Slicing the Kosher Cheese Market


At a cheese plant in Compton, Rabbi Avraham Vogel, a mashgiach (kosher supervisor) from OK supervision, adds a bucket of culture to a 780-gallon bath of hot milk. A table nearby is spread with cheese curd, which a worker cuts and then puts through a cooker stretcher that bathes the curd in hot water and then stretches it to produce the stringiness endemic to mozzarella cheese. Another worker slowly dips a small plastic ladle into a giant vat of small lumpy curds swimming around in yellowish whey. These are curds of ricotta cheese, which is made from the milk after the mozzarella has been extracted. The smell of hot milk is overpowering and soporific.

This production will yield 12,000 pounds of cheese for a small company called Anderson International Foods (AIF) that is trying to carve out a portion of the kosher cheese market for itself.

Brigitte Mizrahi, a French woman who now lives in Los Angeles, co-founded AIF in 1995 with the aim of producing quality kosher cheeses in attractive packages. The company currently sells kosher cheese under four labels: Natural and Kosher, which makes Mozzarella and Ricotta cheese; Les Petits Fermier, which produces "everyday" cheese such as Colby and Monterey Jack; Monsey Dairy, a line of specialty cheese such as Swiss cheese and Havarti; and La Chèvre, which is a line of goat cheese made from the milk of Chilean goats. Although AIF distributes several millions of dollars worth of cheese every year to kosher markets, supermarkets, restaurants and industrial clients, making a real dent in the kosher cheese market is a task that faces several obstacles.

Unlike other foods, which only require kosher certification of the ingredients and machinery in order to be considered kosher, cheese needs an onsite mashgiach who supervises all aspects of the production and who participates in the cheesemaking process. In that sense, cheese is like wine. Although a wine can be made of all kosher ingredients, it will not be considered kosher if made by a non-Jew without Jewish supervision.

The apocryphal story is that cheese was invented 6,000 years ago after an unknown Arab took a walk across the desert carrying milk for the journey in a pouch made of the stomach lining of a cow. When he arrived at his destination, the milk had coagulated, leaving him with cheese curds and whey. The stomach lining of an animal — which contains a chemical known as rennet casein — has been used in cheesemaking ever since, and it was for this reason that the Talmudic rabbis prohibited eating hard cheese that was not made by Jews. The rabbis feared that unless properly supervised, the rennet would come from either a non-kosher animal or an incorrectly slaughtered animal, which would make it non-kosher. Today, although many cheeses are made without animal rennet (cheesemakers use a microbial rennet instead) the prohibition against eating products of non-Jewish cheese production still stands.

Kosher cheese is thus known as gvinas Yisroel (cheese made by a Jew). There are many Orthodox Jews who use a still stricter stringency when it comes to dairy products known as cholov Yisroel (Jewish milk), which requires all milk and milk products to be supervised by a Jew from the time of milking — again, to prevent drinking kosher milk that might have been contaminated by non-kosher milk. (Two AIF cheese lines — Natural and Kosher and Le Chevre — are cholov Yisroel in addition to being gvinas Yisroel.)

The kosher hard-cheese market — as opposed to soft cheese, such as cottage cheese or cream cheese — is valued at $50 million a year, and is increasing at a rate of 40 percent annually, according to Kosher Food Industry reports published in 2000. However, industry experts say it is unlikely that kosher cheese consumption will ever come close to mainstream cheese consumption, due to laws of kashrut dictating that consumers need to wait six hours after eating meat before they eat dairy, and many large Orthodox families are too price conscious to shell out for expensive specialty cheese items.

However, new companies like AIF face fierce competition from World Cheese, a Brooklyn-based company that experts say controls 70 percent of the kosher cheese market. World Cheese currently distributes Haolam, Migdal and Millers brand of cheese. Sholom Halpern, sales and marketing director of World Cheese said the company distributes 8,000 packets of cheese every week in California alone. Another spokesman for the company, who declined to be named, said they are unfazed by competition.

"We pride ourselves on fair pricing, and one of the reasons why many a competitor have had a hard time breaking into the market is that to undercut us they would be working at cost," he said. "And the market for kosher dairy is much smaller than you and I think."

But AIF has grown by 50 percent every year that the company has been operating, and they are planning to develop other lines of luxury cheese such as Camembert and Parmesan.

