Kosher Biotech

Between Religion, Regulation, and Globalization

in Religion and Society

ABSTRACT

The Hebrew term ‘kosher’ means ‘fit’ or ‘proper’ and signifies foods conforming to Jewish dietary law (kashrut). Kosher biotechnical production is subject to elaborate rules that have warranted regulation over the last two decades. This article shows how kosher regulation works in biotech production. I argue that while existing studies of kosher production and regulation have emerged mostly from within business studies and the food sciences, the broader institutional picture and the personal relationships between certifiers and businesses that frame these procedures are not yet well understood. Based on empirical research and interaction with biotech companies, I provide an ethnography of how transnational governmentality warrants a product as ‘kosher’ and thereby helps to format and standardize the market. This article builds mainly on fieldwork conducted at the world’s largest producer of enzymes, Novozymes, based in Denmark, which is certified by the leading global kosher certifier, the Orthodox Union.

In 2010, I attended a ‘kosher inspection’ at the Novozymes plant in Denmark together with the Orthodox Union’s (OU) senior European rabbinic field representative and Novozymes’ Global Halal and Kosher Coordinator.1 I took part in this inspection as part of an ongoing research project that explores the interfaces between kosher (‘fit’ or ‘proper’) regulation, on the one hand, and highly industrialized and specialized (food) production, on the other. In recent years, the global market for kosher products has expanded considerably. The North American kosher food market alone grew by 15 percent between 2002 and 2012, with roughly $200 billion in kosher-certified food products sold annually, and this represents a global trend (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada 2012). Novozymes is the leading enzyme2 manufacturer globally, and its headquarters are located in the suburb of Bagsværd outside Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital city. The company’s history began with Nordisk, which was founded in 1923, and Novo, founded in 1925. These were merged into Novo Nordisk in 1989, and Novozymes resulted from a demerger in 2000. The company has enzyme plants in six countries: three in Denmark, two in the United States, two in China, two in India, one in Brazil, and one in Canada. Novozymes has a workforce of over 6,000, and in 2013 its gross income was about $2 billion. The company makes close to 900 enzyme products that are purchased by many different industries, including manufacturers of detergents, foodstuffs, beverages, textiles, biofuel, and animal feed. Novozymes began auditing for Jewish dietary law (kashrut) compliance in the late 1980s, and today about two-thirds of all enzyme products receive a kosher designation. In 2000, the company created the position of Global Halal and Kosher Coordinator in recognition of rising global demands for kosher foods.

The OU is the oldest and largest kosher-certifying body worldwide. Located in New York City, it is a community-based organization that certifies more than 500,000 products in more than 90 countries. The OU started to standardize kosher certification in the 1920s when the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, more commonly known as the Orthodox Union, established a kashrut program to regulate slaughtering and meat processing as well as commercial food manufacturing. The complexity of contemporary food production means that individuals cannot ascertain the kashrut of raw materials and products. Instead, large national kashrut organizations such as the OU and Organized Kashrut Laboratories (OK Labs), located in Brooklyn, supervise production and place logos on labels (Diamond 2000). There is intense competition among a plethora of kosher-certifying bodies globally, as we shall see below. A study by Lytton (2013) shows that the US kosher market is an example of successful private sector regulation in an era of growing public concern over the government’s ability to ensure food safety. From the 1990s onward, the ‘Big Five’ kosher certification agencies—the Orthodox Union (OU), OK Kosher Certification (OK Labs), KOF-K Kosher Certification (KOF-K), Star-K Kosher Certification (Star-K), and the Chicago Rabbinical Council (cRc)—have largely dominated the global kosher market. The point here is that competition between kosher certifiers seems to tighten kosher requirements, since certifiers strive to demonstrate that they are more stringent than others in their understanding, practice, and enforcement of kashrut. One outcome of such strictness among certifiers is the necessity of having the resources, manpower, and expertise that are essential in order to thoroughly inspect and audit businesses. All this is formative of kosher standardization.

Since 2007, I have conducted research on Novozymes’ kosher production and certification with the permission of the company’s Global Halal and Kosher Coordinator (hereafter, the Coordinator). Empirically, this article explores kosher production and regulation in 2010 when I participated in inspections at Novozymes, but I also draw on knowledge generated during my interaction with other biotechnology companies. The Coordinator has been with Novozymes for many years and has worked in research and development, production, and quality management. Regarding kosher certification, the Coordinator explained that “even though my present position is far from what I learned at the technical university, it helps a lot to have a good understanding of chemical production and raw materials.” Novozymes is a good example of a company that takes global kosher challenges seriously. This approach has had an impact on certification, staff policies, and innovation in the company, as practically all of its food-grade enzymes are kosher-certified.

The central research question here concerns how globalized kosher standards are translated into actual practice in biotechnical production. Based on fieldwork in biotech companies, I argue that while existing studies of kosher production and regulation have mostly emerged from within the food sciences and business studies, the larger institutional picture and the personal relationships between businesses and certifiers that frame production and regulation are not well understood. The methodology of this study is based on participant observation and interviews with kosher certifiers and companies in Denmark. Businesses were selected to obtain a suitable representative spread, covering different histories, sizes, cultures, structures, hierarchies, and values. Essentially, what follows is an ethnography of the micro-social negotiations and practices observed during kosher inspections.

Following this introduction, modern kosher principles and practices are discussed. The article then engages with theories about transnational governmentality, organizations, and religious forms of audit culture. The next part of the article consists of the ethnography, which addresses kosher certification in a Danish context. The following two sections explore the role of inspections in kosher production and regulation: the first focuses on Novozymes, while the second deals with comparable companies. The conclusion ties the findings of the article together and reflects on the emergence of millennial kosher capitalism.

