A Higher Authority : Overseeing the Kosher Boom

The executive administrator for the Kosher Overseers Assn. of America won't set foot in Europe because he thinks Europeans didn't do enough to avert the Holocaust, yet he drives a '62 Mercedes.

He tells a visitor not to bother buckling up, yet he speeds 70 m.p.h. in the fast lane, swerving across solid white lines so as not to miss a freeway exit.

He always wears a traditional Jewish skullcap, yet he likes to vary his appearance by sometimes wearing over it the white straw cowboy hat he recently picked up in China.

And though this rabbi recently told a reporter that only orthodox Jews are "real" Jews--that the members of the large reform and conservative branches are merely "going through the motions"--he has been criticized in the past for bucking mainstream orthodox thinking over what can and cannot be considered kosher.

Meet Rabbi I. Harold Sharfman, leader of one of a handful of national kosher certifying organizations, who has thus carved himself an increasingly prominent role in the food industry. For in these environmentally troubled times, kosher is no longer a niche market.

With little fanfare, an increasing number of national and international corporations have gone kosher, with combined sales of more than $3 billion. By far, most of the sales increase comes from health food fans and Christians, says Steve Walz, kosher editor for the Jewish Press. "They regard the kosher seal as the equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval," he says.

Muslims and Hindus, whose religious food requirements are similar to Jewish ones, make up much of the rest of the increase, says Sharfman, with Jews constituting less than a quarter of kosher sales.

Nor are kosher foods always the obvious picks. They range from See's Candies to Dole pineapples, from Ronzoni macaroni to Bazooka bubble gum, from Sunkist orange juice to Knudsen's dairy products. Kosher foods also include King's Hawaiian Bakery and Country Hearth corn bread; A & W Root Beer and Seven-Up; Pillsbury Dough and Campbell's Soups--as well as the drinks and snacks on American, Delta and Northwest Orient Airlines.

Even Thrifty Ice Cream is kosher. Silvia Geiger, quality control supervisor for Thrifty Ice Cream, says her Los Angeles division went kosher a year ago after many customers demanded it. Thrifty estimated it would lose about 20% of its ice cream business if it lost its certification.

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Because kosher standards are stricter than those of the FDA, kosher meats sell for a premium. Some merchants take advantage of the price difference to sell non-kosher meats as kosher, Sharfman says. The practice has become so widespread that more than a dozen states have made it illegal for merchants to falsely advertise their products as kosher.

All of this gives Sharfman's Kosher Overseers and other the many other natinoal and local kosher certifying organizations more than a little power. It's a power the organizations are not reluctant to use.

In 1990, a kosher meat inspector for the Rabbinical Council of California climbed into the dumpster behind a once-popular Westside kosher market and discovered a poultry box from a non-kosher supplier. The Rabbinical Council promptly shut down the business.

But Sharfman, who has been called a maverick rabbi, gave the controversial butcher shop the blessing it needed to reopen two months later, defying the ruling of the Rabbinical Council of which he is not a member. In response, the Rabbinical Council took out an ad in a local Jewish weekly declaring that the organization could not recommend the market. An informal boycott by orthodox Jews followed, and the market eventually closed for good three weeks later after Sharfman withdrew his independent certification.

Sharfman was criticized at the time for allowing the shop to reopen. But, he told The Times in 1990, "I did it not for money, but out of empathy, sympathy and compassion." And, he said at the time, he issued the certification as a temporary measure so the owner--who has since relocated to the Philadelphia area where he is successfully selling kosher meat--could stay in business while the Rabbinical Council reconsidered its decision.

Today, Sharfman is unapologetic for his action. "The RCC found certain boxes in the alley which contained non-kosher products," he says. "But these could have come from anywhere, not just from the store."

Sharfman says the market met all kosher requirements and was decertified the second time "for political and economic reasons."

"In my opinion, [closing the store] was not proper," he says. "We had full-time supervision. This was ostracism. This had nothing to do with kosher."

Rabbi Binyomin Lisbon, who was then head of the RCC, maintains however that the RCC revoked kosher certification because the market's meat was neither butchered nor prepared in the required manner, which includes salting, soaking, and deveining. Nevertheless, he said, Sharfman remains a member in good standing of the kosher certifying community.

And as Sharfman's many national clients know, he's far from a soft touch. For larger food companies trying to gain kosher certification from Sharfman, theirmanufacturing facilities must be rigidly clean. It took Thrifty nine months to get things right, as new suppliers were found and machinery was re-inspected. Then, of course, all the ingredients must also be kosher.

Thrifty had to reconstitute many of its flavors to get Sharfman's approval. The task was complex, Geiger says, because about 50 ingredients go into each flavor. Only Rocky Road remains non-kosher, because she has been unable to find a kosher marshmallow manufacturer. That flavor is made last, with the equipment resterilized before a new batch of ice cream is made.

At first glance, Sharfman and Geiger might seem odd business partners. But this partnership has proven mutually profitable and has been replicated throughout the country, with Kosher Overseers alone employing more than 40 rabbis to inspect food.

The association was co-founded in 1910 in Brooklyn by Sharfman's father, Hyman Sharfman, and two other rabbis. In 1942, Sharfman's father moved here, making Kosher Overseers the West Coast's first, and only, major kosher certifying organization.

