The Great Kosher Seal Comparison: Is it Just Chutzpah?

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It’s 1986, and J. Robert Thomas is excited as he awaits the approval from the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America to kosher certify Bickel’s Potato Chips. Thomas is Bickel’s General Manager, and in a small newspaper from Lancaster, PA, he tells the reporter “We feel there are a lot of people who look for that stamp of approval. It is a rather strict inspection and people know that the product is kosher.”[1] In perusing the article, it is amusing to read “Most chips fried in lard cannot be approved as kosher, because lard is usually a pork by-product and pork is forbidden to Jews.” Having reported on kosher certification for four years now, we have heard many tales of removing lard from the traditional recipes in American cooking, only to be replaced with vegetable oils to accommodate Kashrus law. This, alone, is a fascinating subject, probing how an entire food industry can transform its tastes and production for the demands of a religious diet and whether the added vegetable oils affect our health. But lard removal is not the topic of our piece today. Thomas continues “It lets people know we have a kind of Good Housekeeping seal.” And so 1986 was one of the earliest mentions we could find in our research comparing the kosher seal to that of Good Housekeeping.

This 1986 example is far from the only one. In fact, for over 30 years the kosher-certifying industry has been telling us that their seal is like a Good Housekeeping seal—basically certifying that the product meets high standards. If that’s true, one would think that companies would want to display their kosher seals prominently and clearly label them. First, here’s some more examples.

  • Ann Wainright, Manager of Public Relations for Pepperidge Farms, Inc. tells New York Times journalist Joan Nathan that “The decision to kosher-certify our products was a logical one. Kosher consumers appreciate the quality that goes into our products. We don’t think it offends anyone, and the kosher symbol is like a Good Housekeeping endorsement.”[2] [emphasis added] That was 1989.
  • Sheila Lebovitz, owner of the kosher restaurant Sheila’s Café in San Diego, was interviewed in 2001 for The Californian[3], a Temecula, CA newspaper, and in it she proclaimed that “Having a kosher mark is like giving it the Good Housekeeping Seal.”
  • Four years later in 2005: Elizabeth LeSure of the Associated Press wrote an article titled Medications start getting kosher certification[4]. She quotes Rabbi Eliyahu Safran as saying “Consumers are more sophisticated today,” and she went on to say that “[Safran] likened the symbol of kosher certification to a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”
  • In the same year the Orthodox Union got into the act and began marketing its kosher certification online by comparing it to that famous seal found in America since 1909: “The OU kosher symbol has come to be as universally recognized and respected as the Good Housekeeping Seal.”[5] Then in 2006 the OU claimed it was “the world’s largest kosher certification agency, certifying over 275,000 products produced in nearly 6,000 plants located in 68 countries around the world (now it’s up to 8000 plants in 104 countries). This vast array includes consumer items, industrial ingredients, and food services. Like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, the logo, one of the world’s best-known trademarks, instills confidence in the purchaser that the product has passed inspection and meets high quality standards.”[6]

They have continued to make such claims ever since, including a 2008 OU Kosher article article in which Jeremy Fingerman, the CEO of of the R.A.B. Food Group (which owns Manischewitz and several other leading kosher brands), claims “Our research says that kosher certification is perceived like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.” Was he sincere in this statement, praising OU Kosher repute, or was this interview more or less arranged as a continuation of a four-year marketing ploy to hang their eminence on the coat tails of Good Housekeeping?

In Essays in Economic and Business History (2003) we find a great deal presented on the Good Housekeeping Seal: “The full extent of consumer awareness of the Seal in its mature years can be seen in the findings of Parkinson’s 1975 study. Working with a sample in Delaware, he found that the Good Housekeeping Seal had a consumer recognition rate of 98 percent, higher than any other seal or certification mark, including “U.S.D.A. Choice” and “Underwriters’ Laboratory.”[9] It adds regarding younger consumers: “Another study from the same time period (1980) found 60.4 percent of high school graduates and 48.2 percent of college graduates reported looking for seals before buying a product.” A 1997 reference from this history indicates that “a recent study showed 92 percent of [American Women] were familiar with the Good Housekeeping seal of Approval.”

These are certainly percentages that a worldwide kosher agency like New York City-based OU Kosher would strive for, especially after being in the food certification business since 1923.[10] And so it is understandable that they attempt to make this claim for similarity of brand recognition, as it probably helps this religious, tax-exempt, financial-disclosure-exempt non-profit grow its supremacy[11] over the secular marketplace. But the team behind Koschertfied found quite a different story after several surveys and a research study on the industry. In fact, in a survey[12] screening in particular for big-box retail members of Costco, we found that only 10% of these savvy consumers recognized the OU Kosher Seal (shown below). And this comes from a store where it is challenging to find any food products free from kosher certification.

