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Sylvain CharleboisCanada’s largest kosher meat packer has had its licences suspended, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). This could spell trouble for consumers of kosher meat products and particularly the Jewish community.

Ryding-Regency Meat Packers, a Toronto-based company, has been in operation since 1983. The company, which also operates under other names, had its licence suspended in mid-September for “non-compliances related to control measures,” according to CFIA.

The federal agency didn’t release any more information and we don’t know what happened, but this shutdown could put pressure on kosher supplies.

Kosher is all about trust, belief and authenticity.

Historically, the sector has been affected by fraudulent behaviour and mislabelling practices, which is why many certification bodies exist to make sure companies remain in compliance.

For kosher neophytes, the word means ‘acceptable,’ and is based on writings in the Bible and in Jewish legal works. The kosher diet restricts consumption of certain animals, such as pigs, rabbits, shellfish and insects. Kosher meat from acceptable animals must be slaughtered according to strict protocols, and by a trained butcher or “shochet.” Practices prohibit causing pain to animals.

Other rules also apply. Milk and meat products must never be mixed. Also, certain food products must be prepared either in whole or in part by Jews. This includes products like wine and cheese.

Rules are typically rigorous and quite strict. In food service, very rarely will kosher-observant restaurants get fined by a city for not complying to food safety rules. In fact, some restaurant owners don’t have access to their own fridge.

Kosher certification is a serious matter and Canadian courts have upheld kosher standards. In January of this year, an Ontario judge ordered a company to pay a fine of $25,000 for not following trademark rules. The cake mix company Adee Flour Mills was accused of causing “spiritual trauma” by not adhering to strict kosher rules, even though they were certified by the largest certification body in the country, the Kashruth Council of Canada. It marked the first time CFIA had proceeded with a case of misrepresentation of a kosher-certified food product.

So we know CFIA is watching.

According to a recent survey, 1.5 million Canadians buy kosher regularly. More than 3.5 million non-Jews in Canada buy kosher products. That’s the equivalent of the population of Montreal.

The kosher market in Canada has expanded by more than 10 per cent over the last year and kosher products can be found everywhere. More than 195,000 kosher products are available to Canadians, and almost one company a week in Canada becomes kosher certified. The kosher market in Canada exceeds that of gluten-free products. Ottawa even held a kosher meat cook-off recently, a first in this country.

Food fraud is an issue for a growing number of consumers, and kosher products have become synonymous with trust and legitimacy. Faith-based certification and other credence labels, including organic and fair trade, suggest heightened emphasis on care and rigour. Many will buy these products as a result of their trust in the embedded process and what it signifies.

Kosher certification goes beyond just food safety or dietary regimes. Its symbolic and religious virtues are critical to the currency of this category. A simple recall can jeopardize perceptions about reliability of the process.

And the Ryding-Regency case is not just a recall – it’s a complete shutdown. It’s a gutsy move by CFIA, and it doesn’t bode well for the category. CFIA appears to be more active and willing to support certification agencies and preserve the integrity of the entire kosher system. This is long overdue.

It would be premature to make any conclusive statements but the shutdown could be detrimental to the entire kosher market in Canada.

Let’s hope the situation gets resolved soon. If not, more kosher products will need to be imported in order to respond to a growing Canadian demand.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, and a senior fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

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