Beth Din dispute with manufacturer foments discontent over pricing
Local manufacturers of kosher food say they are looking overseas for alternative kosher certification following the furore caused by the Beth Din’s removal of a company’s kashrut licence last week.
A longstanding relationship between the Johannesburg kosher department and Honeyfields, an ice cream, sugar cone, and chocolate manufacturing company, turned sour, resulting in it being stripped of its kosher licence.
The Beth Din claims it was because of a contractual breach following “ongoing non-compliance” with its stringent kosher model, in which it has a zero-tolerance policy for non-compliance.
Honeyfields claims it all comes down to money, saying that the Beth Din took its kosher certificate away because it steadfastly refused to accept the “exorbitant spike” in Beth Din kosher fees.
However, the Johannesburg kosher department insists it has nothing to do with fees.
“This has nothing to do with an increase in Beth Din fees. The breakdown is purely over non-compliance over many years and the unco-operative nature of the company with regard to kosher compliance,” said Head of Kashrut Rabbi Dovi Goldstein.
There has been a lot of allegations this week both on social media and on ChaiFM over what people in the community claim to be “sky-rocketing kosher food prices” and the Beth Din’s alleged “lack of service, transparency, and communication”.
The Beth Din has threatened to seek legal action following Honeyfield’s message to its Jewish clients in which it allegedly questioned the Beth Din’s integrity and pricing models. Honeyfields is further challenging the Beth Din’s price hikes at the Competition Commission, claiming unfair business practice.
The owner of Honeyfields, George Georghiou, told the SA Jewish Report that he may have made mistakes in the past, but he always rectified them. “I accept and admit there have been mistakes with the printing of my labels in the past, but I always acknowledge this and fix them. This is not about me and my procedures being kosher or parev, it’s to do with the increase in fees which I’m not prepared to pay,” he said.
He said he believed many manufacturers would “ be looking at obtaining kosher certification elsewhere overseas because they are left with little choice,” he said.
Georghiou says he is looking for a new hechsher as he wants to remain loyal to his Jewish clients. “Three products including parev and dairy chocolate-lined sugar cones and wafer baskets are going into 600 stores nationwide and sadly, the Jewish community won’t be able to buy them even though the products are kosher, but are now uncertified,” he said.
In a message to his Jewish clients last week, he said the Union of Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) had inflated his fees by a whopping 600%, which was going to affect the prices consumers were going to pay in the future. He wrote that he was offered numerous payment methods to meet the obligation, which he told the SA Jewish Report remained unaffordable.
“I’m just a simple chocolate and ice cream maker, I’m not here to fight. But when they decide to damage my turnover, that’s declaring war, and I will go to war with the Beth Din,” he said.
Georghiou isn’t the only manufacturer prepared to take a stand.
Johannesburg mashgiach Akiva Mallett decided to explore alternative options when he set up his new company, Dairyluv, which makes Chalav Yisrael dairy products. “I found that during my application process, there was a lack of commitment on the part of the UOS, and I felt it would turn out to be a disappointing relationship,” he said.
So he looked further afield for kosher certification.
“I applied to six of the world-leading kosher authorities, and chose Montreal Kosher. It was a long application process, but made easy with the professional people working there. We have a six-hour time difference but overcame that obstacle through proper communication and understanding.
“Even though the exchange rate plays a role, I believe the fees will still be less than what I would be paying here,” he said.
The owner of The Chocolate Tree, Moshe Amoils, told the SA Jewish Report that this outcry has brought to his attention the fact that manufacturers and producers aren’t alone in this struggle.
He said his Beth Din kosher Pesach fee in 2017 was R7 200. It went up more than 300% in 2020 to a staggering R45 000.
He successfully negotiated this down with the kosher department, explaining how it would negatively affect the community.
“Many people realise that there are actually other options available. People are considering moving further afield, and will do so if they find it more affordable, especially if it comes with better service and improved relationships.”
One longstanding manufacturer who prefers to remain anonymous said he was dissatisfied with the way the Beth Din conducted itself. “After many years, I’m considering applying elsewhere for an international hechsher,” he said.
Colin Hurwitz of Glens Sauces told the SA Jewish Report that the consumer was the biggest loser. “My heart broke earlier this year when I overheard an old lady complain that she couldn’t afford to buy a bottle of my kosher-for-Pesach tomato sauce. These are the people who are suffering. The Beth Din has lost sight of this.
“My tomato sauce costs what it does because of the many crippling hidden costs over and above the Beth Din Passover fee,” he said.
Another kosher manufacturer and retailer speaking under condition of anonymity questioned whether the Beth Din had the community’s interests at heart.
“Eateries are constantly trying to cut back and streamline their businesses to the bone because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep the cost of kosher down for the end user. They are constantly listening to complaints by the consumer about increased food prices while doing their utmost.”
Goldstein told the SA Jewish Report he was saddened by this latest scandal, considering the fact that the department had worked tirelessly to improve customer relations and ensure food prices were kept as low as possible.
The Stan & Pete saga had positive results in a vastly transformed department and a total revamp in kashrut, including a new scientific and equitable pricing model, he said.
“Our goal is for more people to eat more kosher more often. We don’t turn people away when they can’t afford the full price. In fact, we offer them various ways to remain on board because it’s in our interest to have more kosher products available for the community,” Goldstein said.
According to him, every company, no matter the size, is charged the same R32 000 annual base fee according to the new scientific pricing model. This is the standard fee applied across the board before other expenses come into play, for example the number of factories and products.
“People can apply for a special discount. We don’t turn people away, we understand times are tough, especially during COVID-19 when we have offered payment holidays and alternative payment options,” he said.
In the case of Honeyfields, he said, “The company had been included in no less than five alerts over the years which we consider way beyond the acceptable norm. The situation became untenable.
“Our community trusts that our stamp can be relied on, and when we have tried multiple times to work with a company and it still refuses to work with us, we are left with no choice.
“Sadly Mr Georghiou has taken a shot at our reputation, and we take this seriously. This is why we have decided to take legal action,” he said.
When a company asked for financial assistance, the department would “go out of its way on a case-by-case basis to offer a discount or phase-ins over multiple years to make it fair and equitable”, Goldstein said.
“Our approach is to benchmark against the world’s best kashrus agencies, and we are seeing that we are more than 50% less than other international agencies. So, you would need to question how some overseas hechshers can offer their services at such low costs, and whether it’s sustainable.”