Modern Kosher Principles and Practices

Kashrut and kosher law (halacha) involve a number of prohibitions, such as a ban on pork and on the mixing of milk and meat. Kosher law is ultimately the application of a system of religious precepts and beliefs, which governs the types of food that people of the Jewish faith are permitted to eat. This system is based on a number of verses found in the Bible, rabbinic biblical exegesis, ordinances as presented in the Talmud (the written record of the oral law as redacted in the fifth century), and the writings and decisions of rabbinic authorities (Blech 2008). Central concepts in kosher law define acceptable species of animals in particular. Other important concerns relate to rennin, gelatin, lactose, sodium caseinate (a protein produced from the casein in skimmed milk), vitamins, eggs, grape products, fruits, vegetables, and items served during Passover, a major Jewish festival (Regenstein and Regenstein 1979). Rennin is an enzyme, and enzymes are often derived from the stomach lining of animals. Thus, one major problem is that they cannot be mixed with dairy products because the Torah states: “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 34:26; see also Deuteronomy 14:21). This has been interpreted by rabbis as prohibiting the eating of meat and dairy together.

A large and growing body of literature explores kosher practices from diverse perspectives. Some studies are basic introductions for food scientists and processors (Blech 2008; Regenstein and Regenstein 1979), while others demonstrate how kosher regulations can be implemented in the food industry (Regenstein and Regenstein 1988). Some works also discuss halal laws (Regenstein et al. 2003a, 2003b) and their implications for biotechnology and genetic engineering. Another type of study deals with how diverse groups of Jews in the global diaspora negotiate kosher principles and practices (Buckser 1999; Diamond 2000, 2002; Klein 2012). These analyses show that many Jewish groups are fastidious about their everyday kosher consumption, which has reinforced the regulation of global kosher production. Other studies show the increased significance of such regulation starting in the 1990s, arguing that although non-Jewish food industry management may understand how kosher laws affect their own products, this does not necessarily mean that they understand the religious significance that these laws hold for kosher consumers and rabbis. In effect, all this has paved the way for increased regulation of the kosher market (Regenstein and Regenstein 1991) as well as cooperation among rabbis and across industries (Regenstein and Regenstein 1990).

Thus, the growth of the lucrative kosher market lifted it out of its traditional Jewish base, leading to calls for tighter regulation to avoid misuse and fraud (Regenstein and Regenstein 1999). This offers opportunities to expand the market for existing products and creates scope for the development of new products for particular market niches, while modern scientific methods such as genetic engineering play an increasingly important role in certification (Regenstein and Regenstein 1991). Only a few studies deal with how companies understand and practice the challenges involved in kosher production and regulation. Roberts et al.’s (2010) analysis of the implications of switching from non-kosher to kosher wine production in Israel shows that crossing the kosher categorical boundary exposes these producers to experience-based penalties that are reflected in lower product quality ratings. A study by Campbell et al. (2011) demonstrates that although neo-liberalism has opened up new spaces for audit activity, older political and social dynamics operating around food audits have a much longer history. Important issues in this literature concern how regulation in the form of certification, legislation, and inspections was tightened during the 1990s as a response to increased consumer awareness among Jewish groups on a global scale. The growth of kosher production meant that it was no longer exclusively Jews who were in charge of it, and this increased the need for regulation by trustworthy kosher-certifying bodies. Rabbis and ‘rabbinic properness’ play an essential role in negotiating the implementation and maintenance of kosher production standards. This is evident in the case of biotech production, where a tension between kosher principles and practices runs through production, trade, consumption, and regulation, as we will see.

Kosher Standards: Between Transnational Governmentality and Millennial Capitalism

Kosher certifiers and companies share some characteristics: explicit rules, a division of labor, an intent to act on or change everyday life, and a governing ethos, such as making money or a particular management principle (Hirsch and Gellner 2001). A central question is how organizations think about and practice kosher production, trade, and regulation. Ferguson and Gupta’s (2002) concept of transnational governmentality grasps how new practices of government and new forms of ‘grassroots’ politics are emerging on a global scale. Recently developed strategies of regulation and discipline are exemplified by kosher standards and regulation. Transnational alliances are being forged by activists and grassroots organizations supported by complex networks of international and transnational funding and personnel. Thus, the US kosher market has become a successful private sector regulation initiative in an era of growing public concern over the government’s ability to ensure food safety (Lytton 2013), while regulation of kosher production in general has also been increasing globally. Worldwide grassroots groups and nongovernmental organizations are good examples of how the different scales of activity have collapsed into each other.

Another important theme is the emergence, consolidation, and expansion of a globalized audit culture around kosher practice. Kosher certifiers such as the OU perform on-site audits and inspections in factories. Power (1999) contends that there is a large and growing body of literature about an ‘audit society’, but further scholarship is needed concerning the ways in which audits and inspections are understood and practiced in local contexts. The pervasiveness of an audit culture within and around kosher practices is not well understood, but it links kosher production and markets in new ways, as I will show. Audit and inspection systems are a feature of modern societies. As Power explains, they exist to generate comfort and reassurance in a wide range of policy contexts; to a large extent, auditing is about the “cultural and economic authority” granted to auditors (ibid: xvii). A central aspect of audit culture that is also highly relevant to kosher production is the call for increased control and self-control in companies “to satisfy the need to connect internal organizational arrangements to public ideals” (ibid.: 10). Staff policies that introduce positions such as the Global Halal and Kosher Coordinator and set up units in companies specializing in kosher compliance are examples of the increasingly prominent role of internal control systems that can be audited.

