Are the Kosher Agencies' Protocols Unwell?
Mishpacha Magazine May 8 2013
Public interest in the state of kashrus seems to move in cycles. Long periods elapse with little discussion of the issues, despite a vague awareness that there are ongoing problems that need to be addressed. Then, suddenly, a scandal breaks - like the Monsey meat scandal six years ago, or the recent Doheny affair in Los Angeles - and the topic takes center stage in communal consciousness. Questions like “Can we really ensure the kashrus of what we eat?” are urgently pondered in articles and Shabbos table discussions.
In an effort to clarify the issues around this pillar of Jewish living, Mishpacha brought together ﬁve leading national kashrus experts - Rabbi Usher Anshel Eckstein, Rabbi Moshe Elefant, Rabbi Saul Emanuel, Rabbi Don Yoel Levy, and Rabbi Avrohom Union - for a two-part series on this most complex and confusing arena. In Part I, they share their insights and experience in an increasingly complicated global industry.
There has been fabulous growth in the kosher marketplace in recent years, with production expanding into ever more far-ﬂung foreign venues. But is the great proliferation of kosher products a mixed blessing‘? Have kashrus standards been watered down to enable production to keep pace with growing demand from kosher consumers? And has such demand forced kosher producers to expand to the point where high standards can’t be met?
Rabbi Levy: I think I’ve been in the kashrus ﬁeld the longest of everyone here, full-time, since 1977, and in all the years, I got one phone call from a consumer complaining that we didn’t give a hechsher on something. So to say that there’s pressure out there to give hechsherim on more products, I don’t know that it exists. As for the concern that kosher production is expanding to foreign countries where we can’t provide the same level of supervision, the fact is we now have a division that focuses solely on foreign production. So, for example, at any one time, we have four or ﬁve people visiting China, and the same is true all over the world.
Regarding the proliferation of kosher products, we have to remember that we here in this room all happen to be chareidishe Yidden who eat glatt kosher and drink chalav Yisrael, but there are a lot of people out there on the fringe who try to keep kosher, and the more kosher products we have, the more people are going to keep kosher. But this does not mean we will lower the standards of kashrus for these products.
Rabbi Elefant: It’s a good thing that there are products available from throughout the world. HaKadosh Baruch Hu created those products for us to eat as long as they meet the "highest standards of kashrus”. The last time the Belzer Rebbe was in the US, he asked to see Rabbi Genack [CEO of OU Kosher] and me. He told us he had heard a lot of nice things about the OU and the rabbanim who are involved with the OU, and he felt that the time had come for the OU to be makpid on chalav Yisrael. And what we told the Rebbe was that the OU never, chas vishalom, told any Jew to eat chalav stam while the Jews in Boro Park and Williarnsburg eat chalav Yisrael. We don’t have to tell them to eat chalav yisrael.
But there are a lot of Jews who don’t live in Boro Park and Williamsburg, and if we don’t have non-chaIav Yisrael products for them, they may not eat kosher. As long as we're transparent and tell people what our standard is and we don’t tell anyone they have to eat chalav stam, I think we’ve actually done a very good service.
Rabbi Eckstein; The reason there’s been such an expansion of products isn’t because of consumer demand; it’s coming from the businesspeople, who go to shows and see all sorts of products, which they bring back and then tell the rav hamachshir, “I want this, I need the biggest bubble gum in the world.” But regarding what Rabbi Levy said about supplying kosher to people on the fringe, I’d like to say that there are a lot of different standards of kosher. And if you’re certifying products that maybe don’t meet the top standards in order to save the fringe community, because it’s better than these people eating non-kosher, then those products should never, ever reach the Boro Park community.
Rabbi Elefant; I respect Rabbi Eckstein’s point, but it’s a point that maybe, maybe was valid in the world as it existed 50 years ago, when the number of ingredients and products was very limited. I don’t know how it was then, because I haven’t been doing this for 50 years, although I feel like I have been. But today, with so many ingredients available and from so many different sources and suppliers, if a company comes to us and wants certiﬁcation, there’s no reason for us to cut corners, so what’s the concern?