Although Goodis has no illusions about becoming the next Miller’s cheese, she is confident that her cheese is good enough to win over many kosher consumers.

"We are trying to make people realize that there is good kosher cheese," she said. "There is a market for kosher specialty cheese, and it is starting to develop more and more."

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

If you like babbling brooks and floating waterlilies, City of Hope probably has your idea of an interesting and unusual Saturday afternoon. It’s the second annual Parade of Ponds, a self-guided tour of neighborhood water gardens. You’ll get a map of the more than 50 homes on the tour, which cover more than 20 Los Angeles suburbs. Then you’re free to peruse at your own pace.9 a.m.-5 p.m. (Saturday), 9 a.m.-3 p.m. (Sunday). $10 (general), free (children under 12). Tickets are on sale through Waterscapes Plus, (877) 540-7663, and the Rainbow Garden Nursery, (626) 914-6718. Proceeds will be donated to the City of Hope Cancer Center.

Sunday

On the list of features at this year’s Outfest, Los Angeles’ Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, is an Israeli docudrama titled “Tomer Ve Hasrutim” (“It Kinda Scares Me”). The filmmaker, Tomer Heymann, is a youth group leader for at-risk young men, each with something to hide. While Heymann works to get the boys to trust him, he avoids divulging his own secret that he is gay. But it is his eventual revelation that becomes their catalyst for growth.Noon. $10 (general), $9 (OUTFEST members). Subtitled. The Village at Ed Gould Plaza, Renberg Theater, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Los Angeles. For reservations, call (213) 480-7065.

Monday

We Jews pride ourselves on carrying our traditions with us no matter where we wander. Stacie Chaiken’s grandparents were no different. But while they carried on their traditions, they left their stories behind. As a grown woman, Chaiken longed to know the secrets her grandfather determined to leave in Russia. In her one-woman play “Looking for Louie,” Chaiken shares her tale — her search for the untold story of her mysterious great-grandfather.Runs through Aug. 26. 8 p.m. (Mondays and Saturdays), 4 p.m. (Sundays). $15 (general), $12 (students, seniors and groups). Stages Theatre Center, 1540 McCadden Place, Los Angeles. For reservations, call (323) 465-1010.

Tuesday

Using subjects including nature, animals, seasons and biblical stories, six women artists interpret “Archetypal Allusions” in the University of Judaism’s new exhibition. But though their subjects overlap, their treatments vary widely. Susanna Meiers’ drawings of animals shift forms, while Suvan Geer’s birds allude to Buddhist mythology. Also featured are works by Lorraine Bubar, Mayde Herberg, Anne Scheid and Freda Nessim.Runs through Sept. 29. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (Sunday-Thursday), 10 a.m.-2 p.m. (Fridays). An artist reception will be held on Sun., July 28, from 3-5 p.m. Platt and Borstein Gallery, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. For more information, call (310) 476-9777, ext. 201.

Wednesday

MOCA may have Warhol, but Jack Rutberg Fine Arts has Chagall, de Kooning, Matisse and more. With more artistic headliners than we can name, the exhibition titled “Modern and Contemporary: Paintings, Drawings, Prints and Sculpture,” features American, European and Latin American works.Runs through Aug. 31. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Tuesday-Friday), 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Saturday). 357 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 938-5222.

Thursday

Chew on this: TAG, The Artist’s Gallery is presenting an all-member show with a theme you can really sink your teeth into. Check out different artists’ takes on the common subject of food in “Food for Thought.” Various talks are scheduled over the course of the exhibit’s run, including tonight’s Art Salon on “Appetizing Ideas.”Runs through Aug. 3. 7 p.m. (Art Salon). 11-5 p.m. (Tuesday-Saturday), open till 8:30 p.m. Thursdays. 2903 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. For more information, call (310) 829-9556.

Friday

“The Sex Show” debuts tonight at Highways. No, it isn’t live porn, but don’t rush to bring the kids, either. Nurit Siegel directs an ensemble production investigating the art of sex with a post-feminist twist. Think “Vagina Monologues,” only racier.8:30 p.m. Fri., July 26 and Sat., July 27 only. $15 (general), $13 (students and members). 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. For reservations, call (310) 315-1459.

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