Standardization processes are apparent in kosher certification, but standardization is also market-driven. Kosher standards and standardization can mean several things. They can refer to the design and qualities of products as well as to the proper conduct of states, organizations, and individuals—for example, with regard to the production, preparation, handling, and storage of products. But they can also be seen as instruments of control and forms of regulation that are attempting to generate elements of global order (Brunsson and Jacobsson 2000: 1). Busch (2000) argues that by stipulating norms for behavior and creating uniformity, standards are part of the ‘moral economy’ of the modern world, a relevant point when it comes to the emergence and expansion of kosher standards. Moreover, Busch (2013: 2-3) holds that “standards are the recipes by which we create realities” and “invoke the linguistic categories we also use to organize the world”—material as well as ideal. “Moral and religious behaviors are subject to standards of tolerance” (ibid.: 25) as they define the limits of tolerable behavior in divergent settings, for example, kosher standards versus civic standards in the US (ibid.: 259).

The term ‘kosher’ no longer connotes esoteric forms of production, trade, and consumption, but rather a huge and expanding market in which transnational governmentality, standards, and capitalism play important roles. In sum, based on empirical data, this article explores standards and their stories by examining how kosher certifiers and biotech companies interact with standardized forms, technologies, and conventions built into the infrastructure (Lampland and Star 2009).

Kosher Compliance

Novozymes started replacing the limited number of animal ingredients in production about 20 years ago due to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and growing kosher requirements. Both factors made animal ingredients undesirable. During my fieldwork, Novozymes’ Coordinator provided a specific example of the way in which the company complies with these standards. Gelatin is necessary to produce an immobilized lipase for edible oils. However, gelatin of bovine and porcine origin is out of the question, so a fish-based gelatin now has to be used. These transformations signify the move from localized forms of kosher classification to standardization.

Replacing animal ingredients with vegetable and synthetic ingredients was not only resource-intensive and costly; it also generated forms of innovation that benefit the company today. In many ways, non-animal ingredients are less contentious in the globalized market in an era of food scares and growing religious requirements. Thus, over the last two decades religious principles have played an important role in shaping knowledge, work processes, and practices in organizations such as Novozymes. The removal of problematic ingredients has resulted in the standardization of many production processes. Formalized standardization in the form of certification and auditing/inspections by an identifiable certifier such as the OU marked the start of systematic kosher regulation. The OU thus represents and practices a form of standardized transnational governmentality.

The Coordinator explained how Novozymes trains all staff involved in kosher production regarding basic rules and regulations, the approved ingredients/raw materials and how to handle them, and certification procedures. These sessions start with a general introduction followed by detailed instructions about the rules that specifically apply to that audience. The Coordinator is responsible for training Novozymes’ employees around the world, and this training also helps to standardize kosher understanding and practice. While the Coordinator functions as the company’s overall global authority, at each Novozymes site one staff member is appointed as the local Coordinator who is responsible for kosher expertise. Worldwide, the company has seven local Coordinators, one per site. Consequently, training takes place centrally in Denmark and at local production sites in each country. This illustrates that standardization is also about people (employees and inspectors), each of whom possesses the skills to produce and regulate kosher products and to transmit knowledge that takes the form of transnational governmentality. The training itself can be seen as a standardizing process in which learning and discipline come together. Kosher training is a way to enhance workers’ employment value, depending on their skills. Skills terminology, especially ‘communication’, ‘team’, and ‘leadership’, formulates aspects of personhood and modes of sociality as productive labor. Ideally, team members complement each other’s capacities as productive, high-functioning decision-makers who are able to resolve conflicts, reach consensus, and communicate and collaborate fluidly. Team training is viewed as resulting in optimal labor coordination, with higher levels of productivity and personal transformation (Urciuoli 2008: 222).

The Coordinator explained his own experience to me: “When kosher certification became more and more important in the 1990s, I assumed that that there would be a textbook that could tell me all I needed to know, but the only books I could find were written for Jewish housewives and not for production engineers.” Consequently, he had to pick up the necessary information at frequent meetings with OU representatives, including rabbinic field supervisors or inspectors. A more up-to-date source of information is Blech’s (2008) handbook titled Kosher Food Production, which many companies use as a guide. This type of manual is important in standardizing kosher principles, audits, and inspections, as well as their translation into practice. These issues are at the heart of kosher inspections, as we shall see below.

When discussing his role, the Coordinator stated: “From my desk in Novozymes’ headquarters, I cannot possibly ensure compliance at all plants in Denmark, India, Brazil, the US, and China.” It is therefore critical that the requirements are translated into standardized systems and terminology that can be understood by all Novozymes employees who are involved in kosher compliance on a daily basis. This is done by formulating a set of global practices that work as centralized and standardized procedures—what I refer to as transnational governmentality. The history of kosher compliance in an organization such as Novozymes shows that the move from divergent understandings and practices to formalized standardization between certifier and certified is an extremely powerful one that shapes and disciplines a whole range of everyday practices.

Kosher Practices in Denmark: Secular Standards

Supported by the state, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark is the dominant religion in the country, but Denmark is nonetheless characterized by a form of religious diversity that is premised on a particular interpretation of secularity. Yet perhaps even more important is the widely held and deeply embedded popular perception that the public sphere is strictly secular—despite the fact that state and church are tightly intertwined (Nielsen 2014). Denmark is therefore unusual inasmuch as it is at once both highly secular and highly non-secular (ibid.: 251). Ethnic Danes are unlikely to endorse the active accommodation of religious diversity because they perceive themselves as highly secular and consider religion to be a private matter that should not be explicitly or publicly accommodated beyond the legal right to practice one’s religion (ibid.: 263). In effect, this means that religious practices in the public sphere are a sensitive matter that is hotly debated. It is in this context that my ethnography should be seen.