In spite of rapid growth, and increasing demands for more certified Kosher products, the Kosher agencies assure us that standards have not been compromised to meet this demand. Unfortunately, documentation is not provided to support these assurances.
Although it would be best [according to these agencies] if all milk products were Chalav Yisrael, and all meat was Glatt Kosher, such standards are not yet achievable nor sustainable. Also, if Kashrus was tailored to exclusively satisfy these standards, there would be many Yidden who, not finding the variety of foods they expect and at the prices they expect, would not keep Kosher.
At the same time, it is a shame that products that are not Chalav Yisrael and are not Glatt Kosher should be available in the spiritually rarefied and lofty suburbs of Boro Park and Williamsburg. After all, these are enclaves of Yiddishkeit that aspire to only the top levels of Kedusha Tahara and Kashrus.
It is also a shame that businessmen, seeking their profits, appeal to the weaknesses of people's shallow cravings for new foods and will manage to find agencies who compromise the highest standards of Kashrus, all for the sake of a few more dollars.
Although all agencies pursue the highest standards, there are various forces working against this. Firstly, each agency has its own set of standards and it is difficult if the company seeking certification has an easier option.
It is also unnerving to constantly fear that a company may be lured to a rival who offers an easier path to Kosher certification.
A subtext to many of the issues in kashrus seems to be how to address monetary incentives, given the fact that kashrus is not only a community service and a religious calling, but can also be a proﬁtable venture.
Do producers use the fact that there are many agencies as a subtle bargaining chip to get an agency to not insist on higher standards?
Do competing agencies ever try to solicit away accounts? And when some large companies produce different products under different hashgachos, is this a way of subtly conveying the message that if agencies make too many demands, they risk losing the account to another one‘?
Rabbi Union: We all understand the power of money to inﬂuence things one way or the other. But I think this is not the great challenge facing the world of kashrus today - although, unfortunately, there's a certain amount of cynicism among the public that kashrus supervision is money-driven. I do think there are a couple of important steps that need to be taken, and for the most part are taken, to ensure that money does not have a negative inﬂuence. One is that whether an organization is for proﬁt or non-proﬁt, it has to be clear that everyone is salaried, it has to be clear that a mashgiach cannot walk away from the factory with a sample, ad k'dei kach. It cannot be that there’s any sense that someone can get pecuniary beneﬁt from the supervision.
Secondly, it's very important that every kashrus organization have internal checks and balances. For us at the RCC, it's our vaad hakashrus that has to approve hechsherim; for other agencies it might be the poskim and outside consultants who pasken what they can and cannot accept. That way, even if there’s a rabbinic coordinator who’s enthusiastic that a particular company would be a great boost to our market share or certiﬁcation, the oversight by an objective party to step in and say, ‘Ad kan, this is cutting it too close to the halachic boundary,” provides a necessary check on that.
Another thing that might not be practical on the national level but is very important on the local level is to implement external review. That means bringing in outside people to come in and take a look and say, “This is good," “This can be better,‘ or “This needs to be ﬁxed."
Rabbi Emanuel: While certainly there are many agencies whose survival depends upon giving hashgachos, I don't know of any case in which an upstanding agency tried to take a hashgocha away from another agency. At least as far as the mainstream certifying agencies that do kashrus the way it should be done - there are over 1,000 agencies, and we’re not talking about the smaller ones and the ones that come and go - the way it should be working, and the way l believe it is working, is that if a company goes to a new agency, the new agency calls the prior one to ask not only if there were any kashrus violations, but also if there was something that was requested of the company that is making it look for another agency, and whether it left the old agency because it didn’t want to pay its fees.'
Rabbi Elefant; A communal hashgocha, where no one‘s making a proﬁt and no one’s salary depends on sales, automatically solves many of the potential problems you mentioned, and we believe very strongly in communal hashgocha, and that whatever proﬁts there are should be reinvested back into the community, rather than going into people’s own pockets.
