, with its population of over 1.66 billion followers. Although the slaughtering rituals of Jewish people resemble those of Muslims, kosher and halal are two different concepts – different in meaning and spirit.

Examples of foods that could be considered kosher: the meat of the "fore quarter" of cattle or animals with split hoofs that chew their cuds (slaughtered ritually). Fish must have scales and fins to be kosher. So shark, no good…yes fins, but no scales, the same goes for rays of any kind, and eels as well. Wine is inherently kosher but it must be certified as kosher. Unlike beer and spirits, which are typically kosher and do not need certification, wine has a separately distinct set of kosher rules.

The opposite of kosher, as applied to food is treif or trefah, meaning "not suitable for use," or "forbidden." Trefah literally means, "torn by a wild beast." The concept forbids eating, cooking or torturing a live animal in anyway. Some foods that are considered trefah include: blood, swine, rabbit, all shellfish, and wild birds such as wild hen, wild duck. Many of these non-kosher foods are standard fare in China.

Canned, frozen and dried fruits and vegetables are the most common kosher products from China, but many chemical additives and finished products like candy and juice concentrate are also certified here. Large-scale food exhibitions cover a variety of products that include both kosher and halal. One trade show that brings these cultures and their food products together is the well-reputed FIC Food ingredients Asia-China show mounted in Shanghai every year that specifically covers additives with over 1,000 exhibitors from home and abroad and more than 70,000 professional visitors. It constitutes an industry summit and features academic conferences and technical seminars.

Is That Kosher?
The Hebrew word kosher means fit or proper as it relates to kosher dietary law, but for thousands of years, rabbinic scholars have been needed to interpret these laws and apply them to ever-evolving contemporary conditions.

Not so long ago, most food products were made in the family kitchen, or in small factory or community store, so it was relatively easy to ascertain if the product was reliably kosher. Today, industrialization, transcontinental shipping and mass production have created a situation where most of the foods we eat are treated, processed, cooked, canned or boxed commercially in industrial settings, which can be located hundreds or thousands of miles away from home.

Any kind of cuisine can be considered as kosher as long as it's made in accordance to Jewish law. What makes it complicated is that it is generally not possible for the average person to judge the kosher status of an item. Many ingredients can be kosher or non-kosher, depending on their source of origin. The product may be made from kosher ingredients, but processed on non-kosher equipment. Many ingredients are listed only in broad terms, with no breakdown of the many complex components that make up the actual item.

In Chinese factories where sweeping changes are required to make a product kosher, inspectors usually decline to certify. A huge emphasis is placed on sanitation and cleanliness and attention to how things are prepared, such as ensuring vegetables are clear of dirt and bugs and paying strict attention to a product's components. Rabbi Shimon explained his method for training some of the factories interested in koshering in that "they must think of it in terms of, say someone accidentally eating peanuts when they have a food allergy."

Health Benefits Attract Consumers
Food produced in a kosher manner is viewed as healthier, which is one reason for kosher food's popularity among non-Jews and in turn, its large market. Half of China's US$2.5 billion exports of food ingredients to the United States are kosher, up 150 percent from two years ago, according to Bloomberg News. Another attraction for customers is the way kosher meat is processed, since the slaughter of meat products must be sanitary. The kosher food business in China has enjoyed tremendous growth. [In] September [2010], following intense international publicity regarding tainted food products, Chinese regulators began requiring companies to use packaging codes to identify the factories of origin for products.

The Orthodox Union's China team of Rabbi Mordechai Grunberg, Rabbi Donneal Epstein and Zhu Yanan handle the OU's rapid growth in China. Many inspectors are flown in each year from the U.S. and Israel to handle the ever-expanding industry. China, now the second largest exporter in the world, is becoming the fastest growing supplier of food ingredients to international food corporations. So the relationship between the Jews and Chinese continues on its path, crossing bridges through cuisine.

Source:  China Today, Vol. 59, No. 12, December, 2010

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