Vinegar Made from Wine, Scandal
adapted from see the original
A few days before Passover in 1986, Rabbi Eliyahu Shuman of the Star-K kosher certification agency noticed Kof-K certified Acme Chopped Herring in the Passover section of Shapiro's supermarket in Pikesville, Maryland which however, did not bear a kosher-for-Passover label.
Vinegar, a key ingredient in herring, is derived from alcohol which in turn, may be derived from wheat or corn, rendering it either Chamets or Kitniyot. On the other hand it might be perfectly Kosher if derived from other sources.
Shuman however discovered that it was made from grape, and was not Kosher at all. He tracked the vinegar supplier, then the alcohol manufacturer, a French company, Sofecia. There he discovered that the alcohol was pomace, or marc in French, alcohol, being made from the solid remains, skins, pulp and seeds, of the wine-making process. In order to be Kosher, these products must be produced exclusively by Jews.
Sofecia's marc alcohol had been Kosher certified by the OK kosher certification agency, under the direction of Rabbi Berel Levy, who prided himself on his meticulousness in verifying the kosher status of ingredients. "My father was a pioneer in Kashrus in that he was the first one who insisted on going back to the source of any ingredient," recalls his son, Rabbi Don Yoel Levy, who today directs OK. Berel Levy occasionally discovered problems that other agencies had missed, and when he did, he was frequently very public about it.
Berel Levy was immediately alerted, as well as the other major certification agencies that might have relied on his certified vinegar. Star-K, Kof-K, and the Orthodox Union (OU)—the nation's largest certification agency—published consumer alerts, issued a ban on the use of OK-certified vinegar, and ordered their food company clients to recall products containing vinegar. The list of suspect products was extraordinarily long because the agencies had no way of determining which particular batches of vinegar or consumer products contained the erroneously certified marc alcohol. To be safe, the agencies ordered the destruction of products even suspected of containing it. "Millions and millions of dollars of product was thrown out," recalls Rabbi Zushe Blech, who worked for the OU at the time.
In his own defence, Levy claimed that Sofecia had misled him about the production of its alcohol. He denounced the other certification agencies as hypocrites, alleging that under their supervision, "vinegar companies had been buying alcohol from Sofecia since 1980 when it had no supervision at all. But no one was concerned with wine alcohol then. Who knew of such a thing?" The alcohol in question—ethyl alcohol—was normally made from grain or synthetically, and the general practice among kosher certification agencies was to assume that all ethyl alcohol was kosher. Due to a European wine glut in the 1970s, however, companies such as Sofecia began to distil ethyl alcohol from grapes.
Moreover, Levy argued there were good Halakhic grounds to argue that the products affected were not in fact rendered unkosher by the small amounts of marc alcohol involved.
His rivals accused Levy of lax supervision and of not understanding the production process.
Sofecia published an open letter explaining that it was unaware that ethyl alcohol distilled from grapes posed a problem, that Levy had never raised the issue, and that no one from OK ever inspected the production facilities (a charge that Levy vigorously denied). When the other certification agencies suggested to OK clients that they switch certification agencies, Levy accused them of exploiting the scandal for economic gain. A year after the scandal broke, Berel Levy died. "He had so much aggravation from it," recalled Don Yoel Levy, "that he passed away."
Fraud, racketeering, and violence were rampant in the American kosher food industry of the early part of the 20th century. In the 1930s, New York City's Department of Markets employed six full-time kosher inspectors in addition to the ten inspectors from the State Kosher Enforcement Bureau, but they couldn't possibly police the 18,000 kosher food establishments operating in the city. Government investigators and industry insiders estimated that somewhere between forty and sixty percent of the meat sold as kosher at the time was treyf. Meanwhile, food companies signalled Kosher certification by placing a generic "K" on food packages. The identity and integrity of the supervising rabbi was unknown to consumers, and, in many cases, there was, in fact, no rabbinic supervision whatsoever.
