Industry food festival unveils latest in kosher products

WHIPPANY, N.J. (JTA) — They came from the far corners of the earth, from Japan, Australia, the Philippines, France, Turkey and South America.

Thousands of visitors sampled foods ranging from sushi and Asian-style dumplings to venison and California wraps.

After eating their way through the aisles, they finished off their snacking with sorbet, chocolate and pastry.

All the items on this diverse menu shared one trait: They were kosher.

Some 10,000 people — representing supermarkets, stores, hotels and restaurants in 37 states and 22 countries — came to the 11th annual Kosherfest, the International Kosher Food and Foodservice Trade Show. The festival took place last month in Secaucus, N.J.

The show's organizers, Integrated Marketing Communications Inc., billed the event as the largest kosher gathering in the world, representing the $45 billion kosher packaged-foods industry.

"A kosher label has become the new Good Housekeeping seal of approval for many Americans," said Menachem Lubinsky, Integrated Marketing's president.

Lubinsky's firm also publishes Kosher Today, a monthly industry publication.

There were displays of items by companies traditionally known for their kosher food products, such as B. Manischewitz Co., Empire Kosher Poultry and Kedem.

But among the 375 booths promoting kosher manufacturers' wares were also those representing such companies as Nabisco, which made headlines this year when its Oreo cookies became certified by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

The food categories included pizza and pasta sauces, frozen foods, vegetarian dishes, olive oils, dairy products, dietetic foods, candies and wines.

Some of the new products that were promoted this year at Kosherfest included a line of:

*Bio-organic herbs packaged by Adanim Tea Marketing Ltd.

*Italian and teriyaki-marinated mushrooms by D & S Distributing Co.

*Spanish bean and navy bean soup by Garcia Canning Co.

*Cajun salmon burgers and designer gefilte fish by Ossies Fish Market.

*French kosher pareve pastry by Princiane Paris.

Non-food products were there too, including vitamins, toothpaste and dishwasher detergents.

"There are so many new items to see," said Kevin O'Brien, manager of ethnic merchandising for Wakefern Food Corporation, the procuring firm for ShopRite supermarkets.

Chefs were on hand offered food demonstrations and tastings.

Fritz Sonnenschmidt, Culinary Institute of America's dean of culinary arts, served glatt kosher venison. Alan Kaplan of Prestige Caterers demonstrated "California Kosher in the New Millennium," featuring California wraps with vegetables and poultry.

Katja Goldman of Empire Kosher prepared "Barbara's Wild Balsamic Chicken," a recipe from an upcoming Empire cookbook. And Josh Aaron of Jade Caterers prepared pan-seared salmon with wild mushrooms in a vodka cream sauce.

Festival panels centered on marketing strategies, investing in kosher products and obtaining kosher certification.

One panel discussion, "Israel at 50: New Export Opportunities in the Israeli Market," also provided a forum for business people frustrated with the bureaucracy surrounding the Jewish state's market.

While American goods make up 30 percent of the $2 billion worth of food and agricultural products imported by Israel, selling beef and poultry to the Jewish state is nearly impossible, said Tully Friedgut, a specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Under Israel's 1994 Kosher Meat Import Law, all meat and poultry entering the Jewish state must not only be certified kosher but approved by Israel's Chief Rabbinate.

As a result of this requirement, "today there is not a single plant that exports meat to Israel," Friedgut said.

Ironically, according to USDA statistics, because of the restrictions on such imports and the resulting hike in the price of choice beef cuts, some Israeli consumers have sought cheaper substitutes — in the form of Israeli-raised pork.

According to Paul Hoffman, a USDA foreign agricultural affairs officer for the Middle East, there has been talk of taking Israel to the World Trade Organization to protest what the USDA sees as an illegal trade barrier.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman has already brought the issue to the attention of Zalman Shoval, Israel's ambassador to the United States.

Despite those problems in the industry, there are numerous bright spots.

As a result of the free-trade agreements with the European Union and the United States, Israel can export products duty- and quota-free. Under the U.S.-Israel Free Trade Agreement, all duties imposed on U.S.-made products to Israel were eliminated in 1995.

At this year's trade show, the Israel Export Institute sponsored a pavilion of 19 Israeli companies.

There are also promising markets for products heading to Israel, Friedgut said, including fish, fruits and nuts, pasta, biscuits and other baked goods, hard cheeses, jams, cereals and wines. While soft cheeses are expensive, Kraft's Philadelphia-brand Cream Cheese has become very popular among Israelis.

"People are willing to pay amazing prices for it," Friedgut said.