When Kosher and Allergen Issues do not Converge

Rabbi Dovid Polsky, the remarkably patient and knowledgeable managing attendant of the OU’s ever-ringing Kosher Consumer Hotline, does not see a day go by – or even a morning —- without receiving a call that touches on the overlap between kosher certification and allergen concerns.

“I see that Miller’s Heavenly Chocolate is labeled OU-pareve. Yet I also see a declaration of ‘may contain dairy.’ How could this be?”

“The soy milk I just bought states that there is no dairy or lactose in the product. And yet the kosher label says OUD. I’m confused.”

The answer to both of these questions, of course, is that although kosher and allergen considerations often converge, they are not identical.

A production line that churns out non-dairy chocolate may be adjacent to a staging facility for milk powder. Kosher law does not obligate a certifier to be concerned about the possibility that airborne particles of milk powder migrate into chocolate. However, the sensitivity of some allergen sufferers to even the most minute presence of milk is so great that the manufacturer of the non-dairy chocolate may decide it is necessary to inform consumers of the possibility of dairy, even if the possibility is remote and the amount miniscule.

On the other hand, there are cases in which Jewish law understands there to be a connection, or interaction between two entities while allergen considerations are completely ruled out. Soy milk, pasteurized on a heat exchanger that just processed genuine milk, is an example. Unless the heat exchanger is kosherized, the soy milk is considered as though it “absorbed” the flavor of the milk that had been processed on it immediately beforehand. The OU is obligated, in these circumstances, to label the product as OUD. Such an absorption is real according to Jewish law but immaterial to someone with a dairy allergen.

The confusion stemming from these apparently contradictory labels began over ten years ago as food manufacturers became better aware of the health ramifications of failing to declare the presence of an ingredient on a label. There were 121 recalls in the year 2000, as opposed to 35 a decade earlier, according to the FDA. Health experts provided statistics demonstrating growing allergen problems and food labels began including possible allergens that may have unintentionally (e.g., airborne) migrated into a food product.

Food allergen labeling became mandatory in January, 2006. The Food Labeling and Allergen Protection Act of 2004 was motivated by widespread allergen reactions (over 30,000 Americans require emergency room treatment annually ) and on studies that showed that many parents of children with a food allergy were unable to identify major food allergens on ingredients labels. For example “whey” on an ingredients label meant that “contains dairy” must be communicated (readers interested in learning more about the regulations should consult the FDA’s helpful website, http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/alrgact.html).

Labeling of kosher products has remained, of course, essentially unchanged. Dairy products should always be labeled OUD and pareve products should be identified as OU. (Quick reminder and potentially huge headache saver for OU companies: All labels, both for certified and uncertified products, should be carefully screened to ensure that dairy products are labeled OUD and that uncertified products do not bear the OU symbol at all. Too often companies have released uncertified products into the marketplace bearing an OU symbol simply because their internal label review procedure was lax and did not catch the symbol on the label).

The many consumer calls show us that people do, indeed, read labels, and that they care about the products they buy. (As the saying goes, for every one person that calls us, there are probably ten people…)

Although kosher and allergen concerns are not identical they do, of course, intersect. Several years ago founding members of the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) visited the OU and trained several of our experienced inspectors how to evaluate a facility for gluten-free status. This training was part of the development of the Gluten Free certification that GIG provides. In the last several years the Gluten Free symbol has enabled many members of this important, and unfortunately growing, group of people to purchase products with confidence that what is not listed on the label is not on the product.

Reprinted with permission from Winter 2009 issue of Behind the Union Symbol