Sticker Shock

Published Winter 2010

Years ago, when I was a young rabbi in Birmingham, Alabama, an important aspect of my out- of-town rabbanus was to serve as the regional mashgiach for national kashrus organizations.  If you were to ask my children which company was their all time favorite, the answer would be unanimous – the American Candy Company in Selma, Alabama.  The American Candy Company specialized in a variety of hard candies including lollipops, candy canes, stick candies and the eye popping twirl pops.  The candy was certified kosher by a very reputable national kashrus organization.  The company also produced a heimishe variety sold in the finest heimishe candy stores. What was the difference between the ingredients and process of the regular label and the heimishe label?  Absolutely nothing, save one.  I came to the plant on the day of the heimishe production and saw that the candy ingredients and the release agent were appropriately kosher.  Once that was determined, the packing cartons were stamped with the symbol of the kashrus organization.

Without a doubt, one of the most costly expenditures in food manufacturing is the packaging material.  This includes many facets, such as the artwork, accuracy of ingredients, and detailed nutritional information.  This also involves various consumer confidence markings and allergen disclaimers, in addition to the kashrus symbol.   An irreparable labeling error in any of these components can land a crippling blow to a company’s expense account.  When the Star-K discovered a labeling error on one of their company’s soon-to-be marked products, the company promptly and responsibly destroyed their entire inventory of new packaging film and took a loss of over $50,000.00!

In today’s world of niche marketing, manufacturers are constantly looking for new marketing opportunities.  A new and very lucrative marketing source has been discovered in the ultra- Orthodox segment of the kosher populace known as the heimishe olam.  Years ago, the wide variety of all American kosher foods were not available to the heimishe market, nor was the heimishe olam interested in entering that arena.  Currently, just about everything is available to the heimishe niche market, which is very interested in mehadrin min hamehadrin all American kosher food.  Specialty production manufacturing takes place in just about every corner of the world, producing just about any product imaginable.

Years ago, private label manufacturing was in its infancy.  Nowadays, private labeling and contract manufacturing are booming businesses, the heimishe olam not withstanding.  Many heimishe companies market under their own brand name with their own special packaging.  At times, they will use the existing manufacturer’s packaging with a sticker.

In order to reduce packaging costs, private label companies have opted to place a special sticker over the contract manufacturer’s existing packaging.  This is a relatively inexpensive method to package a heimishe product and charge a premium.  The question is:  Are all stickers created equal?   What is behind all the impressive Hebrew writing and extra rabbinical certifications?

In the case of snack foods, where a national kashrus organization doesn’t require bishul Yisroel for potato chips or pas Yisroel for pretzels, a heimishe hechsher will send a mashgiach to turn on the fires or boiler at the start of production.  It goes without saying that when the special production mashgiach is present, the ingredients are checked and the run is monitored for the client.  At times, certain ingredients are substituted since a heimishe hechsher may accept one particular brand of oil or flavor blend but reject another.  For example, in the case of a kosher specialty production of a bubble gum filled lollipop, a kosher gum base was substituted to make the kosher bubble gum instead of the company’s regular non-kosher bubble gum counterpart.

Another aspect of a heimishe specialty production is the elimination of rework from their product.  Typically, when products are manufactured mistakes are likely to occur during the production.  In order to minimize loss and waste, companies will blend the mismanufactured items into subsequent runs.  This process is known as rework.  Bakeries rework old bakery goods into their freshly baked products.  Candy companies will regrind and remelt misshapen candy.  Margarine companies remelt sticks of margarine, discard the old wrappers and send the margarine through the votaters a second time.  If a heimishe label appears on a product, it can possibly mean that no rework items were allowed for the special production.

On the other hand, at times the standards of the national agency are totally acceptable to the heimishe company, and the label is stuck on as a marketing tool.  Nothing is different except that the heimishe consumer would not purchase the product without the appearance of the name of a Rav Hamachshir in Hebrew and pay a premium price for the sticker.  It is unfortunate that this type of sticker casts aspersions on the reliability of the regular kosher certification that appears on the package.  It also causes consumers on a limited budget to pay a premium for a Hebrew sticker.

Sometimes, stickers are used by the certifying agency to help a newly certified company get started.  Occasionally, a newly kosher certified manufacturer will request to deplete pre-existing inventory before printing new packaging.   Since destroying packaging materials can be very costly, the hashgacha agency will allow the manufacturer to print labels containing the name of the company, the product, and the kashrus symbol to affix to existing packaging.  New packaging would incorporate the kashrus symbol on the package.

Another frequent appearance of stickers emerges during Passover production.  If a product bears a generic sticker stating “Kosher for Passover”, the innocent unassuming Passover shopper has no way of knowing whether or not the label is legitimate.  Under no circumstances should a product be purchased with a generic sticker that simply bears a kashrus symbol and the words “Kosher for Passover,” without the name of the company or product incorporated onto the sticker.  To the credit of national kashrus agencies, products are carefully monitored and standards are rigorous.  This includes monitoring what goes into the product, as well as how it is packaged.

The unprecedented growth of the kosher food industry has proven to be very lucrative for honest, hard working manufacturers.  Yet, there are those few opportunists who engage in mislabeling some products with kosher symbols or labels in order to sell their products.  Although misuse of a kosher symbol is a trademark violation, there are products that surface with unauthorized kosher markings on the packaging.  It goes without saying that it is easier to misrepresent a product as being kosher when a sticker appears on the item.  Therefore, it is incumbent upon the kosher consumer to be aware and vigilant to ensure that they purchase products that are properly labeled and reliably kosher.  Caveat emptor – Let the buyer beware!