Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Straight Answer? Sigh.

Over the years I've had occasion to need to ask a kashrut question or two. What I've seen as a straightforward question never seems to be viewed that way by those who I may be asking the question of. What follows is a depiction of the types of problems I--and countless others--run into when we need kashrus information. All of the names and places and situations are strictly fictional and/or used without reference to actual situations/places and should not be construed in any way, shape or form as being a comment on a real place, person or product. I'm not looking for trouble.

I'm in the market and browsing the shelves. A new product for the market is being advertised on a really great special. I pick up the box and read. According to the nutrition label this product is a miracle in nutrition. It has everything a person needs in just the right form, the portions are satisfying, it comes in 16 great flavors, the calorie count is 33 calories per serving and it's on sale for 3 for $1.00. Do I grab all the boxes I can? Nope. First I start looking all over the box for kosher certification. On the bottom of a side panel I finally see a symbol. It sort of looks like it could be a kosher certification symbol but it's not one I've ever seen before. It's a small box with UMKSC in the box and three small mezuzot on the top of the box with an "M" in each mezuzah. Next to the box it says CKP. I copy down the information and head for home.

Conventionally, what answer do you get if you have a kashrus question that you ask a friend or acquaintance? "Consult your/a local orthodox rabbi." In addition, the answer "consult a competent rabbinic authority" has been popular for a while. (Just a note here: why add in the competent part? As opposed to consulting an incompetent rabbinic authority?! Never mind, I think I just answered my question.) Before I went to consult a rabbi I first got online to the listings of kosher supervision symbols that can be found all over the Internet. On the second list I found the symbol that was on the box. It's the symbol of the United M Kosher Supervision Consortium. Huh? Further reading told me that the M refers to the states of Michigan, Minnesota and Missouri. It also gave a website for the Consortium and a contact phone number. I headed to the website.

The website gave me the name of the products that the Consortium supervises. The product I saw in the market is one of them. It listed the names of the rabbis from each of the M states who are the supervisors in their respective states. I recognized none of the names.

I put in a call to the rabbi of the shul we attend. He was out and would have to get back to me. That's okay, since there are plenty of orthodox rabbis locally. After all, either a product is kosher or it's not, so any local rabbi should do. I put in a call to one of them whom I know. I asked about the product and the certifying agency. He told me that he has never heard of the product nor of the agency. I mentioned the names of the rabbinic supervisors and he perked right up. "Of course I know Rabbi_____. We were in yeshiva together and he is a member of the same national rabbinic organization that I am. A fine, fine man. If he says you can trust this product, you can trust it."

Something is niggling at me so I call yet another local orthodox rabbi, also one whom I know. I give him the info I've got. His answer? He would be hesitant to say yes or no. He doesn't know the rabbis or the product. And besides, the three M states are not exactly known for their strong kashrus. They're very OOT and off the kashrus radar.

The call to a fourth local orthodox Rabbi gave me yet a different perspective. This rabbi had heard of the 3M Consortium and he was not recommending any products they supervise. So I asked: "So the products aren't kosher?" The rabbi answered: "Not exactly. I'm not saying they are treif. It's the supervision that is the problem." "So the supervisors can't be trusted on kashrus?" I asked. The rabbi was quick to assure me that it had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with the supervisors directly. It's just that as a group they allow certain practices that he, personally, does not agree with, and so he won't recommend them. I'd come this far so I asked: "What practices?" The rabbi answered that he doesn't hold with any agencies which certify dairy products that are chalav stam, and he's been told by someone that the 3M does certify chalav stam products, so he doesn't recommend their products. "But this product is pareve" I wail. "Doesn't matter" the rabbi answered. "It's a question of consistency."

My shul rabbi still has not called back so I get on the phone to two friends, each living in a different community from mine. I ask if they have ever heard of the product or the supervising agency, and has their rabbi said anything about either. One friend begins to gush: "Their products are absolutely terrific. And our rabbi said that the supervising agency is small but can be trusted a lot more than some of the bigger agencies, because the supervisors are real hands-on and always in the plants." Friend number two has a different story to tell. Her rabbi gave a whole speech a few shabbosim before about the rise in certifying agencies bringing more harm than good. There is no way that every consumer nor every rabbi either can keep up with all the new agencies. This rabbi felt that you stick with the agencies that have a proven track record, are national in scope and that are easy to check out.The 3M is not on the list her rabbi has approved.

[I won't discuss the rabbi I called who basically told me it was too difficult a concept to be discussing with a woman, and would I please have my husband contact him. And I won't mention the rabbi I didn't call because someone, whom I asked for this rabbi's phone number, told me it is an open fact that this rabbi and one of the 3M rabbis have been in a real bitter public disagreement about a different issue, and I'm not likely to get a straight answer.]

