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Brazilian kosher agency flexes muscle

A Brazilian chocolate powder drink that is now certified kosher by a new local agency, Beit Din Kashrut, or BDK. (Vilma Alimentos )

A Brazilian chocolate powder drink that is now certified kosher by a new local agency, Beit Din Kashrut, or BDK. (Vilma Alimentos )

RIO DE JANEIRO, May 15 (JTA) — A new group of rabbis offering kosher certification to Brazilian food companies is finding plenty of takers, despite the fact that no more than 20 percent of the country’s 150,000 Jews keep kosher. With such a small local market, why are Brazilian companies going kosher? For one, it doesn’t cost a lot. More importantly, companies that get certification also can export to foreign kosher markets, potentially gaining access to millions of customers around the globe. Beit Din Kashrut, or BDK, has certified some 500 products since its inception in 2004. All are listed on BDK’s Web site, and 50 have a physical seal affixed on the product package. Given the small number of local kosher consumers, Brazilian food companies aren’t likely to think about kosher certification on their own. But BDK, a group of five rabbis based in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, promotes its service, approaching companies and explaining that kosher certification will not only open up a local niche market but also will give them access to foreign areas with large Jewish populations, such as the United States and Israel. Often the companies don’t have to change any ingredients or manufacturing processes. BDK charges about $1,000 for the seal, which Rabbi Rony Gurwicz called “a symbolic cost” that covers overhead. “Because the world has 20 million kosher-keeping people, only 12 million of whom are Jewish, the seal can also attract non-Jewish customers looking for food which is produced under more rigorous sanitary conditions,” Gurwicz said — a point he stresses in his pitch to food companies. Vilma Alimentos, a producer of chocolate powder, spaghetti and cake and soup mixes, got the BDK seal for its spaghetti and chocolate powder last year. It expects to increase domestic sales of those products by $1.8 million by July. “We got the BDK seal for these products as a marketing strategy, which seems to be working,” said Cesar Tavares, Vilma Alimentos’ vice president of sales and marketing. “The estimated sales increase for these products appear to show that they are being bought both by Jews and non-Jews” for sanitary and quality reasons. Dr. Oetker, a German producer of domestic-market puddings, flans and cake/pancake mixes, has had 23 products certified. “We aren’t really concerned that the local market for such products is quite small,” said Luc Van End, the company’s commercial director. “We’re just interested in penetrating that market by selling our kosher products in supermarkets and in more than 20 kosher food stores in Brazil.” Before BDK started up, the main certification group was the Brazilian Kashrus Authority, or BKA. BKA is headed by Rabbi Meir Avraham Iliovits, who has been the driving force behind kosher certification in Brazil since the 1970s. Iliovits heads Kehilas Hachareidim, a small Orthodox community in Sao Paulo. BKA has certified some 1,000 products in its 35 years, 50 of which carry a BKA seal. The products also are listed on a Web site. Both BDK and BKA say they’re not for profit. BKA asks only for donations and expenses for its 20 certifiers. Iliovits said both groups “provide the same valuable public service for Brazilian Jews wanting to keep kosher — the difference being that I’ve been doing this for 35 years and BDK has been doing it for two years.” Gurwicz turns that to his advantage. “The main difference is that BKA has certified 1,000 products in 35 years and BDK has certified 500 products in two years,” he said. While most kosher-certified foods don’t cost more, some may. For the past six years, milk producer Nilza Alimentos has had BKA certify a small amount of its milk, which sells for twice as much as non-certified milk because Nilza must pasteurize the kosher milk in separate production lines after its machines have been cleaned of non-kosher milk, and pay supervisors. Despite the mark-up, “there is an upscale, niche market for that product here,” said Marcelo Nogueira, Nilza Alimentos’ industrial director. BDK Rabbi Daniel Touitou has certified Brazilian-made smoked beef jerky that is to be exported to the United States, where there is only one kosher-certified smoked beef jerky producer, he said. He also has certified chocolate, made by Kopenhagen Chocolates, an upscale Brazilian chocolate producer, for export to the United States and Israel. He has done so simply by checking the ingredients and rejecting chocolate candies made with wine-based alcohol. “Much, if not most, of the products BDK certifies are for the export market because it is much, much bigger than the domestic market,” Touitou said. “Still, those Brazilians Jews who do want to buy kosher-certified products, like fine chocolates,” can do so now. Chocolates Garoto, owned by the Swiss food giant Nestle, is planning to have its chocolate certified by BDK so that it can begin selling them to the United States, Israel and France by 2007. “Once we begin exporting these chocolates, we’ll probably begin selling them here too,” said Jose Ricardo Cicone, Chocolates Garoto’s export manager. “But we would have never thought of selling the chocolates to so limited a domestic market if we didn’t plan to export them too.”

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