Claims and counterclaims, mud spattering in all directions, slander, bitter internecine warfare. It's all there in the feud between edible-oils manufacturer Shemen Industries and the kashruth panel of the Haredi Badatz, the ultra-Orthodox organization in Jerusalem that certifies food-manufacturers as making kosher products fit for Jews to eat.
The story began two months ago, when the Haredi Badatz panel imposed a boycott on Shemen. The spat put at end to a 60-year relationship during which the panel had approved all the company's products.
The Haredi Badatz is the High Court of kashruth issues in Israel, on the grounds that it is the strictest. Badatz is actually a Hebrew acronym for High Court of Justice, of the religious community.
By the bye, note that the company is actually controlled by ultra-Orthodox families who consult with their rabbis before taking any legal steps.
Anyway, yesterday Shemen announced that the sanctions hadn't hurt sales at all, on the contrary. Since the Haredi Badatz boycott, sales rocketed by 27%. So there.
Specifically, sales to households and to institutions rose, while falling in all other sectors. Shemen's general manager, Boaz Zafrir, said the boycott had not induced the company to change its prices or discounts policies. It wasn't as though the company sought to tempt buyers with bargains.
Nor was the jump a seasonal matter, he added. If anything, oil sales usually decline in the hot summer months.
Kosher oil and social interests
So what boosted Shemen's sales after the Haredi Badatz poured forth its wrath? "The general public is mature and responsible," Shemen explained in a press release. "It prefers manufacturers offering quality products with a range of kashruth certification that also defend the public's economic and social interests."
Moreover, Zafrir adds, "people suddenly like our brands."
Note, for the non-ultra-Orthodox among our readers, that there are several degrees of kashruth, it isn't just a matter of a consumable being kosher or not.
Who is the kosherest of them all?
The Haredi Badatz is not only the strictest and most trusted kashruth agency. It is also the most expensive. It keeps the closest eye on all production processes, and the raw materials it requires food manufacturers to use are the finest.
There are other bodies that supply kashruth certification. Beyond local rabbinical offices, which are subject to the central rabbinical authority, there is also the Badatz Mehadrin, Badatz She'erit Yisrael, Badatz Baalez Mahzikei Hadat and others.
But the big supermarket chains can't settle for the stamp of the local rabbinical authority even though most of the public, certainly the secular majority, would find that satisfactory. Certain ultra-Orthodox sectors, which are big spenders on the right foodstuffs, will not buy products that fail to bear the right Haredi Badatz stamp.
As a result, major food manufacturers usually use a range of kashruth inspectors. In some cases, certain manufacturing processes are carried out under Haredi Badatz supervision, while other processes are monitored by other, less stringent kashruth watchdogs.
Not one major manufacturer has waived the whole kashruth certification process.
Why go to war over peanuts?
How much does it cost? Well, Zafrir says that in Shemen's case, it spent NIS 0.5 million a year out of annual sales of NIS 200 million a year.
That isn't much. Why bother picking a fight with the Haredi Badatz over peanuts?
"In an industry with a profit margin of 3%, a quarter of one percent is a lot," explains Zafrir. Any savings are a blessing.
How much could be saved by abandoning the ultra-Orthodox Badatz for the favors of a cheaper, lower-ranking one? "About two-thirds of the cost," Zafrir calculates.
Rabbi Haim Gruss, the secretary-general of the Haredi Badatz, sees things otherwise. First of all, he says, he can't see how the company's announcement of soaring sales fits with its lawsuit against the Badatz for NIS 3 million damages consequent to the voiding of its kashrut approval.
Hmm - "The Haredi Badatz is the one that sued," claims Zafrir. "Our suit is a countersuit. Also, the damages we claim are of a nonrecurring nature, such as the loss of hundreds of thousands of shekels on inventory of kosher labels? and the PR campaign."
Gruss also claims that the panel only charges Shemen NIS 150,000 a year, far below the sum Zafrir mentioned.
Zafrir confirms that is what the company actually paid to the Badatz, but says the company has additional kashruth-related costs, including to local rabbinical kashruth authorities.
Gruss: Shemen lowered its prices, which could explain the rise in sales. Zafrir: Baloney, if anything Shemen raised its prices.
Who knows. One thing is clear: Kashruth and unkosher doings are far from being only Shemen's problem. They affect the entire Israeli food industry and consumers of its products ? meaning, the entire population. Even some cleansing materials require kashruth certification, in case you didn't know.
The ramifications of the spat between Shemen and the rabbis are therefore of vastly more significance than mere 60-year old relations between two entities.
All this goes to explain why even Israel's parliamentary Economics Committee, and the trustbuster, are discussing declaring the Haredi Badatz a monopoly. If they do, the relations between the high Badatz and the food manufacturers could be in for serious change.