Monday, April 11, 2011

On Mentchlichkeit

I've been too busy--or perhaps too mellow--to comment much on some of the shenanigans that always arise pre-Pesach when it comes to the sudden rise in product prices. But there is one complaint I have that has been fomenting for a few weeks.

In particular I am not happy with the Star K right now. A number of weeks ago I went online to the various kashrut organization sites to download product information to be used in shopping for yom tov. I know that the Star K puts out a reliable medicine/cosmetic list and I was particularly looking for that information as I will be having people in my house who regularly take prescription medications and who would need to know if they have to speak to their physician or not about possible changes to that medication over Pesach. In addition, there are otc medications I needed to check out, such as antacids. And yes, some toothpastes contain kitniyos or chometz and you need to know which is which. Is there anyone out there reading who doesn't have any of these types of products in their home?

What did I find? I could learn online about every other product the Star K certifies for Pesach but not about the medicines/cosmetics. Why? Because that medicine/cosmetic list is for sale at your local seforim store. Yes, for sale, and no, not cheap.

Yes, it's very nice that Rabbi Bess of the LA Kollel has been producing this list for the Star K for many years. Yes, obviously, there is some work involved in producing the list (although not as much work as the Star K would like us to believe--in a computer-oriented world such as the one we live in, keeping records and accessing information and compiling lists does not require the intensive effort that it once did). No, I have no idea if the Star K and Rabbi Bess have some kind of fiduciary relationship specific to the creation of the medicine/cosmetic list--nor do I care right now. Okay, I will give them credit that they discuss on their site the issues that may be involved in the use of medications and cosmetic-type items, but without the actual list of the items by brand name the discussion is philosophical at best and not practical whatsoever.

The use of medications and cosmetics over Pesach does not fall into the same category as the use of plastic wrap and napkins and cocoa powder etc.. With the latter, whether you use brand X or brand Y is not a matter of possible harm to you. If you can't get one brand, you buy another brand. Medications and some of the items that fall under cosmetics (think ointments) are a wholly different story. Yes, there can be sakonah involved, to one degree or another. Yes, there can be discomfort involved (think allergies), to one degree or another. Why, when this is the case, would a national kashruth organization play the money game with its medicine/cosmetic list?! Yes, yes, I know, kashruth is big business. Well guess what? What it comes to the items on that medicine/cosmetic list business should be damned.

Of all the things that should not be peddled as just another product for sale, a listing of medications/cosmetics should be on top of the list. Where is the Star K's concern for Klal, the klal that allows it to stay in business by buying the products it certifies, proving to the manufacturers that they should continue paying the Star K for kosher supervision? At a very minimum, the Star K should be mailing a copy of that list for free to every orthodox rabbi in the US so that those rabbanim can inform their congregants. Druggists and doctors should have been able to request the list for free weeks ago. The best would be if they would stop trying to make a buck on the backs of just those kosher consumers who might need the information on that list so that they and their doctors can make informed decisions about health issues. The list should be available online or for the price of a stamp if you use snail mail.

There it is--my pre-Pesach rant. And this time I think I'm entitled to the ranting. Of all the people to penalize with Pesach purchasing costs people with medical/health issues or questions should not be on the list whatsoever. Where is the mentchlichkeit of the Star K?

Note: there is a telephone number available on the Star K web site for the LA Kollel that you can call and request a copy of the medication/cosmetic list. Right, and given snail mail time from LA to NY that list is not going to arrive, should you order it now, in time to do you much good. And yes, cynic that I am, I'm betting that a donation to the LA Kollel just might be the price of getting that list--can't say for sure, but it would fit in with the idea that the list is for sale everywhere else.


Anonymous said...

Someone in our shul got hold of the medicine list, scanned it into his computer and sent a copy to everyone in the minyan. The question came up if this is ethical to do since the list is for sale. With no exceptions everyone said that the unethical behavior was the StarK's in selling the list to begin with. All their other product lists are available free online so why did they single out the medicine list to have to be purchased? Because they knew that people would be forced to buy it because of the information it contained. It's a type of blackmail--pay up or maybe get sick. Yeah, I agree this was lousy on the part of the StarK.