Sharfman picked up on his father's interest early on. While others practiced baseball, he inspected cattle lungs for early signs of disease at age 14. At 17, he became a certified kosher inspector.

Under biblical law, kosher inspectors may not certify any dead animal, or an ailing one that would have died of disease within 12 months of inspection. Biblical law also forbids the eating of pigs, rabbits and camels.

Similarly, kosher certification requires not only that the ingredients in foodstuffs be pure but that the food be manufactured in a sanitary manner. Should any food come into contact with the lubricant in food-processing machinery, it would still be considered pure if the manufacturer is kosher-certified; thus companies like Pennzoil, Chevron and Amoco have been certified kosher.

As science progresses, kosher regulations continue to evolve. Advances in scientific detection, for example, have caused a re-evaluation of leafy vegetables like broccoli, asparagus and lettuce. To qualify it as kosher, Sharfman says, the cook must hold each vegetable leaf to the light to look for any bugs, then rinse off any possible contaminants.

The mix of cleanliness, religion and business comes together in non-traditional ways at Kosher Overseers's Westside headquarters.

Next to the computers and Rolodexes is a hand-painted porcelain sign with raised letters that marked the entrance to a Berlin park in the '30s and '40s. On it is the legend, in German, "Jews Are Not Welcome Here." Immediately below the sign is a holy ark housing seven historic Torahs, or Jewish Bibles, and another ark housing a bloodstained Torah from the Warsaw ghetto.

Secular concerns are also evident throughout the kosher food certification industry. Thus, around the same time the Sharfman and the RCC were battling it out over Emes meats, the city of Miami, among others, made it illegal for merchants to falsely advertise products as kosher. To enforce the law, the city hired a kosher cop, who promptly ticketed assorted restaurants, bakeries and kosher meat markets, substantially curtailing the practice.

California, too, has prosecuted false advertising claims, says Herschel Elkins, senior assistant attorney general. Civil penalties for false advertising include fines of up to $2,500 per violation, and court injunctions which may include prohibitions against continued sales of the products.

Only five cases have been pursued over the last two decades, all of them sting operations, with enforcement officials posing as buyers or sellers of meat. The last case was in 1991.

Because of the undercover nature of the work, Elkins says, "These cases are very difficult to prove." The state does not get involved in religious disputes, which means that many decisions are left up to the rabbis of the various certifying organizations.

As kosher has become big business, disputes are likely to crop up more often, and the kosher-certifying agencies increasingly compete on price. Sharfman says a grape juice manufacturer "who would be paying 20 cents a gallon for certification if he shopped around is being charged 95 cents a gallon."

The manufacturer, Sharfman implies, would be better off with KOAA, which merely asks for "voluntary donations." Taken to extremes, kosher certification can also sometimes result in Alice in Wonderland type battles.

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In August 1993, a Jerusalem rabbi threatened to withdraw his organization's endorsement of Tara dairies if the company kept using dinosaurs on its label. The problem, the rabbi told Israeli radio, lay in claims that dinosaurs lived millions of years ago, contradicting religious teachings that the earth is less than 6,000 years old. Thus, he concluded, "the dinosaur represents a heresy." Tara Dairies officials, whose products would presumably be equally safe with or without the dinosaurs, eventually found an acceptable compromise with the rabbi.

Despite the potential for abuse, Sharfman insists that eating kosher is one of the best possible insurance policies to help keep the soul and body pure. "Judaism is a system of laws and life inspired by divine teachings.

"The Torah does not give direct reasons for kosher laws other than they are holy," he says. "But eating kosher separates people. Those who observe kosher laws are more likely to observe other Biblical injunctions, and lead a healthier, moral life."

Sharfman, who proudly tells how he was once invited to the house of Avraham Shapira, former chief rabbi of Israel, counts himself among the moralists.

"As the environment continues to deteriorate," Sharfman says, "perhaps the Biblical laws of 3,500 years ago are more applicable than ever."

Geiger finishes her hour-long guided tour of Thrifty's and Sharfman politely says good-bye. As his Mercedes pulls out of the Thrifty's parking lot, he turns to a reporter and gets around to explaining his cowboy hat. The Bible says that a man's head should be covered before God, Sharfman says, but it doesn't specify with what kind of covering.

MOROCCAN FISH

1/2 cup olive oil

8 to 10 cloves garlic, sliced

5 red bell peppers, sliced

4 medium tomatoes, diced

1 (12-ounce) can chickpeas

1 tablespoon turmeric

3 tablespoons paprika

1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 tablespoon salt

1 cup chopped cilantro

1/4 cup lemon juice

2 cups water

8 (4-ounce) sea bass steaks

Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. When hot, add garlic and cook, stirring, until barely brown. Do not burn. Add bell peppers, tomatoes, chickpeas, turmeric, paprika, pepper flakes, black pepper and salt. Cook mixture for 5 minutes. Add cilantro, lemon juice and water and cook until peppers are soft and fragrant, about 10 more minutes.

Take 1/4 of sauce and spread on bottom of 13x9-inch baking pan. Place fish in pan over sauce, then pour remaining sauce over fish. Cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees until fish begins to flake, about 20 minutes.

Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

300 calories; 1,083 mg sodium; 37 mg cholesterol; 17 grams fat; 19 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams protein; 1.86 grams fiber.

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