All of this changed with the rise of a new regulatory institution: the private kosher certification agency. These agencies created individual brands based on reliability. Each agency placed a distinctive symbol on products that it certified, symbols that kosher consumers learned to recognize and came to trust. The agencies backed their brands with concrete measures that helped them avoid mistakes and prevent misconduct. They instituted multiple levels of management oversight to supervise kosher inspectors and provided professional training in Jewish dietary laws, food technology, and ethics.
By the 1980s, thanks to the rise of brand competition among the OU, OK, Kof-K, and Star-K: known collectively as the "Big Four", kosher certification had become much more reliable, or so it seemed until the vinegar scandal. Giving voice to widespread concern among consumers, the president of the National Council of Young Israel, Harold Jacobs, denounced not merely OK but all the agencies:
The slow and incomplete release of information concerning the wine vinegar incident [is] typical of the delaying and stonewalling tactics used by many of the kashruth supervisory agencies, adding to the confusion and distrust of the consuming public. Seven weeks after the incident was discovered . . . the kosher consumer has not been given a complete list of those products affected or unaffected, nor an adequate explanation of how the mistake happened in the first place.
He warned that "rumors of other serious lapses in kashruth supervision continue to spread" and that "unless the kashruth agencies accept their responsibility, kosher consumers will be compelled to repudiate the reliability of these national supervisions and be forced to go back to an earlier standard, when we relied exclusively on the judgement of our individual rabbis."
The vinegar scandal showed that Kosher certification agencies are very much interdependent. A mistake by one agency has potentially widespread and serious implications for agencies that rely on it later in the production process, and any resulting public scandal can damage the credibility of the kosher certification industry as a whole. As Jacobs pointed out "in a highly centralized and technologically sophisticated kosher food industry, there is, in fact, only one kashruth standard, regardless of the symbol on the package, and that standard will be determined by the lowest common denominator of supervision and reliability." He called on certifiers to "assume mutual responsibility to maintain those standards regardless of the specific kashruth symbol on the offending product." This is precisely what the Big Four proceeded to do.
Shortly before the scandal, the director of the Chicago Rabbinical Council (CRC) kosher certification agency, Rabbi Benjamin Shandalov, had convened a meeting of the heads of kosher certification agencies, which resulted in the founding of the Association of Kashrus Organizations (AKO). As the scandal unfolded, the need for such an umbrella organization became obvious. Since its founding, AKO's semiannual meetings have featured presentations and discussions that have helped shape shared standards, sometimes referred to collectively as the "American Standard of Kashrus."
Topics have included methods of cleaning industrial food-processing equipment, the kosher status of different enzymes employed in industrial food production, the use of non-kosher oils to coat steel barrels used for ingredient storage in order to prevent corrosion, and securing storage areas to prevent the introduction of non-kosher ingredients.
In the wake of the vinegar scandal, AKO also established an information-sharing system to rapidly alert agencies about kosher certification problems, and it developed guidelines to deter agencies from actively soliciting companies currently under the supervision of another agency. Although AKO has no enforcement powers - the biggest agencies insist on maintaining their autonomy - it has provided a forum for the development of voluntary standards that are widely accepted. Equally important, AKO meetings, as well as informal conversations among agency personnel, have helped to temper the brand competition that characterizes the kosher certification industry and keep it from descending into acrimony.
According to Star-K president Dr. Avrom Pollak, "relationships amongst the largest organizations have gotten better simply because people are more familiar with one another. It's easier to meet face to face and to talk to people. And inevitably when you do that, you find that a lot of your preconceptions about somebody else probably were not even true in the first place."
The vinegar scandal also convinced agencies of the need to computerize record-keeping in order to track ingredients and control the fallout from future mistakes. By the late 1980s, the leading agencies had all developed computer systems.
Today, the OU maintains a database that tracks more than 1.5 million ingredients used in the foods it certifies.
The success of the Kashrus standards and systems depends on brand competition between private agencies that keep close tabs on each other and are quick to publicize mistakes. Yet at the same time, appreciation of their interdependence engenders cooperation, which has produced shared standards and collective efforts to improve the quality of inspections by all agencies. This tension between competition and cooperation has made kosher supervision in America a model of private third-party certification.