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No competition please, we’re the Kashrut Authority

May 23, 2010 – 10:47 pm49 Comments
Monopoly board game

It's ok as a board game but not a way to determine kashrut.

By Rachel Sacks-Davis

In a move that can only be interpreted as anti-competitive, Kosher Australia and associates have applied to the government for exclusive rights to decide who can label a product, ‘kosher’. As reported in the AJN this week, the application was made in the context of an Australian Government Food Labelling Review. If the proposal is accepted, restaurants, food products and caterers whose hechsher is not approved by the new federal kashrut body, will not be able to call their product kosher under Australian law.

It is not clear how this would affect imported kosher products, although presumably the hypothetical kashrut body could take fees for allowing a foreign kashrut authority to claim kosher status on our shores. It is clear, however, that the move would make it very difficult for any competitor within Australia.

At a time in which Kosher v’Yosher, the main Orthodox competitor to Kosher Australia in Victoria, is growing, and a new competitor to the New South Wales kashrut authority has also emerged, it seems as though the major kashrut associations are trying to co-opt the Australian government in order to stifle competition.

Certainly, there does not seem to be any consumer driven motivation for limiting the use of the word ‘kosher’ under Australian law. Unlike in the US, there is no trend toward using the ‘kosher’ label without a hechsher. This means that food that is labelled kosher in Australia is under some sort of kosher supervision. It also means that the consumer can see who the supervisor is by examining the hechsher.

The proposal is also not driven by halachic concerns. There is no precedent in Jewish law that favours secular legal entities taking responsibility for kosher labelling. To the contrary, allowing secular courts this type of jurisdiction is non-traditional and can only limit Jewish religious freedom in this country.  Perhaps next a congregation will require the approval of a federal government body to call themselves a synagogue (I hope I’m not giving anyone ideas here!)

Notably, the government’s Food Labelling Review is being undertaking in order to improve transparency around food safety and nutrition. Given that kashrut is related to neither food safety nor nutrition, it seems unlikely that the proposal will be successful. Nonetheless, given that it is also unlikely the review committee has expertise in either Jewish law or Jewish communal politics, this proposal should be of concern to Australian kosher consumers.

Rabbi Yaron Gottlieb has published a letter that he wrote to his local MP protesting the proposal, and I would encourage others to make their views known. Unfortunately, Kosher Australia and associates have only publicised their plan after the final date for submitting a formal submission to the review. I am not sure whether or not this was intentional, but it does make it difficult for other Jewish groups to make their views known.

Finally, it is disappointing that the largely secular AJN (20/5) supports the proposal. Do the AJN really have any insight into the interests of the kosher consumer? Perhaps this is simply a case of one establishment organisation supporting another, but one does wonder whether AJN staff actually wrote their own editorial or whether it was simply a cut and paste job from a kashrut authority’s press release.

Peter Wertheim’s reply to this article is here, and for those who are interested, there is a petition against the proposal here.

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