Kosher foods are those that conform to Jewish dietary law.
Introduction to Kosher Certification
There was a time when a woman did all her family’s preparation in her own kitchen. Back then, it was obvious that pig’s feet were not kosher, and ice cream was. In the past few decades, however, there has been a revolution in American eating. Almost 90 percent of our food is now processed before reaching our kitchens. With synthetic meats and exotic food additives, artificial pig’s feet could be kosher, whereas the ice cream might not be.
These developments in the food industry have been paralleled by the growth of kosher certification organizations formed to assure consumers that appropriately processed foods can be bought with confidence.
As a matter of fact, it has been estimated that approximately one third of all shelf products in our supermarkets are certified kosher. This makes the kosher industry in the U.S. a 30 billion dollars a year business. Although only a relatively small amount of this is dedicated strictly toward the kosher consumer (about $2 billion), the interest in kosher food is rapidly growing. Some adhere to kosher laws from conviction, such as seventh day adventists, Muslims, and vegetarians. However most of the interest comes from people who feel that the kosher certification is their best guarantee that the products and its ingredients are being watched carefully and properly. Some large corporations have found it profitable to acquire kosher companies, such as a recent (1992) acquisition by Sara Lee of the $85 million a year Besin Corp., which produces Sinai and Best products. This trend appears to be on the rise. In the U.S. alone, there appear to be at least 5 million people who buy products based on their being kosher.
A food manufacturer obtains kosher certification usually by requesting it. The reasons for the request can vary from the company’s own desire to produce a kosher product to appeals from industrial customers or consumers. Sometimes company “A” requests supervision, and in the course of the investigation of its ingredients it becomes clear that Company “B”s products will also require certification. Some certifying organizations solicit companies. Others, such as the O/U, provide certification only upon application by a food manufacturer.
Once contact with a certifying agency is made, the detective work begins. The manufacturer must supply a complete, detailed list of every ingredient in the product, including preservatives, release agents, stabilizers or other inert ingredients. In addition, every step in the manufacturing process, every cleansing agent used on the equipment and all other products produced on the same premises require close investigation and supervision.
The certifying agency must track down each ingredient to its ultimate source. If, for instance, the ingredient is meat or a meat by-product, the item cannot be kosher unless the meat source itself is strictly kosher. Wine and wine by-products, cheese, and some dairy by-products (such as whey) present the same problem. Any oil used in the manufacture of foodstuffs has to be traced back to the oil processor. Many vegetable oils are produced in machinery that is also used to process animal fats and oils. The Federal Food and Drug Administration acknowledges that “100 percent vegetable oil” may in fact have a percentage of animal fat in some batches. In such a case, of course, the oil is not recommended.
Some ingredients with innocuous sounding names need special attention. “Natural colors” have been known to be derived from insects, “softeners” from whale oil, and “artificial flavors” from cats. Therefore, the supervising agency must conduct a complete and intense investigation into the origin of all the ingredients.
The process by which ingredients are produced must also be carefully checked. In fact, it is necessary to check the processing locations to verify that hygienic standards are not so lax as to allow insects or worms to contaminate the food product. Unfortunately, lax hygiene in food processing is more common than people wish to believe.
The results of all these investigations are forwarded to the rabbinic authority (or board) of the supervising agency. If changes in ingredients or processes are required, the manufacturer must make the changes before the agency will do further work. Once all is acceptable, the rabbinic authority will determine the amount of on-plant supervision necessary. This information is written into a contract and then sent to the manufacturer. The contract also specifies that the manufacturer agrees to make no changes of ingredients or suppliers without prior written consent of the agency. The actual on-site inspector (mashgiach) will verify that the company is complying with the contract.
Should the manufacturer cease to comply with the contract, the agency either will see that the necessary changes are made or it will revoke its certification. Because organizations like the O/U or Chaf-K have registered servicemarks, unauthorized printing of these symbols on labels is a violation of Federal law. These certifying agencies have legal redress against possible abuse by manufacturers of their symbols. Some states have laws against falsely advertising that a product is kosher. Also, when reliable certifying agencies know that a particular product will no longer be under their supervision, they will publicize that fact widely. However, these safeguards are not enforceable when only the letter K is used for kosher certification.
The cost of certification to the manufacturer is minimal. For non-profit agencies, cost depends on the amount of on-site work. Agencies making a profit might have a minimum annual charge and fees depending on the gross annual sales of the product. The individual supervisor (mashgiach) is typically paid for each visit he makes to the plant (He usually receives less per visit than an auto mechanic makes per hour). The mashgiach is paid by the certifying agency and not by the manufacturer. There is usually no increase in the price of the product due to its kosher certification, because the cost of certification is generally met by increased sales. The O/U reports that in over 45 years, fewer than 12 companies discontinued their certification programs because sales did not increase. Thus, kosher supervision benefits the manufacturer and the consumer, who can be confident that foods may be consumed without violating the kosher standards. If this were the whole story, this chapter would not be necessary. But the fact is that standards, even of national certifying organizations, can vary significantly.
