Bimbo backs down

Bimbo backs down

Despite trend toward consolidation, kosher consumer power prevailed — this time

Rabbi Menachem Genack, left, Matt Stoller, and Louis Brandeis
Rabbi Menachem Genack, left, Matt Stoller, and Louis Brandeis

The calls and letters worked.

The Orthodox Union reports that in the near future, Arnold brand hamburger and hot dog buns again will be pareve, and bear the appropriate label. Last year, Bimbo Bakeries, which is based in Mexico but dominates the U.S. bread market and owns Arnold and several other brands that were under kashrut supervision for a long time, announced changes to its recipes that would have rendered the products dairy. Generally, dairy bread is not certified as kosher, since a dairy hamburger bun combined with a meat hamburger is a kashrut disaster just waiting to happen.

“They’re looking to accommodate our community,” Rabbi Menachem Genack of Englewood said. Rabbi Genack is the CEO of OU Kosher that, along with Teaneck-based Kof-K Kosher Services, certified many of Bimbo Bakeries products.

Restoring certification was a priority for Rabbi Genack. “It’s especially important for consumers outside areas where there are kosher bakeries,” he said.

In a statement, Bimbo said that ““After hearing from our loyal kosher consumers and after productive meetings with our kosher certifiers, Bimbo Bakeries USA is pleased to announce that we will once again be offering kosher products under the Arnold, Sara Lee and Ball Park brands.”

But none of this would have been a problem in the first place, Matt Stoller said, if America hadn’t stopped listening to Louis Brandeis.

Mr. Stoller is a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, which works “to expose and reverse the stranglehold that corporate monopolies have on our country.” He also is writing a book for Simon and Schuster about the rise and fall of antitrust law in the 20th century.

Louis Brandeis is best known today for becoming the first Jewish Supreme Court justice and a Zionist leader, but from when he began as a young attorney in the 1890s, he fought monopolies and corporate power. “He updated our anti-monopoly traditions for the industrial age,” Mr. Stoller said.

That was part of the rise of antitrust law. The decline came in the 1970s, when American monopoly law “all fell apart,” Mr. Stoller said.

To Mr. Brandeis and his fellow anti-monopoly reformers, the concentration of economic power was inherently dangerous. As a result, the law regulates companies’ ability to buy other companies. In recent decades, however, antitrust enforcement has been weakened by the courts and regulators.

Courts have insisted that the only valid purpose of anti-monopoly laws is to keep consumer prices low. And government officials, led by William Baxter, who led the antitrust division of the department of Justice under President Ronald Reagan, decided to ignore Supreme Court precedent and stop preventing mergers.

The result has been decades of consolidation. It was this Reagan-era shift that allowed Facebook to buy up social media rivals including Instagram and WhatsApp.

In 2011, Bimbo Bakeries bought its number 3 rival, Sara Lee Bakeries, and consolidated its offerings —its holdings include Arnold, Freihoffer’s, Sara Lee, and Entenmann’s. Bimbo had planned to stop baking pareve bread on many of its lines as a result of that consolidation.

When Bimbo bought Sara Lee’s bakery business in 2011, regulators did force it to sell some of its assets.

But what is the cost to the consumer of all these mergers ?

Advocates say that efficiencies keep costs down.

Mr. Stoller, however, says that mergers lead to decreased wages for workers and fewer choices for consumers. “Even if you accept that a large bakery conglomerate is more efficient at baking bread, it’s only because they’re not baking kosher bread,” he said, before Bimbo announced that some lines would again be kosher, though fewer than before. “What do you mean by efficiency?

“You can map this out to the general economy. There’s increasingly poor selection. It’s true for African Americans and hair products. You get new entrants that come into the market, specializing in hair products for African Americans. Procter and Gamble bought one of those companies. Eventually they shut them down because the person who runs it doesn’t have political juice inside Procter and Gamble. You see this in a lot of different subgroups.”

While Bimbo has partially reversed course, there has so far been no response to Jewish concerns raised about another consolidated industrial player: Amazon.

Last month, Amazon moved customers of CreateSpace, a print-on-demand printer it bought in 2005, to a new service, Kindle Direct Printing. While the printing presses are the same, the procedures used by customers to create the books are slightly different. And the new system won’t publish books in Yiddish or Hebrew.

Yiddish writer Zackary Sholem Berger hopes that a public backlash will get Amazon to change these new policies, which threaten Yiddish publications and authors. “Let Amazon know that Yiddish — and Hebrew — ought to be reinstated onto the list of languages, in which one can publish new titles on KDP,” he wrote in an article appearing on the Forward’s Yiddish and English websites.

Mr. Stoller, for his part, is optimistic that anti-monopoly fervor is experiencing a comeback. Not only is there the think tank that employs him; its ideas are being picked up by politicians.

“The Federal Trade Commission is investigating Facebook,” he said. “In 2016, the Democrats had an anti-monopoly plank in their platform for the first time since 1988. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who just took over the anti-trust subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, has been talking about the need to reinvigorate anti-trust. Senator Elizabeth Warren has been talking about it. So has Cory Booker.”

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