Today there are about 7,000 Jews in Denmark, but previously that number was higher. In the 1700s, Jewish merchants started migrating to Denmark, and due to pogroms that began around 1900, Eastern European Jews also settled there. The mainstream Jewish organization in Denmark is the Jewish Community (Det Jødiske Samfund), which maintains a synagogue in central Copenhagen and has about 2,400 members (Ahlin et. al 2012). The Danish Rabbinate’s chief rabbi is responsible for kosher certification, but multinational companies such as Novozymes for the most part prefer the OU and the Big Five to ensure global reach by operating according to transnational governmentality and standardization. Within the last couple of decades or so, these topics have not been well understood, and to my knowledge there are no academic sources that analyze them.

Andrew Buckser’s (2003) book After the Rescue: Jewish Identity and Community in Denmark is based on fieldwork carried out in the 1990s. It examines the development of Jewish society in Denmark with a specific focus on the secular context and the general acceptance toward Jews—and the consequences for modern Jewish identity. A key finding in Buckser’s work is that, paradoxically, the Jewish community in Denmark is characterized by institutional integrity, on the one hand, and fragmentation among its members, on the other. Disagreement about the boundaries of the community, the nature of ritual practices, the operation of Jewish institutions, and the treatment of kosher practices are all contested issues. Buckser shows that the religious authority of rabbis in Copenhagen was challenged by global influences starting in the 1990s and that this trend has accelerated since then. Nowhere is this more visible than in the matter of kosher standardization and transnational governmentality (ibid.).

Chabad is an Orthodox, Hasidic revival movement from Brooklyn with a focus on scholarship in the scriptures as well as an emotional experience of the divine. The organization sponsors an international network of religious centers to promote religious observance among Jews. Chabad has played a distinctive role among Danish Jews since the organization arrived in Denmark in 1996. The Chabad rabbi is involved in the certification of several foodstuffs manufactured in Denmark that are exported to international markets (mainly Israel and the US), and he oversees the production of food ingredients for OK Labs. Indeed, kosher production, regulation, and standardization are influenced to a far greater extent by the Big Five kosher certification bodies than by local Jewish actors, as we will see in the case of Novozymes and the OU. Denmark is fully integrated into the worldwide market for kosher products that has developed since the 1990s, and as a result kosher regulation in Denmark is more about exports to global markets than local consumption.

On Kosher Inspection

Ethnographies of audits/inspections, especially in a religious context, are relatively sparse (Bear 2013; Miller 2003). The studies that do exist show how audits/inspections seem to take on lives of their own, and my research supports these findings. However, my ethnography also demonstrates that inspections are essential practices that help the certifiers and the certified negotiate kosher principles and understandings. The OU inspector visits several times each year and has done so for many years, a practice that reflects how inspections have become subject to routinization and standardization. Over the years, the inspector and the Coordinator have developed a personal relationship characterized by mutual professional respect. During the inspection and subsequent meetings that I witnessed, the atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. Almost all inspections are announced prior to being conducted, but in principle unannounced inspections are possible.

In some cases, kosher inspectors perform ‘kosherization’, or the ritual cleansing of equipment, in addition to any cleaning that the company itself carries out. The Coordinator explained to me that kosherization is undertaken if equipment appears to have been contaminated in any way that may compromise kosher principles, such as, for example, if second-hand equipment is being used for the first time, or if an item with milk-based ingredients has been produced prior to kosher products. Ritual cleansing involves cleaning the equipment and letting it sit for 24 hours prior to a thorough cleansing with hot water or steam under the supervision of the OU inspector. Kosherization was not deemed necessary during any of the inspections I observed.

Typically, the Coordinator accompanies the OU inspector on the big annual inspection while other Novozymes staff members who have been trained in kosher compliance are responsible for many of the other inspections. The OU representative is the only inspector supervising kosher production at Novozymes in Denmark, which helps to personalize his relationship with the Novozymes Coordinator. All Novozymes factories in India, Brazil, the US, and China conduct main kosher inspections at least once a year, as well as on frequent follow-up visits. Regarding my fieldwork, the OU announced that the yearly inspection would take place in May 2010, and Novozymes’ management agreed that I could participate after signing a confidentiality clause and sampling agreement. An inspection takes place over two days in several of Novozymes’ facilities across Denmark, such as factories and warehouses. Before an inspection starts, the Coordinator informs teams of employees to prepare to receive the OU inspector at specific times in the different locations. These teams also receive inspectors from local and international authorities as well as customer audits. Hence, kosher inspections are only one kind of inspection among many others, and generally, even if employees consider kosher regulation to be different from other types of audits/inspections, their involvement has been standardized since Novozymes first became kosher-certified in the 1990s.

The OU inspector responsible for inspecting Novozymes is the senior European rabbinic field representative, but he also carries out inspections in countries such as India and Japan. The inspector, who is in his seventies, grew up in the UK and holds degrees in chemical engineering from the US, where he discovered Judaism. He wears the traditional black hat and dress of Orthodox Jews, and this, together with his long hair and full beard, makes him an arresting sight in the secular Danish context. The inspection began at a Novozymes enzyme-producing plant in Copenhagen that is located in Nørrebro, a working-class Copenhagen neighborhood that has a sizable Muslim population but very few Jews (Lever and Fischer 2018). The plant was built in the 1960s, but before that the site was used for insulin production. I could not help pondering the apparent incongruity between the inspector’s markers of Orthodoxy and the setting of the plant within the Nørrebro city district, with its large Islamic community embedded in a secular Danish context. The inspection started with the inspection team, including the researcher, donning protective plastic suits—a procedure that had to be repeated each time we stopped at a particular site. These suits are worn to avoid contamination of production. At these sites, team members, also wearing protective suits, were ready to receive the inspection group. The inspections followed a standardized route: mixing, granulation, fermentation, and recovery.