I look at competition as a good thing: as the Gemara says, "Ki'nas Soferim Tarbeh Chochmah “ And although I'm a big fan of many people not only at the OU but in other agencies too, the reality is that we’re all human beings and we have a competitive nature. We all want to do our best, and that's a good thing; if another agency has a great system in place, that’s only going to encourage me to do better. Ours is the largest hashgacha in America, but I would never want to see a situation where there is only one hashgachah in America.
A certifying agency that solicits another agency's account can have the biggest talmid chacham at its head, but that agency is unacceptable. But if you’re playing by the rules and there's honest, fair competition - that‘s all for the best.
Rabbi Levy: My father [Rabbi Berel/Bernard Levy] set up the OK as a non-proﬁt organization. from which I‘ve never received a dividend. I get a salary like everyone. All our resources are put back into kashrus or into strengthening community institutions.
Rabbi Union: On the one hand. I agree that competition is a good thing and that we wouldn't want to see a monolithic kashrus agency in the United States that had sole control and could become ossiﬁed. Competition on the local level works well when it goes together with transparency. That is to say. If one agency says, “We use any frozen broccoli,” and the other agency says, ‘No, we hold that not all frozen broccoli is ok to use" - if their standards are published, then consumers will vote however they vote. Some will go this way and some the other way, but at least the agencies won't be undercutting one another.
But competition can be detrimental when the standards aren't clear and people don't understand. One vaad might fear losing a hashgacga to another because they want to keep to a certain standard, but they understand that the market won’t tolerate it because people will simply go to an alternative hashgocha. So if people don't know the difference in standards, then competition is going to undermine maintenance and improvement of standards. It’s OK to have a difference of opinion on a whole variety of issues on which the poskim disagree but be clear and state what your standard is, and the consumer can decide which standard he feels comfortable with.
Are there things that can be done to lower the cost of kosher food for consumers?
Rabbi Emanuel: The fallacy of the consumer thinking that a kashrus agency should be involved in setting prices is very dangerous.
For example, recently a chicken production plant closed down, leaving only one supplier of chickens in Canada, and we got a ﬂood of calls from people saying, “It’s your responsibility to control the price of chickens.” But we are not involved in the controlling of prices; our sole responsibility is kashrus.
Rabbi Levy: You ask what we, the agencies, can do to lower food costs, but there are, unknown to us, very many companies that know that because they're selling kosher products, they can demand a higher price, and are taking a ride on the back of the agency to hike the price to the consumer.
A story: We have a lot of hechsherim in Malaysia, and we insist on only using products bearing the OK. So a couple years ago, a distributor called me up, and the gist of the conversation was that he was getting 40,000 tons of product a year from this plant and they were charging him a dollar more per ton because it had an OK; without the OK on it, he'd be paying a dollar less. Since the whole production in this plant was kosher, he wanted to be able to get it without the OK certiﬁcation. This manufacturer had decided to take a ride on our back, but this distributor assumed that if it's costing him $40,000 more per year for kosher certiﬁcation, we must have been charging the manufacturer at least that much.
I told him that even if I were to take a ﬁrst class ﬂight speciﬁcally to visit that plant, the cost wouldn’t be anything near that amount.
Once distributors know that a certain store can only sell a speciﬁc type of meat or milk, what happens is: number one, they raise the price; number two, they lower the quality; and number three, they give poor delivery service. When options are limited, that’s what happens.
Rabbi Union: I think that for the most part, prices are driven by supply and demand, just as they are in any other market, and other than meat and a few other items, prices aren’t and shouldn’t be signiﬁcantly more than they are for the non-kosher equivalent. I spent several years in South Africa and - Rabbi Emanuel will remember this - a leading Johannesburg balabos named Anthony Spitz led a commission formed to investigate the price differential between kosher and non-kosher meat. It was a serious group comprised of serious businesspeople, and when they issued their report, the ﬁnding was that the difference was justiﬁed based on the realities of the costs involved in kosher meat production.
Rabbi Elefant: As a matter of policy, we never discuss with a company what they’re charging for an OU-certiﬁed product, because then I become part of their business, and that compromises my position. I also strongly believe that the best way to bring down prices is by having more products available.
