The Sleeping Giant: The Kosher For Passover Market

The scene in my local supermarket is a familiar one each year. A few weeks before Passover, the first shipment of OU-P (P=KOSHER FOR PASSOVER) Coca-Cola arrives and is placed on display for sale. Immediately, customers pounce on the coveted drink and within a few hours the shelves are left empty and barren. New Passover shoppers eagerly await the next delivery of this precious merchandise. Most people probably do not know why soda must be certified kosher for Passover. The classical food of Passover is matzah, a flat thin cracker of unleavened bread. The Bible relates that when the Jewish people were freed from slavery 3000 years ago, they left Egypt in a great hurry, hastily baking bread for the trip without allowing the dough any time to rise. This event is commemorated yearly on Passover, an eight-day holiday that falls sometime in March or April (the Jewish calendar is lunar, and that’s why the date varies from year to year) by eating matzah. In addition, the Bible forbids consumption of chometz during the Passover holiday. Chometz is defined as wheat, oat, spelt, rye, or barley, which has been exposed to water or other liquids, and has not been baked within a few minutes. (The natural process of fermentation and leavening begins soon after the contact between the grain and water, and is arrested by the baking process.) But what does soda have to do with Passover food, and why should it bear an OU-P? For that matter, why do pickles and potato chips bear an OU-P logo? And why do kosher for Passover items almost fly off the shelves and sell so much more quickly than their non-Passover counterpart?

What is Not Kosher for Passover?

Kosher For Passover MarketKosher is a system of dietary laws, and during Passover there are unique dietary restrictions. As was noted, chametz may not be consumed. In addition, Jews who descend from European ancestry do not eat certain specific vegetables on Passover. In the Middle Ages, when grain flour was not readily available, it was common to bake bread-like products from various legumes and seeds, known as kitniyos. To avoid confusion, it became customary to not consume these foods in any form on Passover. The custom has continued, even though the rationale no longer applies, and Jews of European descent avoid beans, soybeans, rice, millet, corn, mustard seed, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, canola seeds, peanuts, buckwheat, and other vegetables during Passover. Readers of this article might be aware that kosher law restricts consumption of non-kosher food, even when they are non-primary ingredients. Cherry soda that contains castorium, a beaver extract used as a flavor enhancer, is not kosher, even though one is not eating a visible beaver steak. Kosher law on Passover follows the same principle, and products containing grains or legumes, even as a sub-unit, are unfit for use on Passover. Thus, OU-P soda is made with cane sugar rather than corn syrup. OU-P pickles contain vinegar that is not fermented from wheat or corn alcohol, and OU-P potato chips are fried in cottonseed oil in place of canola oil.

How Does a Product Become OU-P Certified?

In many ways, the process of certification for Passover is similar to year round kosher certification. The formula is submitted to our office for review to determine that all the sub-units are acceptable. Most of the time, equipment must be kosherized with boiling water or with dry heat in order to prepare it for Passover service. Nonetheless, Passover supervision is unique in one aspect. Most non-Passover kosher certified products are not produced in the presence of a Rabbinic Field Representative (RFR).The RFR visits the plants at regular intervals and such spot-checking is sufficient to establish the integrity of the kosher status. In contrast, most Passover certified products are manufactured while the RFR is in attendance. This is because the Bible is far more stringent and exacting in describing Passover laws than year round kosher requirements. If non-kosher food is bad for the soul, then chametz during the eight days of Passover is spiritual poison. Indeed, in a kosher home, there are weeks of cleaning and scrubbing to prepare the kitchen for Passover. Even home shelves are lined with paper to insure against minute amounts of chometz contaminating the food, and this is why supermarkets often line their shelves where Passover products are sold. This same caution is reflected in the full-time supervisory requirements for OU-P products. Truth be told, there are some products that are deemed kosher for Passover all year round even though they are manufactured without constant rabbinic supervision. Each year, the OU prints and distributes free of charge over 100,000 copies of a Passover Food Guide that lists all OU-P products. A special section of “gray pages” contains a list of items that are kosher for Passover year round, even when not bearing a “P” symbol. Some examples are specific brands of raw meat, poultry and fish, salt, sugar, cocoa, coffee, tea, extra virgin olive oil, water, juices, paper goods, silver foil and cleansers. These products are intrinsically kosher for Passover and require minimal supervision to guarantee the Passover status. However, the majority of the entries in the directory do not fall in this category and require the intense supervision described above.

Can Any Food be Made Kosher For Passover?

Years ago, Passover menus consisted primarily of raw, unprocessed foods, such as fruit, vegetables, fish, poultry, and meat. Today, through modern innovations, a wide range of products is available with Passover supervision. For example, the OU-P appears on various brands of cereal, pasta, and cake. Though these products are made from grain, they are produced with kosher for Passover flour. Matzah is baked in accordance with Passover requirements, and is then ground into Passover flour that is suitable for use in many items. As the Passover certification programs continue to expand, manufacturers can select from a wide assortment of ingredients that can be used for Passover productions. Flavors, emulsifiers, shortening, vinegar and sweeteners are now readily available with OU-P designations. While there are some ingredients that can never attain Passover certification, such as soy, rice and corn derivatives, the choices of Passover foods continues to expand every year.

Why Does OU-P Sell Better?

Because the kosher choices for Passover are far less than year round, there is limited competition within the kosher for Passover food market. In addition, many people who do not eat a strictly kosher diet all year prefer OU-P foods for Passover because of the popularity of the holiday. Though Passover lasts only eight days, supermarkets across the country establish designated Passover sections up to two months before the holiday begins. Kosher consumers spend weeks searching the Passover aisle for selections that will allow them to be well stocked with kosher foods for the duration of the holiday. Evidence of the value of the Passover market can be found in the phenomenon of important Passover companies, who focus their entire sales effort exclusively on OU-P items. Also, many large companies are beginning to appreciate the potential of this niche market and are manufacturing their national name brand items with an OU-P for Passover in addition to OU products for year round use. Unfortunately, many manufacturers do not appreciate the value of Passover certification and fail to explore the feasibility of securing OU-P certification. While kosher foods have seen phenomenal growth and expansion in the past two decades, the Passover market remains largely untapped territory for most companies. That is why I refer to the OU-P as the “Sleeping Giant” in the title of this article.

How Do I Apply and What Will It Cost?

Rabbi Shmuel Singer centrally oversees Passover supervision in our organization. To explore the possibility of OU-P supervision for your products, please contact Civie Rosner, either by phone at 212.613.8249 or by e-mail. Be in touch and we will be happy to discuss your needs and share with you an evaluation of feasibility and cost. Don’t hesitate to make contact with us. You might discover an entirely new market for your product’s distribution, and this will be mutually beneficial for your company and the kosher consumer. We look forward to hearing from you.

OU Kosher Staff