The second day we started out at the same time in the morning. Our first visit was to a warehouse in the town of Kalundborg located in rural West Zealand. We then drove to the fermentation plant, had lunch, and continued on our journey to review environmental operations, recovery, standardization, and finally granulation. It is not only the inspection route that is mapped out and standardized. In kosher inspections, flow charts play an important role in giving inspectors a quick overview. During inspections, the inspector, the Coordinator, and the employee or team of employees responsible for the individual production processes consult and discuss flow charts. If changes in production have taken place, these will be indicated on the charts.

During the kosher inspection, the OU inspector is thorough, inquisitive, talkative, and humorous. Staff told me that they enjoyed the inspector’s sense of humor and that this made kosher inspections something special. It became clear that there was a personal relationship between the inspector, Coordinator, and team members we met as we moved between the production areas and laboratories. The inspector explained his work and the purpose of the inspection to me, and described how a company like Novozymes could best comply with kosher principles. For example, in the warehouse of another company he had once found what he called “piggy things” stored among products designated as kosher, which is strictly prohibited. This is a rare example of how standardized kosher rules are sometimes clearly broken.

More specifically, he searched for “loose labels” that can be signs of improper or unreliable kosher certification by other kosher certifiers. In general, there is fierce competition and also mistrust among kosher certifiers. Hence, kosher inspectors often consider products certified by other, smaller certifiers or individual rabbis to be insufficiently standardized and thus unreliable because the latter do not have the resources or authority to properly regulate products and processes. Conversely, large certifiers are regarded as more reliable: their certification is widely recognized, and they are also the main competitors on the global market.

Much of the inspection work I witnessed was aimed at searching for proper kosher logos on products and raw materials and investigating their trajectories, that is, where they were produced, by whom, and how they ended up in Novozymes’ production facilities or stored in a warehouse. Hence, in several cases, the inspector asked to have specific files sent to him to check up on at a later date. This type of documentation and traceability is at the heart of audit culture. A company such as Novozymes has built up capacity and expertise in ensuring traceability over many years, and a kosher inspection is an opportunity to demonstrate how traceability works as an everyday standard in the company. Photography is also a part of standardized traceability, and photographs of product names and batch/serial numbers play a major role (fig. 1).

Another question raised at the inspection concerned a list of incoming goods delivered to the Novozymes warehouse within the last month. This type of inquiry is central not only to kosher certification, but also more broadly to matters such as quality assurance and the way in which

Figure 1
Figure 1

Product name and batch/serial number on a specific Novozymes product

Photograph © Johan Fischer

Citation: Religion and Society 9, 1; 10.3167/arrs.2018.090105

Novozymes plans and runs production. Another example that arose had to do with the use of milk powder in production. Milk is a sensitive issue, and milk powder is an example of a substance that is considered kosher as long as it is not mixed with animal ingredients.

The OU inspector made the case that as the demand for kosher certification was growing, more and more product types were being subjected to religious requirements, including nonfood products. Kosher-certified detergent, for instance, may not be essential as far as the OU and its inspectors are concerned, but if the demand is there, as is the case among North American consumers, producers and certifiers strive to meet it. Another matter that arose during the inspections I attended had to do with potential changes in Novozymes’ production guidelines. This kind of issue is often highly technical and complex, and OU inspectors often debate intensively among themselves before reaching final solutions or decisions that can be seen as rabbinic standards that companies can follow.

Later on in the inspection, we stopped at the liquid formulation area. The inspector looked at containers marked with OU logos and wondered about the transportation details, asking: “How do raw materials arrive? What are the delivery details? Who owns the containers, or are they rented? Who cleans these containers and how? Are there any papers in the tank truck?” These questions cropped up in a production area that only produces fully kosher goods, so the questions targeted proper handling during transportation and how this could be documented. The standardization of proper handling and transport is challenging, not only for Novozymes, but also for companies that supply containers, for example. Once again, documentation and traceability are shown to be essential in making kosher production auditable.

Thus, the traceability of ingredients is of particular importance during kosher inspections. These ingredients have traveled far along complex routes and therefore pose a specific concern for the OU. Hence, proper labeling with kosher logos by the OU or one of the OU-recognized certification bodies, together with labels that detail contents, is essential for traceability. Yet there are exceptions in the case of some ‘simple’ raw materials such as salt. Batch numbers and barcodes are also inspected in order to determine traceability. In general, the farther a product has traveled along complex routes between suppliers, intermediaries, and companies, the more it is seen as problematic and in need of proper certification and labeling. However, this varies as some raw materials and products are seen as requiring kosher status while others are not, meaning that there are grades of ‘kosherness’ to consider during inspections.

The inspector then turned to examine a raw material that had been made by a different multinational biotech company and that did not carry a kosher logo. He asked if a batch-specific kosher certificate existed, and the Novozymes Coordinator confirmed that the certificate was in another office and could be checked afterward, an answer that the inspector found satisfactory. This example shows how standardized forms of audit culture—notably, the ability to supply reliable visual documentation upon request—are central to kosher regulation.

The OU inspector used a colorful phrase—”the incestuous world of enzymes”—to describe the complexity of biotechnology and enzyme production, meaning that in many cases enzymes that should be kept separate are mixed in complex ways. This complication results, in part, from the intensified globalization of trade in enzymes in which increasing numbers of secular intermediaries handle kosher products in different ways. According to the inspector, an example of this is “individuals or unreliable rabbis” who want to make easy money without possessing the necessary knowledge and/or resources to handle kosher certification properly. In these circumstances, logos and labeling are an essential mark of standardization as kosherness is not easily verifiable without these logos on the products or their certificates.