Anonymous said...

People should not wait until the last minute to request a new prescription. Drs. offices are busy, and some of us have prescription plans that require you to use mail order if it is a maintenance medication for a crhonic condition (i.e. for diabetes, acid reflux, hypertention, etc.) rather than a one time script, such as for an antibiotic or an emergency situation.

miriamp said...

The crc has its medicine and cosmetic list online. Maybe that helps? I tried to grab the link for you but my phone isn't cooperating. Came up in a quick Google search though.

Moshe said...

You're being too hard on the StarK for no reason. They aren't a nonprofit organization and they never claim to be anything but a business. Businesses make money by selling services and goods. Just because the list you didn't get is for sale doesn't make the group evil. That's like saying that all drug companies should be nonprofits because what they sell is used for health reasons. If you want what they have for sale you pay for it. No different then any other service.

Ruth said...

Our shul got a copy of the list and notified all members that they had the list. Anyone in the shul can use it and since it is not copyrighted can make a copy of all of it or of the relevant pages in the shul office. Since the shul is "owned" by its dues paying members anything the shul buys is owned by all the members so there is no ethical problem in all of us having and sharing the list.

The kashrut organizations have to have money to keep in business but I also don't like that they will let you know which toilet bowl cleaners are under their hashgocho for no charge but then turn around and charge you for medical information.

Anonymous said...

They used to mail the list to local residents. Now it is a fundraiser for the LA kollel. There are many fundraisers for different organizations--so why can't they have one too.

In addition, even in the digital/information age, things take time to research. I have a heter to give my kids kitniyos on Pesach due to food allergies. Every year I contact the OU and they do extensive research every year on what soy milk, yogurt, etc alternatives are acceptable to use on pesach. So if it does take extensive research, why shouldn't they get paid. Even after going through the list, I have had questions about medications. I called the star-k and the researched the particular items for me.

One last thought. If it's only a couple medications, you can just call their office.

The star-k is an amazing organization and it would be appreciated if you did not write negative things about them as it is probably lashon harah.

Shmendrik said...

"They aren't a nonprofit organization and they never claim to be anything but a business."

Wow, I looked at their webpage, and you're right, I didn't see anything about them being a non-profit. Which, if true, is disturbing for so many reasons.

tesyaa said...

I would add that many rabbis hold that medicines with no flavor don't require Pesach supervision since they don't come under the category of food - all the more so ointments and lotions which aren't ingested. It is a sign of our chumra culture that we require supervision. Ask your local rabbi, of course, but you'd be surprised how many rabbis say that inedible items (including medicines with no flavor) don't require a Pesach hechsher.

And the argument that the list wouldn't be produced if there were no requirement is problematic. (1) do readers of the list always hold exclusively by the Star-K? (2) the Star-K knows that some consumers want the list, regardless of how rabbis pasken.

Tuvi said...

They used to mail the list to local residents. Now it is a fundraiser for the LA kollel. There are many fundraisers for different organizations--so why can't they have one too.

For me that is simple Anonymous--you don't fundraise with a product that is a necessity re sakonas nefoshos and that is not available elsewhere. You want to sell things to raise money? No problem here, but make that things that people want, not things that people need. They want to raise funds? Let them wait until after Pesach and send out a general mailing reminding people that they provide an important service--free service--to frum klal in putting together the medicine list. I'd bet that they would raise a whole lot more that way then by selling the list and stirring up ill will.

And please, no one is seeing that the Star K does not do good work otherwise. And it isn't loshon horah to point out that an error is being made by the Star K that can be costly to the frum consumer, and that a change is needed.

JS said...

