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Understanding the Reliability of Kosher Agencies

Rabbi Sholem Fishbane

Kashrus Administrator of the cRc

Due to a growing world market and ever-changing technology, the food industry has become more complicated than ever, and the kosher food industry is no exception. At one time, a woman did all of her family’s food preparation in the kitchen. Then, it was obvious that butter was kosher and ham was not. However, in the past few decades the food industry has revolutionized the way most of the world eats. Today, almost 90% of our food is processed before reaching our supermarket shelves, and with imitation meats, the “ham” might be kosher, while due to cost saving measures, butter may not.

While general consumers or guests participating in an affair are not expected to become professional kosher Supervisors, they do need to research, as will be demonstrated in this article, the individual Rabbi or agency that is certifying the affair.

It has therefore become essential to “know your kosher symbols.” Of the hundreds kosher symbols in the world today, unfortunately, the Chicago Rabbinical Council recommends a surprisingly low number.

Recommending certain agencies is the cRc’s intensely-contemplated and most difficult decision, and many companies and individuals genuinely do not understand why. Before attempting to navigate the reader through the ins and outs of kosher certification, be assured that these decisions are not haphazard and certainly not politically motivated, as that would be contradictory to the very essence of what and to Whom the cRc answers.

In order to further clarify this sensitive subject, the cRc has internally categorized the kosher agencies into three groups. The first two groups are easily explained-recommended and not recommended. The third group is known as a “detail” agency. This agency’s products are accepted on conditions, and they are investigated on a case-by-case basis to determine if each final product is acceptable. Please understand that these categories are kept safely in the minds of the Rabbinic Coordinators and are not formed into a “black list” of any kind.

To understand why the cRc divides each kosher agency into its respective category, one must examine the 21st century world of Kosher, called Kashrus or Kashrut, and the proper way to monitor it. When examining the proper way of the “recommended agencies,” one can understand that anything unlike the way of a recommended agency will automatically fall into either of the other two categories. Nevertheless, I will briefly talk about the other non-recommended and detailed agencies, pointing out some of the more common problems.

Recommended Kosher Agencies

The recommended group of Kashrus agencies follows the guidelines outlined in the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law. Highly qualified and trained Rabbinical Kashrus Supervisors visit their plants on a regular basis.

A recommended kosher agency must keep up-to-date on the modern and constantly changing manufacturing techniques. They must be in constant contact with industry professionals, from food scientists to engineers. Kosher Supervisors must be ready to travel to such remote places as India, Tunisia, and New Zealand to supervise food production. Once they arrive in a production facility, they must be acquainted with the intricacies of production, including how the machinery works. These Rabbis are also sent by their agencies to seminars on food technology (for example; spray dryer, cheese making, engineering, etc.) in order to enhance their knowledge of the ever-changing food industry.

While sometimes it is sufficient for the Rabbi to maintain a consistent, unannounced visit cycle, there are certain products (for example a non-dairy product in an all dairy plant, or any Passover products) for which an agency would require a full-time, on-site Rabbi during the entire production. In these instances, only the Rabbi would have access to the food labels.

Nothing can be taken for granted in the food industry, and these reputable agencies understand that. Since manufacturers are not always obligated to list every additive on their label, the diligence of a knowledgeable Rabbi is especially necessary. For example, something as seemingly simple as dried fruit or natural spices might contain an animal-derived additive to prevent clumping. Even in the unlikely case that the animal-based additive would be certified kosher, there still is a basic kosher issue to contend with. Put simply, kosher consumers do not mix meat and milk, and if the dried fruit or spice contained animal-derived additives, cooking would become complicated. What if the kosher cook forgot about the additive and seasoned a cream soup with it? What if the dried fruits were accidentally used to decorate the top of a cheesecake? Kosher cooks and consumers cannot afford these kinds of mistakes; they must be able to trust the Rabbinic Kashrus Supervisor and the plants and manufacturers.

Canned vegetables may also present a problem. Though they may not contain any questionable ingredients, the machine they are processed on, a retort, is quite expensive. As such, companies look to rent retorts in order to cover their investments, and it is possible that a non-kosher product was run on the very same retort prior to the Kosher run. Since this is a hot process, the non-kosher product will affect the status of all the following products run on the same retort. This is due to the fundamental Kosher principle that heat causes metal to absorb the flavor or essence of a product. Once absorbed, the flavors may mingle and, consequently, blend into the next hot product, creating a problem for a kosher consumer.

Flavor can also be absorbed, even in a cold or ambient state, simply by holding the liquid for 24 hours. So, if, for example, your dairy cappuccino was idle in a mug for over one day, the soy cappuccino you make the following day, which also sits for 24 hours, becomes dairy according to kosher law. Therefore, even if a product has been determined Kosher, the supervision does not end there. If the tanker delivering kosher foods was previously used for non-kosher foods, we may now have a non-kosher product since the truck almost always carries its load for more than 24 hours. Thus, the Rabbinic Kashrus Supervisor must keep track of truck routes, truck wash stations and, of course, he must develop a strong rapport with the trucking company to ensure its total cooperation.