As we were waiting in a production area for a certificate for a particular product to be fetched from a nearby office, the inspector commented that although more and more attention was being paid to reassuring producers, certifiers, and consumers through certification and proper logos on products, the relabeling of products complicated the process. Many products are relabeled one or more times as they move from production to consumption. Sometimes, the inspector complained, labels are ripped off during transport, making kosher verification impossible. Yet no matter how detailed the labels on products might be, kosher rules apply to ingredients and processes that cannot be covered by a secular declaration alone, so the marking of proper status with a logo is crucial.

As we continued our inspection tour, several less convincing kosher logos caught the inspector’s attention. For example, he considered a large logo by a French kosher certification body to be reliable, but he disliked the logo design. This example shows the ‘visual’ competition between kosher certifiers in terms of the ways in which they aesthetically brand themselves and their logos.3 We also encountered an example of a raw material that the Novozymes Coordinator was not quite sure how to document on-site as being kosher. The OU inspector suggested that Novozymes could take a picture of the batch number and barcode so that the proper paperwork and a certificate could accompany the product. This procedure is becoming more and more common in such situations.

While monitoring the fermentation process, the inspector wanted to know if any changes had taken place in general and, more specifically, over the last two months. Changes in production can challenge standardized practices with implications for kosher principles and are therefore a general cause of concern among kosher inspectors. If companies can provide detailed information about such changes, it is easier to determine how kosher status is affected. As a result, this is often one of the first questions inspectors ask, and companies are generally prepared to answer it. Further questions posed by the inspector had to do with the raw materials used for different types of production and whether there had been any changes in procedures since the last inspection, for example, if there were any new suppliers of raw materials. Continuing with our tour, upon reaching the recovery area the inspector again asked if there had been any changes in this process since his last visit. The Coordinator was able to answer these questions to the inspector’s satisfaction, and the specialized teams we met at the different steps of production were prepared to elaborate on the basis of their particular field of expertise.

When we stopped at one production area, the inspector inquired into the potential contamination risks in relation to a product stored in a state-of-the-art steel tank. I could not help asking how a modern steel tank could be suspected of causing contamination. The inspector answered that this was “because traditionally there were holes in metal containers, and for theological reasons, unfortunately.” These historical or theological considerations also arose in connection with the OU inspector’s questions and concern about steam as a potential contaminant in connection with pigs and other pollutants in cases where a common steam or hot water system is used in the processing of kosher and non-kosher products. In my view, concerns about the contamination risks of steel containers and steam show the extent to which historical/theological kosher principles condition kosher production practices.

However, as long as companies can comply with these requirements through standardized practices, they are not concerned. Staff training provides a framework that makes inspections and kosher compliance go more smoothly. A company such as Novozymes receives a large number of inspectors, and kosher inspections are not considered radically different from inspections by state authorities and customers. Kosher standards are basically just one set of standards among many others. My ethnography shows not only that kosher inspections are standardized and routinized, but also that they serve the purpose of cementing personal relationships between inspectors and Coordinators, thus helping to ease cooperation and the translation of kosher principles into practice. After the two-day inspection described above, the OU inspector moved on to the next company, before returning to Novozymes at a later date.

The Bigger Kosher Picture

I have conducted fieldwork with other kosher-certified companies, and I will now put the Novozymes ethnography into perspective by discussing another company that is a global supplier of bioscience-based ingredients to the food, health, and animal feed industries. The company produces cultures and dairy enzymes, probiotics, and natural colorings. In the words of the company’s Halal and Kosher Coordinator and his assistant, kosher certification and regulation is “extremely efficient” and “modern.” The company chose the OU and OK Labs certification bodies, as these were seen to be the most reliable choices. Interestingly, the Chabad rabbi discussed above also works as an inspector for OK Labs, showing how Danish kosher production is caught up in certification, standards, and audit culture, which are all key aspects of transnational governmentality at different levels on the social scale. The company is also certified by Star-K, yet another Big Five kosher certifier, which oversees the certification of individual kosher products around the world. Although these certifiers are competitors, they recognize each other’s certificates, and this is a big advantage for companies as well as for kosher organizations and their inspectors. Hence, when inspectors conduct inspections they can easily spot and approve raw materials, ingredients, and products that are certified by these organizations.

Efficiency for the company is aided by digitalization. For example, on OK Kosher Certification’s website, the company can list products containing this or that raw material. Circle K then sends the certificate electronically the next day. This makes the process seamless, as OK Labs is fully informed about all the company’s raw materials. What is more, OK Labs also updates certificates once a year after contacting the company’s suppliers to ensure that all raw material lists are fully updated.

The cost of kosher certification is outlined in a contract drawn up when the agreement on certification came into effect. The company pays an annual fee that includes annual routine inspections, and there are extra costs in connection with additional inspections. Altogether, the company receives four types of auditors/inspectors from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), as well as inspectors from business customers and from local and foreign authorities. The main concern of manufacturers is that requirements and regulations are clear so that they can comply with them in order to obtain certificates that they can show to their customers. Kosher inspectors from the major certifiers are, for the most part, properly educated to undertake inspections.

With regard to the company in question, most kosher logos are to be found on the accompanying documents and certificates and not so much on the products themselves. Consequently, audits are at least as important as inspections as most of the documentation is stored in offices or electronically. Some kosher requirements can be ‘negotiated’. For example, kosher principles stipulate that if you have produced something in a non-kosher manner but intend to produce it subsequently as a kosher product, you have to perform a kosherization of the equipment and leave it inactive for 24 hours before carrying out a final scalding. Unsurprisingly, a multinational company like this one is unenthusiastic about leaving equipment inactive for that many hours, as doing so is inefficient and expensive. Hence, the company negotiated alternatives with the rabbinic supervisor from the kosher certification body in question, and an alternative, more’suitable’ solution was found. This type of negotiation is often premised on the degree to which the kosher inspector enjoys a personal relationship with the company and its Coordinator. If it is the first time a new inspector comes to the company, the Coordinator explained to me, one does not know whether or not one can negotiate. However, in most cases an appropriate compromise is found “because inspectors are also businessmen.”