First off, I think people should be aware that there is a big difference between the morality/ethics of copying the star-k list and the legal issue of copyright violation. Briefly, a document doesn't need to say "copyright" on it to be protected.

It seems like a pretty lousy thing for the star-k to do to make all their lists free except for the one most people care about the most. I get that they're a business, but it seems like poor business sense to tick people off in this manner. My only response is that, since they're a business, treat them like one and write them a letter stating you won't be buying any more products that they certify. You can even write to companies whose products they do certify telling them why you won't be buying it anymore. Extreme? Perhaps. But, what other pressure can a consumer place on a business?

All the hashgachas fund multiple projects from the money they collect from their supervision work. The OU is a classic example: they fund shuls, NCSY, day school initiatives, education, publications, Yachad, etc. Personally, I'd rather have these types of services than pay a bit less for a hashgacha, but I get why some people may not want to.

The difficulty is that the organizations are business but hold themselves out as providing communal services. In many ways, this is just like the yeshivas.

Finally, I second what tesyaa said, talk to your rabbi. Most of the concern regarding inedible items such as medicine and cosmetics is a chumra on a chumra on a chumra. Talk to your rabbi, you may be pleasantly surprised.

Stuie said...

I'll absolve the StarK from intentionally trying to make money off the backs of people in need of medical information. That said, someone in their office made a really poor business decision in deciding to sell this particular list as if it was just any old item to be sold.

If the monies collected from the sale of the list goes towards one of their specific chesed type projects that should be stated in bold letters at the top of the list. "Sales of this list support____." If the monies go to the LA Kollel, that too should go in bold letters at the top of the list.

I agree with the commenter above who said this was a poor fundraiser and a public relations disaaster. You don't fundraise using information that they could have trumpeted all over the various Jewish news weeklies as a service to the frum community.Asking people to support their work by sending in donations is a lot different from keeping knowledge back unless you pay for it.

SaraK said...

The CRC seems to make things very easy.

Trudy said...

You are wrong Moshe that the Star K is not a non profit--according to information available on the web, it is a non profit organization. As such it is supposed to be service oriented, and mostly it is. I agree that the medicine list was handled wrong and should not have been sold to the public the way they are doing. At least with the Blumenkrantz book everything in the book is for sale, regular products and medical information. Leaves a funny taste with me that the Star K would give you all the other info for free and charge for the medical list.

Anonymous said...

Trudy: Being a non-profit doesn't mean you can't charge for your services. Plenty of non-profits charge for services, such as hospitals and colleges. Agreed, however, that this was mishandled in a big way.

Abba's Rantings said...


"With no exceptions everyone said that the unethical behavior was the StarK's in selling the list to begin with."

how in this world is this unethical. is it unethical to charge for the medicines themselves? if not, then why is it unethical to sell a medicine list?

"All their other product lists are available free online so why did they single out the medicine list to have to be purchased?"

uh, maybe because the star k is paid by the other companies for the right to use the star k symbol on their products. you think pfizer pays the LA kollel for the right to have lipitor listed in the guide?

Abba's Rantings said...


"I also don't like that they will let you know which toilet bowl cleaners are under their hashgocho for no charge but then turn around and charge you for medical information."

toilet bowl cleaners pay for the right to be listed in the guide. does pfizer?

(on the other hand i think the fact that star k sells its hoshgocho to toilet bowl cleaners is an ethical problem.)

Abba's Rantings said...


"The CRC seems to make things very easy."

as far as i understand, mainstream (e.g., rav moshe) psak is that it mutar to use chometzdik medicine (assuming unflavored tablets swallowed whole). it isn't achila, there is no hana'a, etc.

the issue is to what extent one must go to obtain a non-chometz alternative. iirc the CRC's rationale is that many people put themselves at risk in their quest for such an alternative (i.e., either they use an inappropriate alternative or, where one can't be found or insurance won't pay, they take nothing for 8 days).

as such medicine lists such as those issued by the LA kollel are public health threat even thought they have good intentions.