Let me tell you a story; The OU certiﬁes the Mars chocolate company, one of the biggest in the country. They had never been kosher and they began by getting M&Ms certiﬁed, because OU certiﬁed ice cream makers needed M&M pieces for their production. Not long after that, Mars came to us and said they wanted all their products certiﬁed, so we asked them what happened.
They said that on the back of every product they make, there's an 800 number for consumers to contact the company and they pay attention to those calls. After M&Ms became kosher, they got many calls from consumers thanking them, and, they stressed, those calls were passionate. When consumers speak up, companies take notice, and that can bring down prices.
With all the agencies out there, and given the intricate halachos of kashrus, how can confused consumers decide which hashgachos they can rely upon and what standards a particular agency applies?
Why don’t the agencies get together and issue certain minimal standards to which they all adhere?
Rabbi Elefant: People like to talk about how agencies don’t get along, and of course, at times, we disagree. But I’ve been doing this for a very, very long time and I can tell you that we agree much more than we disagree, and you’d be surprised at the level of communication and cooperation that exists among hashgachos despite the fact that we can be honestly described as competitors. But we all recognize that we’re doing an avodas hakodesh and that supersedes our parochial feelings.
We get along very well both personally and professionally. As far as standards, no hashgachah is an island unto itself, so of course we have shared standards - otherwise, how could the OU accept OK ingredients, and vice versa? So there’s a lot of industry-wide cooperation on standards that the consumer may not know about but should be very happy to hear about.
And that even includes Rabbi Eckstein, who represents a different type of hashgachah from the rest of us here, but as he acknowledges, he counts on the national agencies for information and resources that aren't available to a smaller, heimishe hashgachah.
The agencies themselves are very transparent. At the OU we have a website, we have someone whose full-time job is to answer calls from consumers, and another rav whose job is to respond to e-mail and online inquiries. But an educated consumer is the best customer, and even though we live in a generation in which everyone goes to yeshivah and Bais Yaakov and many people learn daf yomi, how many people even know what questions to ask?
Rabbi Levy: No agency can become a member of AKO, the umbrella group of kashrus agencies, unless it agrees to uphold certain standards. Similarly, we have a committee that gets together to discuss which ingredients are innocuous and don’t require a hashgachah, and we've had many meetings together to work out common standards for transporting products.
Rabbi Emanuel: Even though it's true that we all publicize our standards, we do have a responsibility to explain things to people that seem confusing to them. For example, we in Canada don’t use strawberries, so when people come to a simchah and there are no strawberries, they ask why it is that in some places in the US they do allow strawberries.
Now, there may be numerous reasons for that: the other rav hamachshir may be a bit more lenient or may have a system in place for checking them, or it maybe that while strawberries in Quebec are infested, those from California are acceptable. Things vary with the place and the season, and it's our responsibility to educate the consumers so they understand that you can't get everything all the time.
Rabbi Eckstein; Probably the most challenging area of kashrus is that of insect infestation, since it's a constantly changing situation depending on the day, the item, the season, the place. For everything else in kashrus, there are standards — but not in this area, since the facts are constantly shifting. People also need to know that greenhouse products don’t guarantee that products will be insect-free.
How can technology be put to better use in the service of kashrus? For example, should video cameras be installed in plants and stores? Could the use of cameras have helped prevent the recent Los Angeles meat scandal?
Rabbi Levy: As far as relying solely on video cameras, if you try watching a video camera all day, you won't need a sleeping pill, because that’ll put you to sleep. But they can be put to good use: number one, to see what came in when no one was looking, and number two, to check on a mashgiach to see if he’s there when he says he is. For these purposes, cameras are not a suggestion, they’re a necessity. If a company already has such cameras for security purposes, we insist that we are given access to the videos. But if not - and this is a sensitive point - although we’d like to require use of certain chumros, such as the use of cameras, if Hechsher X says it’s not necessary, some companies will accept our requirement, but others will say, “It’s too expensive, we'll go someplace else.”