Perhaps our suspicion of the legitimacy of the kosher status of some products can be illustrated most clearly with the following actual letter from a certifying rabbi to a food manufacturer. All identifying information has been deleted. The footnotes explain the problems raised by the letter:
Dear Mr. ____________,
It was a pleasure to hear from you. I am happy to inform you that I certainly will grant kosher certification to (name of product). You may identify these products with the K insignia.However, I would very much wishto know the names of the suppliers and the ingredients.I expect to be at the ______________ plant during February,and perhaps at that time the manufacturing procedure of these new productscould be explained to me.
With warm and most cordial wishes for all the best,
Sincerely yours, Rabbi ________________
Our notes:1. The manufacturer did not need this line to have permission to print a K on the label. The K is not a copyrighted symbol nor even a certification that the product is kosher. 2. “Wish,” not “need”!3. The rabbi asks this AFTER stating that the product is kosher. Is he a prophet?4. That is, the actual investigation of the product, the manufacturing process, and the ingredients will not be completed for a month. During that time, the manufacturer will with the rabbi’s authorization—be printing K’s on his labels, thinking that it is kosher and misleading the public into believing that the product is kosher despite the absence of evidence. Let us suppose that the rabbi were to discover that the product is absolutely not kosher. What would he do about the thousands of items on grocery shelves? Would he recall them? With what authority? Indeed, one can only wonder whether a rabbi with such lax standards ever tried to recall a product that he discovered was not kosher.5. This statement makes it abundantly clear that the timing of the certification before the investigation cannot be explained as a carry-over from a previous year.6. We cannot find any reason that a rabbi who has not seen the process or even come to understand it from a phone call would consent to authorize a food producer to label a product as kosher. We feel, therefore, that only someone with very low standards of kashrus would trust any certification by this rabbi.
History of Kosher Certification
In the U.S.A., the kosher certifying agencies with which we are familiar did not start until the 1920’s and 1930’s, but their development can be traced back over 200 years. The need for kosher supervision in the United States dates back to Colonial times. As early as 1660, a Jew from Portugal applied for a license to sell kosher meat in New Amsterdam. The first recorded complaint was in 1771 against the Shochet Moshe. In 1774, the widow, Hetty Hays, complained that her shochet (ritual slaughterer) was selling non-kosher meat. This led to the first court license revocation against a kosher butcher in 1796. As Jewish communities developed in the United States, they originally followed the European pattern of having community appointed shochtim. By this method, the shochet could easily be removed if he did not follow the strict guidelines set down by the community leaders. This method changed drastically in 1813, when the schochet, Avraham Jacobs, became the first independent schochet in the United States. He was followed by many more. Unfortunately, this change led to a rapid decline in the standard of kosher meat. In 1863, a group of laymen and shochtim got together to try to form a kashrus organization that could control this situation. Regrettably, they were unsuccessful. It was not until 1897 that the shochtim themselves banded together to form a union called “Meleches Hakodesh.” Their goal was to improve kashrus standards, as well as the wages of shochtim. By 1918, kosher products started finding their way into the American market. Abraham Goldstein, a chemist, was highly instrumental in both importing these products as well as in convincing domestic companies (such as Sunshine Biscuit Co.) to become certified kosher. In 1924, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis (O/U), which had been established in 1892, decided to enter the field of kashrus. Mr. Goldstein was appointed as its first director. During the “food revolution” of the past 50 years, as more and more products are prepared in company plants and not in private kitchens, the “O/U” has been active as a non-profit organization in the kosher certification of these products. Mr. Goldstein continued to head the O/U from 1924 until 1935. Feeling a need for another certifying agency, he started the O/K Laboratories. Today, the O/U, headed by Rabbi Menachem Genack, and the O/K, headed by Rabbi Don Yoel Levy, reliably certify many thousands of products and ingredients that we have become accustomed to using daily. As the complexity of manufacturing processes and the need for kosher certification has increased, so has the number of agencies and individuals interested in meeting this need. This has led to the rise of newer certifying agencies, such as VHM, the Chaf K, Kehilloh, Star K and others. Furthermore, individual rabbis have entered this field, often using their own kosher symbol or even just a plain “K” to designate a product’s kosher status. This has caused a great deal of confusion. When there were only two or three certifying agencies, it was easy for consumers to judge their reliability. But today, it may take a great deal of detective work to ascertain the standard that a particular rabbi is using. Consequently, many people prefer to rely on only the well-known certifying agencies, rather than risk the chance that a product may not meet their personal standard of kashrus. The O/U, O/K, Star-K and Kof-K are the largest relied upon kosher agencies in the world today.
The following are some Kashrus designations with their meanings:
- D — Dairy
- DE — Dairy Equipment (no actual dairy in ingredients, hence it can be eaten after a meat meal, but not together with meat)
- P — Passover; Kosher for all year including Passover (Note: “P” NEVER designates pareve)
- Pareve — Non-dairy and non-meat
- Chalav Yisrael — Kosher supervised milk used in ingredients
- Pas Yisrael — Jewish baked goods
- Yashan — Not from current grain crop
When the above reliable kosher symbols are on the outside, you can trust what’s inside. The following symbols are among those that we can recommend without qualification, meaning that you can assume that we would recommend any product that is legitimately certified by one of these agencies. If a symbol does not appear here it does not mean that we would not recommend any or all of the foods certified by that agency. In fact, you will find many products in our database that bear symbols that do not appear here, or that bear no symbol at all. When you have a question about whether we would recommend any particular product, please search the database for that product. If you don’t find it in the database, you are welcome to ask us.