My rabbi called back. I asked my questions once again. He told me that he doesn't really know anything about the products or the agency but he does know that the local Vaad HaKashrus, of which he is a member, has both on their list to investigate further since I am not the only one asking the questions. And then he casually mentioned that they hadn't hurried the investigation because someone had mentioned to one of the vaad members that one of the national certifying agencies is trying to either take over the whole certification process or at least be the one to certify the products that are manufactured for distribution in the NY area, or appear as a second hechsher on the product.

I got a sudden brainstorm. I know someone in the M state area, someone whose kashrus advice both my husband and I would consider as super reliable. So I made a phone call and asked my questions. When Rabbi_____ stopped laughing he told me the following. The product is made by a company that is strictly vegan. None of their products have any eggs, milk, fish or meat in them. They use zero questionable additives. In fact, the company came to the attention of the rabbi in one of the M states because the company contacted him for a list of suppliers of kosher commercial products that would 100% have no milk/meat in them and would not even be produced on machinery that had also produced milk products. The rabbi gives me all the information I asked for and then some, and he ended with this: "I should only be so sure about the kashrus of the big certifying agencies and the smaller ones in the NY area as I am about the 3M."

My hubby and I agree: I can buy the 3M product. I dash off to the market to buy the food. The product is all sold out. When I ask the manager when they are getting it back in, he mentions that there is a debate as to whether or not they will be carrying the product any more. He mentions that in some of the areas where his chain has stores there have been complaints about carrying a product marked as kosher that may or may not be kosher. He asks me if I know anything about this. I flee.

This story and variants of it are played out all over the US, and I would imagine globally as well, every day. We live in a time of instant communication and of plane service to just about every point on earth. We live in a time where rabbinic consultations are as close as your phone or your computer keyboard. We've got more rabbis per square foot of turf then at any other time in recent history. Despite the complexities of the world, kashrus information and supervision should be easier now than it was in the past. So why can't someone with a question get a straight answer? And substitute any other product requiring a hechsher for food and you are still going to run into the same variation of the old joke about 3 Jews and 5 opinions. I mention this to a friend and she tells me I'm being naive. Don't I know that kashrus supervision is big business? Don't I know that those supervision contracts are worth big bucks to whomever gets them? Don't I know that kashrus supervision can be a real dog-eat-dog world?

So I've got a different question now: Don't we deserve better than this when it comes to areas so important to our Jewish lives? Are we really so splintered as a Klal?

Addendum to the post: In Brooklyn, on Avenue J next to the subway station, is a Chock Full O Nuts tiny coffee shop. In the window is a huge printed sign that says "Yes, we are kosher." Inside are other signs that say "Our bourekas/knishes meet the standard for cholov Yisroel." They have both cholov stam and cholov Yisroel available for the coffee. There is not one single name anywhere as to who has said that the products are kosher. Never mind asking the workers--their English just about covers asking you what you'd like to drink. I've asked all over school about the kashrus. No one knows. Yet, the place is packed with frum Jews, or at least kipoh wearing ones. No black hats in sight.

Update on the Addendum: Tonight there was a small kashrus certificate put up in the store, behind the counter. It is signed by one R' Dovid Katz. But here is the strange part. At the top there is a magen david with a K. However, the Star K hechsher uses a plain magen david with no lines on the interior of the star. This star had lines running through the interior. Talk about confusion.


Lion of Zion said...

great post. i have this problem particularly in trader joe's. great products, but tons of funny OOT hechsherim.

you left out 1 scenario that happens a lot in frummer areas. jewish companies will take a non-jewish product that has already has an OU and slaps on a new label with the jewish company's name and a chasidish hashgocho. so do i infer from this that the product is not really kosher when it has only the OU? and what about other products that have only an OU?

Anonymously said...

Your post is pretty much why I stick to my old products and rarely try the new products with hashgochohs I don't recognize. By the time you can get an answer, if you get one, I could have grown all the ingredients myself and been finished.

How does a place in Brooklyn get any customers without someone's name as giving the hashgochoh? Very weird.

Ezzie said...


Lion of Zion said...

MAFIA. Sigh.

G6 said...

I'm still trying to figure out why we need certification on Crock Pot Liners..... sigh.........

Tuvi said...

Always amazes me about the people who travel out of town on business or on vacations to some of the smaller cities. They call the local rabbi, who may be the only rabbi. They ask where they can eat and where they can buy kosher food and then they go there and eat and buy. Usually these areas are under Chabad. They may have liked to see a different hechsher or supervision but they don't doubt the kashrut.

But get these people back in NY and they wouldn't touch half these products and the places would have all kinds of machloikes about their kashrut or standard of kashrut or who should be doing the supervising.

Rivi said...

I'm with G6 on the crockpot liners but there's even stranger. We were up in one of the frum Westchester communities and found rubbing alcohol with a hechsher from one of the local vaads. On the same bottle it clearly has a warning that the product is not for internal consumption and to call a poison center immediately if anyone tastes the stuff. Sigh....

JS said...