Another survey of ours gauged the general familiarity of various symbols found on package labels, and here we discovered only 14% recognizing the OU kosher seal, while 88% recognized the recyclable symbol, 69% recognized the Gluten-Free seal (only in existence since 2005), and 73% recognized the Registered Trademark symbol properly.

Keep in mind that this Gluten-Free certification seal is always accompanied by descriptive text “Gluten-Free Certified”, although we didn’t include that in our survey. But it should provoke the reader to ask why “Kosher Certified” or “Kosher” text does not accompany the OU symbol in most cases[13].

And so the largest kosher agency in the world, in existence for 97 years now, has been for decades building its reputation and selling its religious intervention services by comparing its trademarked symbol with the iconic Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, while realistically only getting 10-14% recognition at best from the general consumer. the-great-kosher-seal-comparison-or-is-it-just-chutzpah

There’s only 14 years separating the age of the two certification seals, but the differences are astounding, and they should alert the reader to ulterior motives on the side of the kosher agency. We summed it up in our Quantitative Study On Kosher Certification, and it’s all about transparency: No text descriptors; small seal areas averaging just 10% the size of other same package seals; segregation of seals from others on label; mono-colored as the norm, sometimes even camouflaged. In fact, we couldn’t help but conclude from that study that there was a systemic deceptive trade practice in play — highly secretive within the food and kitchen product industry, and purposely driven to keep consumers from becoming aware of the ubiquitous nature of kosher certification. In fact, in the process of researching for this article we discovered that even the Gluten-Free Certification is performed by Jewish OU inspectors through GFCO. But while the non-religious Gluten-Free non-profit[14] is a separate 501(c)3, they apparently care to have their trademarked symbol be easily noticed, no matter what package it falls on.

There are few products found in the supermarket that bare both seals, OU Kosher and Good Housekeeping. But allow us to use the most popular dishwashing detergent on the market as our prime example: Cascade.

The kosher seal here measures just 3.33mm2 in area while the Good Housekeeping comes in at 317.94 mm2 – for an area ratio of 95.5 times as large in favor of Good Housekeeping! The kosher seal is the same size as the registered trademark symbol found below and to the right of the “e” in “Cascade”, and many consumers likely confuse the kosher seal for that, and it literally is so small that many adults might require a magnifying glass to identify it.

Every word and number on the Good Housekeeping seal is legible, and the distinctive oval shape is large enough to be easily noticed, drawing the consumer to appreciating the quality and dependability that the seal represents. While the kosher seal is located on the front label, the Good Housekeeping seal (found on the side) still appears more like a true marketing feature for this product. The two seals are dissimilar in shape, size and legibility. And despite all the stipulations that probably are written into the contract arranging the kosher seal display, the low transparency must not bother either party. Indeed, the Cascade Team replied to our inquiry on the small size of their kosher seal by stating “The way it’s currently displayed is in-line with the guidance for use of the symbol.” When challenging them for specific details in the cost for this religious certification, they responded “[W]e pay a standard annual fee for each of our manufacturing plants”. Well, that explains it all!

The Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval is an honest marketing symbol recognized by a majority of consumers, even 111 years after its inception. It is in a category completely separate from the equally aged OU Kosher seal. And to see a large company like Procter & Gamble display the diminutive kosher seal as if hoping that nobody would notice it, it should give cause to infer suspicious motives underlying the entire kosher certification affair. In fact, Cascade’s OU kosher seal is one of the smallest we have found in four years of research, while their Good Housekeeping seal is the largest certification we’ve come across.

In conclusion, we find a religious organization, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, successfully parlaying its Kashrus dietary laws on an unsuspecting consumer populace in the secular marketplace – and reaping millions of dollars of disclosure-free revenue in the process. About one tenth of the public may recognize their symbol on products, but that does not automatically convey that all of them seek to purchase items because of its kosher representation. The Cascade example and their vague response to our inquiries suggests that they do not want consumers to discover their religious intervention complicity, and maybe they are even embarrassed for kosherizing an inedible product, especially as there is much pilpul[15] required in justifying this[16]. This is obviously much different as to how they proudly display the Good Housekeeping seal. And so is there a realistic comparison? Our opinion: Not a chance!

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