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Compromise on kosher certification sought

Sara Lee and Bimbo bread products are displayed together in a Chicago store in 2010. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Sara Lee and Bimbo bread products are displayed together in a Chicago store in 2010. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Some three to four weeks ago, the Orthodox Union learned that Bimbo Bakeries, the largest baking company in the United States, would be removing kosher certification from nearly all of its bread and rolls. The company produces brands including Arnold, Sara Lee, Stroehmann, Freihofer’s, and others.

“Removing the kosher certification from some of our products was strictly a business-process decision to enable more efficient operations, and it was one we did not make lightly,” Bimbo said in a statement. “Thomas’ and Entenmann’s products as well as Arnold’s and Levy’s Rye Breads will remain kosher-certified. It is important to note that we have heard our consumers’ concerns and are working with kosher certification organizations and discussing alternative solutions.”

Bimbo’s concern about the decision, and its willingness to work with the certification groups to consider the question further, were borne out by Rabbi Menachem Genack of Englewood. Rabbi Genack, who heads the OU’s kashrut division, recently met with Bimbo representatives. He’d asked for that meeting when he learned about the bakery’s plans some four weeks ago, Rabbi Genack said.

The meeting resulted in the following statement: “Bimbo Bakeries USA & the Orthodox Union had a productive meeting on December 13, 2018. We are confident that working together we can meet the bread and buns needs of kosher consumers. Bimbo Bakeries and the OU have identified several possible solutions and aim to finalize a plan in January 2019. Bimbo Bakeries continues to offer kosher certified breakfast and sweet baked goods products under the Thomas’ and Entenmann’s brands.”

Rabbi Genack, who has held his position with the OU since 1980 and has been the spiritual leader of Englewood’s Shomrei Emunah since 1985, said that the December 13 meeting was marked by good feelings and a clear desire to work things out.

“The meeting in Horsham, Pennsylvania” — Bimbo’s headquarters — “was very cordial,” Rabbi Genack said. “They explained the issues and said they were open to finding some solution.” Bimbo understands the difficulty its decision will bring to kosher consumers outside the New York/New Jersey area, he added.

According to an earlier report from JTA Wire Service, the Bimbo decision “will make it much harder for those outside major Jewish population centers to buy kosher bread. Rabbi Ari Senter, Kof-K’s kosher administrator” — the certifying agency Kof-K is based in Teaneck — “said the agency has received hundreds of concerned calls since the decision was first reported earlier this month.”

So has the OU.

Rabbi Genack said that the motivating factor for the company is not just efficiency. It also is related to a “trend in the market, where more ingredients — such as milk products and raisin juice — are put into the bread to make it richer. In addition, in general, they are consolidating the number of breads they have. Some are incrementally different.

Rabbi Menachem Genack

“Their primary concern is one of flexibility within their plants, that they can produce it on other lines that are not necessarily designated for kosher.”

The OU is “looking toward finding solutions to have basic breads — rye, white, whole wheat — available in some kind of brand,” Rabbi Genack said. And, he repeated, “Entenmanns and Thomas’ are not affected. They’re not in play.”

Although the kashrut organization is doing its research, Rabbi Genack said it would be premature to discuss possible solutions publicly, before the two groups meet again during the second week of January. Still, he repeated, “They’re very interested in this and very cooperative.” While some brands may disappear or consolidate, “we will find a solution to have those [basic] kinds of breads.”

Rabbi Senter of the Kof-K said that he will meet with Bimbo in early January. He pointed out, however, that discussions with the bakery are ongoing, “since there are always products being certified and decertified.” This time, however, “they decided to move a whole bunch.”

The goal of the meeting will be to maximize the number of kosher certified products available both to people in areas where kosher products are readily available and people in areas where they are are not. That second group would include, for example, places where consumers do not have access to kosher bakeries or where the variety of kosher products in supermarkets is limited. In such cases, “Other than Bimbo, they have no other choice for breads,” Rabbi Senter said. “Our concern is that we want to make sure kosher breads are available in some of the more remote Jewish communities.”

Rabbi Senter said he feels that there may be other ways of addressing the problems Bimbo will face with consolidation and its desire to streamline its operation. With the input of their own mechanical engineers and food chemists, he said, Kof-K hopes it can present options that limit the scope of decertification.

Bimbo uses both certifications, OU and Kof-K, mainly because it bought pre-existing bakeries that already had one or the other certification, Rabbi Senter said. But that’s not a problem. The two certifying organizations “have a very strong, healthy relationship” and occasionally share resources. “The two organizations work very well together,” he said. He hopes Bimbo will consider their suggestions.

Bimbo Bakeries USA is the U.S. division of Grupo Bimbo, the Mexican company that is the world’s largest bakery. The company, whose name is pronounced “Beem-bo” and is derived from the Italian word “bambino,” capped an aggressive move into the U.S. market with its 2011 acquisition of the Sara Lee Corp.

According to KosherFest, a large trade show of kosher foods, there are 1.3 million year-round Jewish consumers of kosher foods in the United States; there also are 35 million non-Jewish consumers of kosher products. According to Mintel, a market research firm, more than 40 percent of new foods launched in 2014 claimed to be kosher.

Rabbi Genack said that while there are a lot of reasons for dropping kosher certification — such as plant closings or consolidation — “there has to be an important marketing reason. Large brands know the marketing advantage of an OU” and rarely give up such certification.

Ben Sales of JTA Wire Service contributed to this report

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