Kashrut is just surrounded in mystery for some reason - it's almost impossible to get a straight answer out of any rabbi. It's most often "well, it's not that it's not kosher per se, but I wouldn't eat it." I wrote 2 posts about the subject as it relates to Streit's over at DovBear.

It's some kind of weird combination of not wanting to spread lashon hara by badmouthing someone and this over-zealousness in worrying that EVERYTHING is treif until proven kosher.

Like you, I'm always browsing around the supermarket, looking for new products that might have a hechsher on them. Inevitably it's a hechsher I've never seen before and I usually just give up there, because if I can't find it online on a "reputable" website, I know it's pointless going to a rabbi.

I'm especially bothered when I read the ingredients and it's totally vegan, or even if it's not vegan and there is absolutely nothing even remotely treif in the ingredients. But no, it's got a "triangle k" or some other symbol and people just KNOW that it's not trustworthy. How people KNOW this, I have no idea, but God forbid you should question this article of faith.

Kashrut is such a business it's obscene. No one trusts anyone, thereby forcing everything to become nationalized. Then the opposite happens, the national kashrut agencies are too big and aren't careful enough so we need small, local agencies. It's all word of mouth and innuendo, a rabbi knows another rabbi so it's good; never heard of him, it must be bad.

I'm so tempted to just follow Rabbi Abadi's approach and just go by the ingredient's list. But then no one would eat in my home.

Lissa said...

About the only 100% reliably kosher foods it seems are the ones under God's personal hechsher--raw fruits and vegetables. And then you get a million people arguing about bug checking and who is checking and how they check and you end up with Dole (I think) that has a star K on some of their salads but in Brooklyn those carry extra labels from a different Rav.

There is honestly something not kosher about how something gets to be kosher.

Anonymous said...

Complicated for sure. I'm often hesitant to buy products with a hashgacha I don't know, but I usually end up doing benefit of the doubt with the purchase, and then research before consumption.

If the supermarket was offering that good of a deal, I'd probably buy the product while I knew it was in stock, and then leave it in my car in the store bags (if it didn't need refrigeration - I'd not buy it if did need to be refrigerated). Then I'd research the hashgacha. If it turned out not to be reliable, I'd find the nearest food bank and donate the food.

This way, you can't really lose. Either you get to consume the food yourself, or you get to help someone else who needs the food.

It's not a perfect situation, and maybe I'm wrong to buy the product in the first place, but from where I'm sitting, it makes the most sense.

mother in israel said...

Entertaining post.
Lissa, come to Israel, where the kashruth status of the produce gets complicated fast (trumoth, masseroth, orlah and shmittah).

Shmuel said...

And then the Israeli produce is imported to the US MotherinIsrael and we get all your fun too along with our own headaches.

My favorite is when you see the announcement from a supervising agency that product so and so has lost its hechsher or is no longer under the agency's supervision. They never tell you why. So you have the product in the house--is that one still kosher or was there a problem and it never was kosher? And two weeks later you see that the product now has a different hechsher. So did something change with the product?

Rae said...

What gets me steamed is when a factory makes a product and that exact same product is labeled for different final end sellers. Usually the best known or most national of the products has a hechsher. But some of the others don't. It's exactly the same product but the ones who pay get the hechsher and those who don't don't get the hechsher. The mashgiach isn't doing any extra work. The only thing different is the piece of paper label. So why aren't they all kosher?!!!! And usually the ones without the hechsher are way lower in cost then the national brand.

leahle said...

Whoever said above politics and the Mafia have my vote. Whatever community reasons the big kashrus agencies had for coming into being many years ago don't seem to exist any more. It's about money and position and keeping the other ones out.

Mitch said...

3 Jews and 5 opinions? Surely you jest.When it comes to keeping kosher you can have one rabbi with 17 opinions all by himself. Now multiply by the number of rabbis in existence and you can see why no one is ever going to get an answer about a kosher question.

Scraps said...

Rae, just so you know, a LOT of companies do just that - package the supervised national brand under many different "private labels" (store brands, etc). However, in those cases, they usually get hashgacha for the private labels as well. As you said, why not? And the private labels do tend to be cheaper.

Lion of Zion said...

rebbetzin's husband has some interesting posts about his role in running a small OOT kashruth org.

miriamp said...

For symbol-reliability, I usually start here:

(Assuming you trust Rabbi Eidlitz, of course)

Another place I sometimes look is here:

Lon said...

My only "um" - he doesn't recommend any company that certifies cholov stam? Like... the OU?

Chumi Friedman said...

For information sake, Rabbi Dovid Katz is not affiliated with the Star K. I believe his hechsher is called Mehadrin Kosher.

ProfK said...

Thanks for the info. But I still don't understand why the kashrus teudah would have a symbol on it that a lot of people will, on the quick glance they are going to give it, confuse with the Star K. Plenty of graphic artists out there who could have designed something distinctive.

Anonymous said...

Maybe for the obvious and underhand reason of piggybacking on the Star-K's reputation.