OU Kosher’s China Syndrome, or How I Traveled to Shanghai by Phyllis Koegel

06 May 2008

By Phyllis Koegel
New Business Development/Marketing Associate, OU Kosher
Phyllis Koegel of Cedarhurst serves as the Orthodox Union’s New Business Development/Marketing Associate. Having served as the Show Director of Kosherfest, the International Kosher Food Trade Show, she has more than 18 years of experience as a food marketing professional. An MBA graduate of New York’s Pace University, Ms. Koegel resides in Long Island, NY and is the mother of three children and nine grandchildren.

“Do you want to go to China?” That is what my colleague at OU Kosher asked me two months before an important ingredients show in which the Orthodox Union participates annually. China, well how could I say no! Having traveled there last summer for vacation, I knew from experience just how long and tiring a trip it was, but I was on an organized tour then and everything was taken care of for us as a group. This would be different. I would be traveling by myself and meeting my colleagues who handle the Southeast Asia region for OU Kosher in Shanghai.

The OU’s China and Far East team of Rabbi Mordechai Grunberg, Rabbi Donneal Epstein and Zhu Yanan handle the OU’s rapid growth in China. China, now the second largest exporter in the world, is becoming the fastest growing supplier of food ingredients to international food corporations. It has been estimated that close to $1.25 billion of kosher certified ingredients are exported annually worldwide. Enter the OU, the world’s largest, most respected kosher certification agency, now certifying over 300 plants in China. As the export industry grows in China, OU kosher certifications are growing right along with it.

I left JFK on a Sunday morning and arrived at my hotel in Shanghai, a very long 24 hours later. The time zone change is exactly 12 hours ahead in China, so as you can well imagine, I was quite disoriented and sleep deprived. I traveled via Korean Airlines, which was simply a wonderful experience, and I connected in Seoul for a two-hour flight to Shanghai. I did doze off at the gate in Seoul, only to awaken abruptly and realize most of the passengers had already boarded, almost missing my connecting flight.

The hospitality of the Asian people is beyond measure. They cannot do enough for you, and the flight attendants were especially sensitive to my kosher dietary needs. Kosher travelers are accustomed to packing our own food just in case the meals served are not edible, or as has sometimes happened, not available. My meals were delicious and the head flight attendant kept checking on me to make sure I was satisfied with the food. There were eye masks, slipper socks and toothpaste and toothbrushes distributed to all the passengers — what a treat as I settled in for my journey. I was lucky that the seat next to me was empty, and I was able to stretch out a bit.

Fast forward 24 hours later, and I am in a taxi racing through the streets of Shanghai. It is 10 p.m. and the skyline is magnificent but the drivers seem to think of themselves as participants in the Indy 500. My taxi driver makes a left turn from the right lane of a four-lane highway as I hold on for dear life. You have to really see it to believe it. Somehow I arrive safely at my hotel, where my colleague, Zhu Yanan, the OU’s man in China, greets me and helps me check in. He offers to have someone drive me around the next day so I can sight see, as the show we will be attending does not begin for another day. The Chinese people are very courteous and proper, with an obvious curiosity about westerners. As China becomes more westernized the people embrace anything and everything American. College students are eager to practice English which they study in university.

Show Time in Shanghai:

The Food Ingredients China Show opens on Wednesday morning and we meet many manufacturers who are eager to obtain OU Kosher certification for their products, as their customers are demanding kosher certification for export to the U.S. and Israel. The days pass quickly with the exhibition attracting well over 10,000 visitors from all over the world. The OU’s reputation as the most influential kosher certification symbol in the world is reinforced as visitors from all over the globe stop at our booth to discuss their kosher needs. This supports the vast media coverage the OU has received recently nationwide in publications such as USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Financial Times, Newsday, The Miami Herald and Business Week, all positioning the OU as the leader in its category.

Many Chinese ingredient manufacturers requested OU Kosher certification applications and our Chinese representative, Zhu, will oversee the completion of those eager to become OU certified. As the New Business Development/Marketing Associate, I had an opportunity to network with many ingredient brokers and importers who require their ingredient sources to be OU certified. Many emphasized their company’s requirements that all ingredients meet certain specifications, including kosher certification. Their certification of choice unanimously was OU, as one Food Ingredients Manager told me, “We insist on OU certification because of its universal acceptance and undisputed global kosher standard.”

OU Kosher has more than doubled its China kosher certification growth in the last two years. The OU expects to grow its China certification business over the next five years “into the thousands.” Its seal-of-approval can assure Chinese manufacturers that the millions of consumers who buy kosher and trust the supervision behind the OU symbol welcome their products.

Currently, the ingredient and food production markets constitute ninety percent of the marketplace in China and the remaining ten percent on “finished products” such as candy and confections, frozen and canned fish and baked goods. This ten percent includes consumer retail pack and industrial food service items. The OU forecasts a gradual reversal of these percentages beginning in 2008 – at the minimum rate of ten percent a year – until “finished goods” comprise the ninety percent. It’s a matter of record that multinational companies with the OU kosher seal-of-approval have created a surefire way to gain increased market share for a relatively modest investment.

As I travel the world, attending a multitude of domestic and international food and ingredient trade shows, I have the privilege of branding the OU as the leader in the kosher certification industry, established while maintaining no compromise in the highest standards of certification. I do my best to “demystify” the certification process in such a way that makes it easy for a corporation to do business with us. We strive to make certification an easy, open and transparent process, with top quality customer service as one of our most important assets.

Shabbat Shalom:

As the show ends on Friday afternoon, we have no choice but to stay in Shanghai for Shabbat. We change hotels to be closer to the Shanghai Chabad and I look forward to experiencing the day of rest in the beautiful city of Shanghai.

We light candles at the shul and I marvel at the 150 Jewish guests from all over the world who gather together to usher in the Shabbat. Davening is beautiful and everyone is smiling and mingling — Israelis, Americans, South Americans, Canadian, and Chinese Jews, united by yiddishkeit as the common bond. Dinner is delicious, the rabbi and rebbetzin warm and welcoming, and the people fascinating. I make friends easily and marvel at people I meet who have chosen to live in China for personal as well as professional reasons. They cherish the Chabad as it welcomes everyone who enters its doors as a safe Jewish haven and home away from home. We get to know one another and I even make a few new friends, with whom I promise to stay in touch after my return home. I truly am sorry when Shabbat ends.

I arrive home Sunday night, exactly one week since my journey began, happily exhausted and disoriented again, but this time laden with mementos and wonderful memories. But the part I will remember most is the spiritual and magical Shabbat in Shanghai, a period of delightful rest and renewal following a work week in which I traveled thousands of miles through a dozen time zones to bring the message of OU Kosher to the growing commercial colossus that is China.