The Kosher Machine

August 7, 2013
BY Maayan Jaffe
The JT examines the kashrut industry, the details and the disputes that make eating kosher complicated and sometimes costly

Of course, OU Direct, which is operated by a team of young female IT professionals on the 13th floor of the OU headquarters, is confidential; no one who looks up an ingredient can see in which product(s) it is being used.

Then there’s packaging. The Star-K is big in the plastic industry. And, yes, said Pollak — the package does matter.

“Packaging today is very sophisticated and advanced. If you walk into a grocery store and look into the refrigerated section, you’ll see packaged salads and all kinds of other things. If you look at the plastic bags, you’ll see they never fog. … They have anti-fog compounds. Those can be made from animal fats,” said Pollak. “Sometimes manufacturers add flavors to the packaging and the flavor seeps into the product while it’s on the shelf. This is a whole industry.”

There’s also a question of how food is transported, he noted. Was the item in a tanker with non-kosher food? All of this has to be considered — and monitored.

Multiple Marks
The more products that are certified, the more reasonable those products become to buy. And that is important, as the kosher consumer becomes further sophisticated.

Wine and other liquors, said Rabbi Elefant, are part of an emerging kosher marketplace.

“I’ve seen a very interesting phenomenon. On the one hand, kosher consumers are more religious than they ever were; they don’t want anything that’s not reliably certified. On the other hand, they want everything,” he said. “They don’t want to be told that if you are kosher then you’ll have a limited diet.”

Similarly, the Star-K has branched into the organic market. Now, the organization works with Quality Assurance International Organic Certification (QAI).

“We have people on our staff trained to be inspectors for organic food,” explained Rabbi Heinemann. “The mashgichim — there are eight or nine of them — can do kosher and organic
certifications simultaneously.”

A handful of Star-K mashgichim can also inspect a product to make sure it is non-GMO.

Also, the Star-K launched a Star-S certification, catered to Sephardic Jews; in Baltimore, there is a large Iranian community. That line debuted last Passover.

To make this information available to the community at large, both the OU and the Star-K have active websites (oukosher.org and star-k.org), offer webinars and print educational bulletins and books.

Marking It Local
On the global level, according to Rabbi Elefant, there are few differences between the leading kosher certifiers, it mostly amounts to size.

The OU, according to Rabbi Genack, is “twice the size of all the other [kashrut certifiers] combined.”

But the OU has no aspirations of being a monopoly.

Any given product can have dozens of ingredients. The OU tracks 600,000 “acceptable” ingredients through OU Direct. (istockphoto.com/KathyDewar )

Any given product can have dozens of ingredients. The OU tracks 600,000 “acceptable” ingredients through OU Direct. (istockphoto.com/KathyDewar )

“I think competition is the healthiest thing in the world. And I’m saying it, even though it makes my life miserable. If I didn’t have competition, I wouldn’t have a white beard. Almost every one of these white hairs is from a competitor,” said Rabbi Elefant with a hearty laugh.

Rabbi Genack tells a story about how several years ago the spice company McCormick (based in Baltimore) wanted to switch from another supervision to the OU — a decision it thought would improve its marketing. Rabbi Genack was hesitant to take over certification from another company, so he asked the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, what to do. The Rav, according to Rabbi Genack, said he did not want to see the OU soliciting products for supervision and he did not think it would be healthy for the Jewish community to have one certifier, but told him that “it was up to the company.”

And that is how the OU operates when it comes to larger-scale products.

Moreover, when it comes to local restaurants and caterers, national and international kashrut
organizations try not to mettle.

“Generally, we believe that [local] is the responsibility of local va’adim. They’re really Johnny-
on-the-spot. They know the various needs of their local communities,” said Rabbi Genack.

For a while, for example, the OU offered kashrut certification to restaurants and caterers in Miami. However, when Miami launched its own local supervision organization, the OU pulled out.

This is important, explained Pollak, because multiple heksherim leads to divisiveness among community members, something which the Star-K wants “to avoid at all costs.”

“It is not one organization saying that another is not good or sub-par. But they are different. When you have more than one standard, it creates confusion and sometimes even dissention in a community,” he said.

Historically, the Star-K was the sole kosher supervisor in Baltimore. But in the last two years, that has shifted as two separate establishments — Hoffman’s Catering and Accents Grill — changed over to the OU. Sinai Hospital and Levindale did so, too.

Rabbi Genack said he was hesitant to take on the establishments for the reasons outlined above. But, he noted, that he does see the Star-K as a competitor and recognizes it does not make its income from local certification — “There is a dual role they play.”

Likewise, he said he thought Star-K was too quick to take away one’s heksher, too quick to put someone out of business and take away his income.

“I don’t see it as the morally right thing to do,” said Rabbi Genack, noting that there were close to 10 other establishments that solicited OU certification and that the OU turned them down to keep it local.

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