Technology has helped us in another fundamental way. We have a database of ingredients and of formulas where every ingredient in every product we certify is recorded. We also have a licensed food chemist on staff.
Rabbi Emanuel: Video cameras are speciﬁc to wherever they are placed, and although they can be put in many different places at many different times, there’s nothing like having a real person checking on what comes in and what goes out. Cameras can't see the invoices, and especially when we're dealing with meat, there’s no substitute for having someone checking the invoices, checking each piece of meat to see if it has the right chosem. We learned from previous experience and instituted the use of holograms attached to each piece of meat and at the point of sale, each with its own individual number. We're presently also looking at the possible use of a scanning system involving bar codes for each piece of meat.
Rabbi Eckstein: Video cameras are helpful, but that’s mostly in catching a culprit after the fact, although maybe they do create a situation of mirsas similar to that of a yotzei v’nichnas [a mashgiach who comes and goes unannounced], since the company knows it's being watched. We are a local vaad and so we rely on the close relationships we have with our friends at the OU and OK to provide the technological know-how and information we need to be able to implement the higher kashrus standards of a heimishe hechsher.
Rabbi Elefant: Certainly, the use of technology to enhance kashrus is critical. The OU ' has invested millions of dollars in technology, and whatever requests we make of the administration in that regard are granted.
We have a database of hundreds of thousands of ingredients, identifying their chemical composition and who certiﬁes them, as well as which ingredients we consider innocuous from a kashrus perspective. The companies we certify can communicate with us on a 24-7 basis, and we are in constant contact with our ﬁeld representatives and other agencies.
Rabbi Union: What’s needed is a multi-tiered system - and one tier of that, of course, includes technology. One promising technology that we're now looking at is this: almost every mushgiach nowadays has a smartphone, which includes a GPS function. Using the GPS, we can check on a mashgiach at any given time to know if he is where he’s supposed to be. It’s simple, inexpensive, and available, and we need to start using it.
Shouldn't the honesty of a company seeking certiﬁcation be investigated before an agency grants its certiﬁcation?
Rabbi Union: Perhaps one of things we need to do is to look at who we are certifying and doing more extensive background checks.
Knowing that a person is a shomer Torah umitzvos is not the be-all and end-all; we know this from Monsey and other situations. But it ought to be something we look at as part of the overall equation: can we secure this hashgachah or can we not secure it? And part of that is knowing, do we feel comfortable with this individual’s credibility and integrity?
Have we done a bit of a background check so we know this isn’t a person who has skeletons in the closet?
Rabbi Elefant: The “shalom aleichem” I got when I joined the OU in 1987 was a terrible story involving a slaughterhouse in Chicago under our supervision, where everything was the way it was supposed to be, and then a non-Jewish employee confessed to Rav Chaim Goldzweig that they also had another facility nearby where they were using our OU labels on birds that were neveilos. Obviously, we investigated, we caught them, they were put out of business and made to pay a very signiﬁcant ﬁne by the State of Illinois.
And after, the attorney general of Illinois came to speak to the OU staff here in New York, and this Irishman said to us, “Rabbis, I’m not here to tell you how to give supervision. But my recommendation is that when we’re dealing with an industry in which there’s a real incentive to cheat - we all know the price differential between kosher and non-kosher poultry is signiﬁcant - only supervise people you trust. Because if you don’t trust them, you can have all the systems in the world - video cameras, accounting systems - but he’ll ﬁnd a way to cheat.”
We’ve tried to take his lesson to heart, although it’s very hard to tell a person “We don’t trust you.” But otherwise there’s no way to do supervision, because if a person is not inherently trustworthy, you’re almost certain to have a problem.
The shocking admission by OU COO, Rabbi Elefant, is supposed to comfort us by displaying honesty and preparedness to tell even painful truths. But wait, was this an admission made before the damaging information was already in circulation?
Was this information gained by the OU's own detection sleuths seeking out and successfully identifying dishonest traders?
What adjustments has the OU made since this debacle? What systems are employed to monitor, to police, to enforce and to protect the Kosher consumers who are relying upon them?