A final and very telling example from this company shows how a product’s kosherness is not always easily verifiable. The company’s Coordinator described how when a rabbinic supervisor from the OU or OK Labs visits the factory, he performs the following test: he tastes water from a steam boiler that contains traces of non-kosher material to make sure that it has a bitter, unpleasant taste. He does this to ensure that a bitter substance such as Bitrex (the bitterest known substance) has been added to make the boiler water or condensate unpalatable to humans. This type of test can be done only during an inspection, and it testifies to the significance of the practices that takes place on these occasions. The logic behind this test is that non-kosher properties can potentially pollute kosher products via coolants, steam, or condensate. By adding Bitrex to potential pollutants, any pollution can be reliably detected by its bitter taste. The Novozymes Coordinator told me that the OU also practices similar tests. During my work with kosher certifiers and companies, I found this to be one of the few examples of a test or practice that could verify, and thus move beyond, historical/theological principles for determining whether or not a substance is kosher. A few other tests exist that can be used to detect the presence of unwanted ingredients. For instance, a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) analysis can be used to detect traces of porcine material. Kosher principles and practice in these two companies are comparable to those implemented at Novozymes. This illustrates that companies find it relatively unproblematic to abide by kosher requirements and inspections once they choose to fully comply and transform production accordingly. To sum up, this example is comparable to that of Novozymes except for the fact that this company is certified by several different certifiers. Nonetheless, the personal relationship between the various inspectors and the Coordinator makes kosher compliance relatively smooth.

Conclusion

No matter how regulated the kosher market has become, it is still fundamentally an expression of religion, with taboos dating back thousands of years. The proliferation and regulation of kosher markets signify the way in which religion is articulated in production, regulation, and consumption—and an important aspect of this is the way in which kosher certification is moving beyond conventional food production and consumption into biotechnology. Thus, kosher markets exemplify how material religion has increased in significance within the last two decades or so. Concepts such as transnational governmentality are conventionally applied to secular processes, but the empirical data from Denmark show that in the modern world religion is not only fully compatible with production, regulation, and consumption, but actually thrives or is invigorated in the process. That said, kosher certification is not fully standardized on a global scale. One effect of the intense competition between kosher certifiers is that a number of local rabbis and organizations such as the Danish Rabbinate offer kosher certification at a lower cost compared to the Big Five. These rabbis and rabbinates often see the Big Five as representing overly commercialized forms of certification without the religious authority and local grounding in community that they themselves claim to possess.

In the eyes of biotech companies, kosher certification is a regulated religious injunction that they must take seriously in order to compete on global markets. When first applying for certification, companies often find kosher requirements ‘illogical’, but once standardized production and regulation are in place, there is a not a world of difference between kosher and secular production. When I discussed the status of kosher production with the Novozymes Coordinator in 2017, he explained that no major changes had taken place since the company was first kosher-certified—except for the fact that customer demands for Passover products are increasing, and it may become challenging to meet them. Although global kosher production has been regulated since the 1990s, the need for human monitoring remains essential, and standardized inspections show that kosher principles and practices become compatible in negotiations that take place during the inspections. Besides the obvious theological underpinnings, modern kosher principles also have to do with traditions that are handed down irrespective of technological development. An example of this was that a modern steel tank could be suspected of causing contamination.

Kosher certification has a multitude of commoditized forms and is premised on complex logics and practices. Logos help to personalize kosher exchange and transactions; ideally, the producer, trader, and consumer are all apprised of the symbolic content of the kosher logo. Certifying bodies not only claim authority in these transactions but also try to instill awareness in companies about the naturalness and reasonableness of the rules. Thus, companies and their procedures have become more auditable, and in practical terms this involves formalized procedures of application and negotiation with a certifier, for example. Auditors and inspectors collect and analyze evidence in order to reach conclusions, but evidence is always relative to the rules of acceptance for particular communities, as we have seen in the case of personalized relationships between inspectors and Coordinators.

Kosher certification has also helped Novozymes to comply with growing halal requirements since around 2000, and the company’s Global Halal and Kosher Coordinator divides his time equally between kosher and halal products (Lever and Fischer 2018). Consequently, the standardized practices that have been put in place to comply with kosher principles are, to a large extent, also applicable in the context of halal regulation. Although kosher certification is still underpinned by a system of religious precepts and beliefs, science is a privileged domain that highlights the interplay and compatibility between capitalism, regulation, and audit culture. The more that kosher products proliferate in a globalized religious market, the more that standardized modes and methods of production and traceability become important for producers, traders, certifiers, and consumers. The increased focus on using such methods to verify commodities as kosher-certified, based on standardized understandings, constantly expands the requirements to cover new types of commodities and practices. Both religious authorities and companies are increasingly relying on scientific evidence in the regulation, innovation, and proliferation of kosher certification. My ethnography shows that, in the eyes of companies, the proper education and qualifications of inspectors are more important than religious authority.

NOTES
1

In Arabic, ‘halal’ literally means ‘permissible’ or ‘lawful’.

2

Encyclopaedia Britannica states that an enzyme is “a substance that acts as a catalyst in living organisms, regulating the rate at which chemical reactions proceed without itself being altered in the process” (see https://www.britannica.com/science/enzyme). Enzymes also have valuable industrial and medical applications. For example, the fermenting of wine, leavening of bread, curdling of cheese, and brewing of beer are reactions understood to be the result of the catalytic activity of enzymes. More recently, enzymes “have assumed an increasing importance in industrial processes that involve organic chemical reactions. The uses of enzymes in medicine include killing disease-causing microorganisms, promoting wound healing, and diagnosing certain diseases” (ibid.).

