What Happens When a Popular Brand has a Confusing Kosher Status
By Menachem Lubinsky, CEO Lubicom Marketing & Consulting
Imagine, you are shopping for groceries and your toddler is sitting politely in the cart. Suddenly you reach the snack aisle and a hand comes flying out to grab a candy bar. Your knee-jerk reaction is “that’s not kosher,” and that little hand lets go of the treat. But as you think about it you wonder; is it really not kosher? You remember when it was, but recently you read an alert that said that it wasn’t. With all of this back and forth, it seems like the best thing to do is just keep walking.
You are not alone. Despite the estimated 250,000 kosher certified items on the market, there are some that seem to bounce around like a Yo-Yo; kosher, not kosher, maybe kosher? It was 10 years ago that the Orthodox Union (OU) sent out a warning that the popular Skittles candy carried an unauthorized OU symbol. As late as 2016, the KLBD or London Beit Din said that Skittles were not kosher with the exception of a special kosher run that was made for Israel. Even in the US, some Skittles products, mostly from Israel, turned up with a kosher certification. In May, the KLBD officially announced that Skittles was kosher certified by their Beit Din. This history of mixed messages leaves kosher consumers confused and often left wondering what they should do.
And now, to add to the confusion, what happens when a product carries a generic “K” without identifying the source of the kosher certification? Even large companies like Pepsi-Cola are guilty of using the “K” in many markets ,while Coca-Cola clearly manifests its OU certification. And then, for Passover, the Pepsi products are certified by the Kof-K. Regarding the high demand for authentic kosher symbols, Kashrut experts say that major companies “do not do themselves any favors with such ambiguous and unclear messages.”
Food producers now universally agree that a kosher symbol is helpful not only in moving sales but even to gain favor with supermarkets. Most supermarkets throughout the US now routinely insist on a kosher symbol. The scanner data even tells them how a product with a kosher symbol does. Imagine a finding by a very well-known research company, Mintel, when they compared sales in a totally non- kosher market of pasta. They looked at sales of pasta with a kosher symbol and then compared it to a pasta brand that had no kosher symbol. Bingo! The pasta with the kosher symbol did 20% better, which means that even many non-kosher consumers are more likely to buy a brand that has a kosher symbol for a variety of reasons, either because they believe it is better or perhaps feel spiritually inclined towards buying kosher products.
I remember the days when a kosher shopper had to be an expert on ingredients. You read the label and perhaps got stuck on an ingredient you never heard of. You asked your rav, and when it checked out, you made the instant psak that it was kosher. Nowadays, most companies understand that a k or an ambiguous hechsher will result in an adverse decision by the kosher shopper. And who wants to lose a shopper who spends almost three times as much as an ordinary shopper? So having a good kosher symbol is no longer a luxury.
But as much as having a symbol is a necessity, an on-again-off-again hechsher is worse as we illustrated with the woman with the toddler. Not only is it confusing. It often causes a shopper to simply reject the company as ambiguous and worse. There seems to be no reason in this day and age not to have a good permanent symbol that is recognized. The loyalty that it generates will pay off for the companies' big time!
Your voice matters here! Just remember the day that Stella D’ora Company decided it needed to add dairy ingredients for a better tasting cookie. Or the day Arnold’s, owned by Bimbo Bakeries, decided to remove the hechsher, and people who relied on their kosher white bread were suddenly without kosher bread! In both cases the decision was reversed, thanks to the hundreds of phone calls and e-mails by customers. It is important to never give up and always remember that you can have an impact when you speak up.