Objective Authenticity, Kosherness and the Free Market

As we approach one of the most significant holidays on the Jewish calendar, Passover, I thought it was a good time to explore Objective Authenticity through the lens of Kosher certification of food. What’s Kosher? Aside from the Urban Dictionary slag definition (to be good, or cool), the word “Kosher” describes food that meets the dietary laws of the Jewish religion. These laws relate to what is eaten as well as the way food is obtained, prepared and eaten. Interestingly, according to Professor Timothy Lytton, who has just written a comprehensive book about the history of Kosher foods, less than 10 percent of people who purchase Kosher food do so because they live by Jewish dietary laws. The majority purchase it for other reasons, such as the higher quality and scrutiny over the certification of the food.

Kosher foods are more expensive than their non-Kosher counterparts. Kosherness is not a premium that is necessarily identifiable; so certification is a key part of any food marketing strategy appealing to a Kosher consumer. In this scenario, producers pay a third party to audit their product, and put a certification on it. So the producer is not only saying their product is Kosher. they are saying “In case you don’t believe me, believe this third party trusted source too”.

In an Autumn 2013, in article published by the Cato Institute, Lytton wrote “Kosher Food Certification as a Model of Private Regulation“. The article discusses how, in the 19th century, migrant Jews in urban areas of the USA (chiefly New York) could not rely on the government to regulate the “Kosherness” of foods. The problem was too big. The government did not have the budget or ability to police every link in the food chain (literally) to ensure adherence to Kosher law. Almost half of foods which vendors claimed were Kosher were not. What then emerged from a broken government system was a private, more effective free-market certification business, still in use today.

Kosherness is an excellent way to examine aspects of Objective Authenticity. Objective Authenticity relates to the verifiability of originality or a claim, usually dealing with a good, rather than a service. In the context of being Kosher, this means that something has been derived from, is prepared and is consumed according to the relevant set of standards. Who sets the standards is not in question: they have been set already and are encoded in Jewish law. However, how strictly they are adhered to, what they mean, how they are interpreted by modern technology, and their coherence throughout the supply chain from producer to consumer, makes the question of what is Kosher far more complex. Lytton addresses this, in this excerpt from his paper:

Aside from these five market conditions—consumer demand, brand competition, interdependence, concentration of market power, and vigilant consumers—kosher certification agencies  have developed a shared sense of mission that counteracts incentives to cut corners and promotes cooperation between competing certifiers. Each agency seeks to cultivate among its personnel a  religious commitment to the agency’s goals of providing reliable  kosher certification…

Social networks  provide a medium for trust and reputation that supports reliable  private certification. At trade association meetings, participants  from different kosher certification agencies socialize and pray  together. The rabbis who manage these agencies also frequently  hold positions of authority in their local Jewish communities, many as congregational rabbis or respected teachers. They  interact closely with community members, who are also kosher  consumers. Agency personnel form personal bonds with their  food-industry clients, many of whom they have been working  with for decades. Personal ties also exist among religiously observant kosher consumers, ranging from close connections between  congregants to more extended Internet exchanges carried on  through postings on kosher food websites. These various relationships constitute a complex network that enhances the regulatory performance of the kosher certification system by increasing  social pressure to conform to industry standards and facilitating  the diffusion of reputational information and consumer alerts.

According to Lytton, the authority and trust of Kosher certifiers comes from both the proliferation of certifiers and competition in the marketplace for the service as well as the standing of key players in the community. The meaningfulness of the objective reality of “kosherness” is affected by the subjective standing of the people engaged in the certification process.

This complex social structure  is also held together by consumer vigilantism. Lytton indicates that a minority of Kosher consumers are particularly vocal about their suspisions when they spot something which is, well not “Kosher”. These consumers contact certification bodies and warn other consumers, spreading the word like wildfire. This societal pressure, where every counterfeit certification is a chink in their armour, has also spurred on certification companies to be hyper-vigilant about their reputation, engaging in expensive recalls when they discover an irregularity.

The Take Aways
What is interesting about the example of the free market Kosher certification analysis is they way in which objective realities (whether food meets kosher dietary laws) are reinforced by a constructed reality (the faith consumers have in the certifications, and the vigilantism that keeps the faith strong). The legitimacy of the certifications system is a  socially constructed reality; and a fragile one at that. The pains that certifiers go through to ensure their legitimacy in the eyes of consumers is a way that the certification business can continue to survive.

Interestingly, the need for certification is borne form the fact that vendors were so untrustworthy. What would have happened if vendors had told the truth about Kosher meat in the last century? Food producers would have kept a larger share of the food profits as they would not have had to pay for expensive certification programs and could deal directly with consumers.

Lytton uses this system to say that private industry can help regulate a market if some key factors are in place, such as competition, consumer demand, interdependence, concentration of market power and customer vigilance. Perhaps the way we, in the authenticity analysis business, would look at the Kosher certification business is to say that Constructed Authenticity (the social web of legitimacy) is authenticating the Objective Authenticity (the fact that the food is actually Kosher), so that vendors can engage in Commercial Authenticity (where products are true to themselves so a premium value is legitimised) so that consumers can enjoy Existential Authenticity (a connection with the consuming experience).