The kosher food industry has become another victim of the economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak after massive production lines in China were put on hold due to its position at the epicenter of the global pandemic.
Kosher factories are located across China, and they make a variety of food products. Although the pandemic does not seem to have greatly affected Passover shipments, it has decreased business in general since the novel coronavirus was first reported in Wuhan last December.
Speaking with The Times of Israel in mid-March, Rabbi Menachem Genack, the head of the Orthodox Union’s (OU) kosher division — perhaps the largest supervision outfit in the world — said that the impact of COVID-19 on the kosher food business in China has already been profound.
“For a long time, they closed down factories,” Genack said. “The Chinese New Year came and [the closing] was extended, the government closed them even longer” — although by the middle of March, “many of them, not all, most have reopened.”
There are at least 1,270 certified kosher factories in China, according to separate interviews by The Times of Israel with representatives of three major certification organizations — the OU, KOF-K and Star-K. A fourth, OK Kosher, declined an interview request and a fifth, the Chicago Rabbinical Council, did not respond to an inquiry.
The OU, based in the United States with supervision operations around the globe, certifies about 610 factories in China as kosher, with their exports going worldwide — primarily to the US, Genack said. Although he could not provide the amount of volume, Genack said that they make “all different kinds of products,” including vegetables, fruits, ingredients and emulsifiers. He called them “safe products,” and said that all products entering the US have to be approved by the FDA and USDA.
“There’s a substantial amount of trade, obviously, between China and the US,” Genack said. “Food products and ingredients are part of it. Since American companies started going to China, over a range of 20 years, in both the food sector and other areas as well, the exports produced in China for the US are quite dramatic.”
According to Genack, the OU-certified factories in China represent about five percent of facilities supervised by the organization worldwide.
Genack said the COVID-19 response in China has not impacted the Passover sector “because most of the Passover products were done already.”
This was echoed by other representatives of kosher certification agencies.
“Most of the Pesach [Passover products] were done long before anyone had even heard of COVID-19,” Rabbi Binyamin Berkowitz of KOF-K Kosher Supervision said. “It basically did not affect [the month of March]. Some things were a little bit problematic. Some products are understandably a little bit late, which might be problematic.”
KOF-K certifies roughly 550 factories in China, with exports including herbal extracts, flavored chemicals, basic frozen products and canned products. Raw materials from these factories are sent to companies around the world, including the US and EU. Berkowitz said these factories represent “a significant portion of the raw materials we certify” among thousands of factories worldwide.
In an email update the week before Passover, Berkowitz said that “Passover shipments were really not affected as a large majority were already produced well before the pandemic became widespread.”
This also holds true for Star-K, according to its head of Far East certification, Rabbi Avrohom Mushell. Passover production among the several hundred factories that Star-K certifies is usually done by Hanukkah time, Mushell said.
“A couple of products we had to cancel,” Mushell said. “Most were already done before it all broke out.”
Star-K works with factories that make a diverse range of products, including fruits and vegetables shipped in multiple forms — canned, dehydrated and frozen. The list also includes food ingredients and food acids.
Mushell said Star-K has been affected not only in terms of shipments, but also regarding its kosher oversight.
“As you can understand, now everybody was forced to stay away,” Mushell said. “It’s really put us a lot in jeopardy.”
Star-K, the OU and KOF-K all normally send inspectors to monitor the companies they certify. Some kosher supervisors are based in the Far East, while others are from Israel.
“Under normal circumstances, we’d get in fairly regularly, monitor ingredients, make sure all the ingredients and production are not an issue for kosher,” Mushell said. “We’d review all the ingredients, products, equipment, make sure [the factory] only does kosher.”
The OU’s Genack said that a key is to ensure that factories do not also work with non-kosher items, such as shellfish and other animal products.
“We send or have local people inspect the [factories] to make sure whatever standards we establish are being met,” Genack said.
When Genack joined the OU around 1980, it did not work with factories in China. However, he said, “as the global economy improved, American companies started looking for a source of supplies” that was “beyond the borders of the US and Europe.”
Berkowitz described KOF-K as one of the first kosher certification agencies to work with factories in China, having done so for over two decades. “We got in when China started opening up for business to foreigners,” he said. “We’ve been growing ever since. At this point, the market is pretty full in China as far as kosher goes. We’re not so much looking for new [companies as] maintaining the old [relationships].”
Although COVID-19 cases continue to increase worldwide, things seem to be settling down somewhat in China as of late, raising hopes of getting back to business.
“We were definitely affected when companies shut down,” Berkowitz said. “It definitely has not been easy. Things are getting back to normal at this point, definitely back to normal to some degree, but it’s taking time. On the news we see [China’s] cases are going down, which is definitely helping them out, but it’s really hard to know [to what extent].”
And he wonders whether there might be a new normal post-coronavirus.
“One lesson I believe we may have learned is that you really have to diversify the system,” Berkowitz said. “You never know where the shortage will be.”