Furthermore, ever since the federal government reduced the amounts of pesticides allowed on fresh produce, there has been a rise in insect infestation. The Rabbinic Supervisor must now contend with this by knowing how to check for these often-camouflaged insects. Indeed the Rabbi needs to be a “Jack of All Trades” in order to properly do his job.

It is important to point out that the recommended group of kosher agencies has a vast support staff which handles the countless formulas and ingredients involved in Kashrus certification. Currently, it is mandatory for kosher agencies to have customized software, which includes a database of hundreds of thousands of ingredients and formulas. There is often a full time person maintaining this software as it is not only a major expense but could also take years to develop. Even the most knowledgeable Rabbi in the world would find it impossible to run a Kashrus agency without a sufficient support staff and the proper software.

Equally important is the need for a strong review department. The recommended agency will train select Rabbis in certain fields and will send them around the world to review those accounts in which they specialize. At times, one agency will “borrow” another agency’s expert to be updated in a crucial area. This can be compared to a university’s visiting professor program, or a community’s invitation for a scholar-in-residence.

Non-Recommended Kosher Agencies

Of the remaining agencies, nearly half are not recommended, partly because they do not follow the guidelines of the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law. However, the other half of the non-recommended agencies generally do follow the Shulchan Aruch, but still are not recommended due to the fact that they rely on certain leniencies that are not accepted by mainstream Kosher Law. Two of the most common leniencies relied on are carmine and gelatin, which come from non-kosher animals but which are processed in a way that some feel would be permissible for kosher use. In addition, many times a non-recommended agency has no more than a “telephone supervision.” This is never sufficient, even if the company claims that there is only one innocuous ingredient in the company.

But perhaps the primary reason for the blanket dismissal of these agencies is that they simply do not visit their plants on a regular basis. Today, food production facilities can work so quickly that an ingredient can be in and out of the plant in days! In this vein, it really does not matter how well respected or kind a particular Rabbi or agency is. If there is not ample coverage, the certification is seriously doubted.

“Detail” Kosher Agencies

Agencies in this third category might follow many of the standards of the acceptable agencies, but might be lax in several areas. Even one missing detail can render that agency’s symbol not universally accepted. It is even possible for an ultra-orthodox agency to fall into this category, as its Rabbinic Kashrus Supervisor simply may not have the required technological expertise. While it may be more stringent than many other agencies in areas such as Yoshon (products made from specific wheat) and Pas Yisroel (baked goods with a Rabbi’s involvement), the downside is that the Kosher Supervisor may not be adequately familiar with the machinery.

An illustration of this point is as follows: A cRc Rabbi recently visited a plant where a health drink is produced for and sold to kosher-observant grocery stores throughout the United States. The supervising agent, not from the cRc, assumed that the health drink was produced in a machine that previously had been cleaned and properly kosherized, kashered, from non-kosher beef broth. Records showed that the temperature of the water had reached acceptable levels for kosherization, or kashering. In reality, the cRc Rabbi pointed out that only certain parts of the machine were reaching the temperatures necessary for kashrus while the rest of the machinery producing this drink was still not kashered properly. It was, therefore, still non-kosher and had, in fact, been that way for years! Once the matter was brought to their attention, the agency quickly remedied the situation, but damage had been done. By being unfamiliar with the internal workings of the machinery, the Supervisor was inadvertently putting his agency’s kosher symbol on a drink that was definitely not kosher.

An agency may also fit into this category if the agency was solely owned and operated. As previously explained, if the agency has many accounts, it is not possible for one person to cover its totality adequately, no matter how well meaning that person is.

There are times that, while the agency itself means well, it might allow its companies to use ingredients from non-recommended agencies. Like almost any product that is processed, there are many different types of ingredients used and therefore many different types of Kosher Supervising bodies. By using ingredients from non-recommended agencies, the products are essentially categorized into the non-recommended category.

While there is no need for a Kosher consumer to obtain a degree in food science and engineering, that consumer must be in touch with the latest information in the kosher world and its certifying agencies. While this may seem to be too much for some, consumers rely on their personal Rabbi to do the research for them. Understanding the amount of time and effort that Rabbinic Kashrus Supervisors, plant managers and manufacturers dedicate to strict adherence to the laws of Kashrus creates educated, informed consumers who come to trust and rely on all of the professionals involved.

We at the cRc try to educate the consumer to the best of our abilities. We welcome the opportunity to hold seminars or talks in any community and, likewise, we welcome any questions about our policies. We work hard to uphold our strict standards, not only to maintain our customers’ confidence, but also to safeguard our reputation as a company that adheres to Higher standards.