3

Based on my research on kosher and halal markets, I have learned that certifiers put a lot of effort into designing and placing their logos on raw materials, products, packaging, and certificates (Fischer 2012).

REFERENCES

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Contributor Notes

JOHAN FISCHER is an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Sciences and Business, Roskilde University, Denmark. His work focuses on modern religion and markets. He is the author of Proper Islamic Consumption: Shopping among the Malays in Modern Malaysia (2008), The Halal Frontier: Muslim Consumers in a Globalized Market (2011), and Islam, Standards, and Technoscience: In Global Halal Zones (2015). He is the co-author, with John Lever, of two books: Religion, Regulation, Consumption: Globalising Kosher and Halal Markets (2018) and Kosher and Halal Business Compliance (2018). He has also published articles in journals and edited volumes. E-mail: johanf@ruc.dk

Religion and Society

Advances in Research

  • View in gallery

    Product name and batch/serial number on a specific Novozymes product

    Photograph © Johan Fischer

  • Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 2012. The Specialty Food Market in North America. Ottawa: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

  • AhlinLarsJørn BorupMarianne Q. FibigerLene KühleViggo Mortensen and René D. Pedersen. 2012. “Religious Diversity and Pluralism: Empirical Data and Theoretical Reflections from the Danish Pluralism Project.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 27 (3): 403418.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BearLaura. 2013. “The Antinomies of Audit: Opacity, Instability and Charisma in the Economic Governance of a Hooghly Shipyard.” Economy and Society 42 (3): 375397.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BlechZushe Y. 2008. Kosher Food Production. Ames, IA: Wiley-Blackwell.

  • BrunssonNils and Bengt Jacobsson. 2000. “The Contemporary Expansion of Standardization.” In A World of Standards ed. Nils Brunsson and Bengt Jacobsson117. New York: Oxford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BuckserAndrew. 1999. “Keeping Kosher: Eating and Social Identity among the Jews of Denmark.” Ethnology 38 (3): 191209.

  • BuckserAndrew. 2003. After the Rescue: Jewish Identity and Community in Denmark. New York: Pal-grave Macmillan.

  • BuschLawrence. 2000. “The Moral Economy of Grades and Standards.” Journal of Rural Studies 16 (3): 273283.

  • BuschLawrence. 2013. Standards: Recipes for Reality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • CampbellHughAnne Murcott and Angela MacKenzie. 2011. “Kosher in New York City, Halal in Aquitaine: Challenging the Relationship between Neoliberalism and Food Auditing.” Agriculture and Human Values 28 (1): 6779.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • DiamondEtan. 2000. And I Will Dwell in Their Midst: Orthodox Jews in Suburbia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

  • DiamondEtan. 2002. “The Kosher Lifestyle: Religious Consumerism and Suburban Orthodox Jews.” Journal of Urban History 28 (4): 488505.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • FergusonJames and Akhil Gupta. 2002. “Spatializing States: Toward an Ethnography of Neoliberal Governmentality.” American Ethnologist 29 (4): 9811002.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • FischerJohan. 2012. “Branding Halal: A Photographic Essay on Global Muslim Markets.” Anthropology Today 28 (4): 1821.

  • HirschEric and David N. Gellner. 2001. “Introduction: Ethnography of Organizations and Organizations of Ethnography.” In Inside Organizations: Anthropologists at Work ed. David N. Gellner and Eric Hirsch115. Oxford: Berg.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • KleinMisha. 2012. Kosher Feijoada and Other Paradoxes of Jewish Life in São Paulo. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

  • LamplandMartha and Susan Leigh Star eds. 2009. Standards and Their Stories: How Quantifying Classifying and Formalizing Practices Shape Everyday Life. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LeverJohn and Johan Fischer. 2018. Religion Regulation Consumption: Globalising Kosher and Halal Markets. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LyttonTimothy D. 2013. Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • MillerDaniel. 2003. “The Virtual Moment.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 9 (1): 5775.

  • NielsenAnne M. 2014. “Accommodating Religious Pluralism in Denmark.” European Journal of Sociology 55 (2): 245274.

  • PowerMichael. 1999. The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • RegensteinJoe M.Muhammad M. Chaudry and Carrie E. Regenstein. 2003a. “The Kosher and Halal Food Laws.” Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety 2 (3): 111127.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • RegensteinJoe M.Muhammad M. Chaudry and Carrie E. Regenstein. 2003b. “Kosher and Halal in the Biotechnology Era.” Applied Biotechnology Food Science and Policy 1: 95107.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • RegensteinJoe M. and Carrie E. Regenstein. 1979. “An Introduction to the Kosher Dietary Laws for Food Scientists and Food Processors.” Food Technology 33 (1): 8999.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • RegensteinJoe M. and Carrie E. Regenstein. 1988. “Kosher Dietary Laws and Their Implementation in the Food Industry.” Food Technology 42 (6): 8694.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • RegensteinJoe M. and Carrie E. Regenstein. 1990. “Kosher Certification of Vinegar: A Model for Industry/Rabbinical Cooperation.” Food Technology 44 (7): 9093.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • RegensteinJoe M. and Carrie E. Regenstein. 1991. “Current Issues in Kosher Foods.” Trends in Food Science & Technology 2: 5054.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • RegensteinJoe M. and Carrie E. Regenstein. 1999. “Kosher Products: A Growing Market for Processors.” NFPA Journal 1: 1113.

  • RobertsPeter W.Tal Simons and Anand Swaminathan. 2010. “Crossing a Categorical Boundary: The Implications of Switching from Non-Kosher Wine Production in the Israeli Wine Market.” Research in the Sociology of Organizations 31: 153173.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • UrciuoliBonnie. 2008. “Skills and Selves in the New Workplace.” American Ethnologist 35 (2): 211228.