The Jew And The Carrot

Q & A: Timothy Lytton, Author of the Book 'Kosher'

By Bryant Simon

  • Print
  • Share Share
Courtesy of What Is Your Food Worth?

This post originally appeared on the blog What Is Your Food Worth?

Timothy D. Lytton is the Albert and Angela Farone Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School, where he teaches courses on regulatory theory and administrative law. His book, “Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food,” has just been published by Harvard University Press. In his book, Lytton argues that the $12 billion a year kosher industry is something of an unheralded story of success of private-sector regulation in an era of growing public concern over the government’s ability to ensure food safety. Kosher uncovers how independent certification agencies rescued American kosher supervision from fraud and corruption and turned it into a model of nongovernmental administration.

Recently Professor Lytton answered a few questions from the What Is Your Food Worth? Project.

WIYFW: What got you interested in kosher food and the business of kosher?

Timothy Lytton: I am interested in private alternatives to government regulation, especially in the areas of food safety and nutrition labeling. As a general matter, private food safety audits and industry-sponsored nutrition labeling schemes have been a great disappointment. Behind most major food-poisoning outbreaks is some private auditing firm that gave the food producer a phony five-star rating. And when nutritional rating schemes give high marks to sugary cereals and full-fat ice cream, you have to wonder.

As a kosher-observant Orthodox Jew, I realized that kosher certification offers a 2000 year old example of private food certification. My initial suspicion was that kosher certification was full of price gouging and unnecessary, super-stringent standards. As I began to get into my research, however, I found that, although fraud and corruption were rampant a century ago in kosher meat production, today’s kosher system is highly reliable. My book tells the story of how, within the span of a century, kosher certification became the one of the most reliable systems of private certification in the food industry, indeed, perhaps in any industry.

WIYFW: Given the recent horsemeat scandal, do you have any thoughts about why some food regulations fail and others succeed? In our industrialized and globalized food system, is it really possible to monitor what goes into the food we eat?

The food business is one of the largest and most complex industries on the planet. Global retail food sales alone are a $4 trillion operation, and supply chains from farm to table reach around the globe. No regulatory system can provide 100% protection from foodborne illness or adequately police nutrition labeling. The real question is how to achieve marginal improvements in food safety and labeling. Government regulation of these problems has come a long way in the past century since the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act were passed in 1906. Governments in other countries have made similar advances.

Unfortunately, government regulation still falls short of public expectations. That’s where private regulation comes in. Reliable private certification can help to achieve marginal improvements in these areas. Private regulation need not be instead of government regulation; it can complement it.

WIYFW: You write that the kosher industry has succeeded as a non-governmental regulatory body. In other words, if something is labeled kosher, it will not include treif [non-kosher] ingredients. Do you think there is a larger lesson here? Has government failed? Do we seek other ways and other forms of regulation?

TL: As I mentioned, private certification offers a potential complement to government regulation in reducing food contamination, adulteration, and mislabeling. The larger lesson of kosher certification is that, under certain conditions, private regulation can be highly effective in making sure that whatever companies claim about their products is true—whether that be the kosher status of the product or some other feature, such as purity, fair labor standards, or environmental sustainability.

WIYFW: Back to the kosher industry: Do you think the kosher industry could expand its regulatory power to deal with how labor, animals, and the environment are treated? Do you believe the kosher industry should feel responsible to adhere to regulations beyond those specifically mandated by Jewish law?

TL: Kosher certification agencies are staffed by professionals with specialized training in Jewish dietary laws, food chemistry, and food technology. Although there may be some overlap between these specialties and other regulatory specialties, one should be careful to entrust kosher inspectors with tasks for which they are not trained and to which they may not be as committed as they are to kosher observance. Of course, an ethical person should not be complicit in any production operation involving unfair labor practices, animal cruelty, or environmental degradation. But I’m not sure I would entrust the job of assuring consumers about those things to a person not professionally trained in these areas or committed to these regulatory goals. Moreover, on a practical basis, companies grant kosher inspectors extraordinary access to their operations for the purpose of kosher certification. It is not clear that they would grant these same inspectors this level of access to police other aspects of their operations that might expose them to criminal or civil sanctions.

That said, as a consumer, I seek products that are certified as fair trade, free of animal cruelty, and environmentally sustainable. Private certification offers a potentially effective tool to protect consumers and promote these policies. My book argues that the history of the kosher certification system holds important lessons about how to make such systems of private certification reliable. Kosher certification is not the vehicle, but it is the model.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: tomothy lytton, food regulation, Kosher

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.