If a product is certified pareve, it is free of dairy and meat.

CHICAGO — There’s a boom in kosher certification being fueled by consumers’ desire for clean label, allergen-free and vegan foods, as the various kosher designations communicate a food’s composition. If it’s certified pareve, it is free of dairy and meat. A pareve item becomes kosher dairy or kosher meat when it is cooked together or includes a dairy or meat food, respectively.

To receive kosher certification, all ingredients in the product and the process used to prepare the product must be certified kosher. Thus, when a product or establishment is certified kosher, consumers know that it’s in compliance with complex, strict policy of kosher food laws, which include cleanliness, purity and quality.

For practicing Jewish people, kosher means more than responsible food preparation. Kosher refers to a set of intricate biblical laws that detail the types of food that may be consumed and the ways the foods may be prepared. The basis of this is scripture that does not permit consumption of dairy and meat at the same time. The two also may not be cooked together nor served together on the same table. This rule is scrupulously upheld in observant Jewish households, even in the handling of cooking vessels and utensils.

It is estimated that nearly 80 percent of all kosher food sales are outside of the traditional Jewish market according to the Orthodox Union (OU), New York, with more than 12 million American consumers choosing kosher food products for reasons related to health, food safety, taste, vegetarianism, lactose intolerance and other dietary restrictions. Food Business News, a sister publication to MEAT+POULTRY, spoke with Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union’s Kosher Division, to develop a better understanding of the kosher market. The OU is the world’s largest kosher certification agency, certifying almost 70 percent of the kosher food sold worldwide. This includes more than 800,000 products produced in more than 8,500 plants located in 100 countries around the world.

Rabbi Menachem Genack is the chief executive officer of the Orthodox Union's Kosher Division.

Kosher certification has come to be so much more than a visual cue to identify approved foods for Jewish consumers. Please describe the different consumer groups who seek out kosher-certified foods. What does kosher mean to these segments?

Rabbi Menachem Genack: The dynamics of the kosher market are often misunderstood. While the initial demand for kosher products comes from committed kosher consumers, there’s more to it than that. As reflected in the famous ad of the 70s, “You don’t have to be Jewish to eat Levy’s rye,” the kosher market extends far beyond the Jewish population.

Consumers include Muslims, Seventh Day Adventists and vegetarians who purchase kosher products for religious or moral reasons. Additionally, those with milk related allergies, health-conscious individuals and discerning consumers often view reliable kosher symbols as signs of health, quality and integrity. They, too, comprise the very large pool of devoted consumers.

Kosher consumers, however, do not fully account for the remarkable growth pattern that we have witnessed in recent years in the kosher industry.

What is driving this growth of kosher certification?

Rabbi Genack: For starters, companies can ill-afford to allow their competitors to have a significant marketing advantage. We often receive applications from companies whose competitors have chosen to be kosher certified. This dynamic is so powerful that many areas, such as baking and snack foods, have extremely high concentrations of kosher supervision, and some staple industries, including vinegar, flavors and vegetable oils have kosher programs in almost every facility in the US.