Several decades ago I spent some time in Rome, Italy. Faced with the depletion of the stocks of food that I had brought with me, I set out to explore the availability of kosher food in the Italian capital. I was advised that there was a store that specialized in kosher food. It took all the ingenuity I could muster to locate the store, situated as it was on a side street in a distant neighborhood. Perhaps I had conjured up images of a large, gleaming supermarket, but I was to be bitterly disappointed. What greeted me was a small food store redolent of the Israeli makolet and with a very limited range of products. But there was nothing I could see in the store that was recognizably kosher. The owner – we were able to converse in his very limited Hebrew – came up to me and indicated that he thought he had what I was looking for, and he promptly showed me to his prized kosher selection – boxes of OU-certified crackers and cans of OU-certified sardines. Never have crackers and sardines tasted so good!
Of course, I was familiar with the OU symbol and other acceptable kashrut symbols from the years I had lived in the United States and in South Africa. In South Africa we used to anticipate Pesach keenly, for, ironically, that was when more kosher food than usual was available, since that was when the local supermarkets used to import a wide range of acceptable kosher certified products from the States. Perhaps, unwittingly at the time, I was witnessing, both in Italy and in South Africa, manifestations of the trend toward the globalization of the food industry, a trend that in recent years has grown exponentially. Today, not only are you likely to find acceptable certified products in most countries, it is also extremely likely that kosher certified factories operate in that country, producing a wide range of food products, both industrial and retail.
Factories under kosher supervision are today found throughout the world, frequently in remote locations. In the United States itself the location of certified plants is not limited to the major metropolitan areas but extends to areas geographically distant from the Jewish population centers. One thing, however, should be quite clear. No matter where a plant may be located, any product it manufactures under acceptable kosher supervision must conform to the same high, uncompromising kashrut standards. The kosher consumer has the right to expect this and even to demand it.
In this article I wish to focus on the efforts of the agency with which I am naturally most familiar, the Orthodox Union, to ensure that uniform kashrut standards are applied to the manufacture of all products under its supervision. It will surely be obvious that this goal poses enormous challenges and, frequently, grave difficulties. The regular reader of these columns will appreciate the enormity of this task.
Permit me to state that here I refer not so much to the challenge of devising a system of certification and the assigning of a mashgiach for a distantly located plant, as difficult as that might be. Rather, I refer to what is the veritable bedrock of kosher food certification – the approval process for ingredients used in the manufacture of food products. The growing demand for certification of plants throughout the world has exposed us to the need to evaluate the acceptability – or otherwise – of a plethora of new manufacturers and their products. I refer here to two specific categories of such products:
- Those for which there is no known kosher certification.
- Those ingredients certified by organizations or individuals unknown to us.
As relates to the first category, we should note that there are numerous ingredients that pose absolutely no kosher concerns within the United States, yet when manufactured in certain parts of the world may be highly problematic. This may be because of different manufacturing techniques used or of different conditions prevailing in the factories where the ingredients are typically produced. One example is taurine, an essential nutrient frequently added to baby formula. In the United States this is a synthetic product that poses no kashrut concerns. In Japan, however, taurine could be produced from shellfish or meat derivatives, with very serious kosher concerns. While artificial colors are the norm in the United States, in Europe natural colors are used. As a result, kosher concerns vary drastically. These have been explored in a previous article in this series. Frequently these differences are mandated by governmental regulations. At the OU we have to be alert to and be mindful of such distinctions in each of the countries where we operate.
Our network of mashgichim is of tremendous value to us in this regard. These mashgichim are able to supply us with detailed information of current food manufacturing processes from around the globe. All the information is carefully analyzed and weighed. Even if we receive reports of troubling procedures in a particular facility, we cannot yet deduce that the same concerns will be prevalent throughout that region or country. Further research is imperative. This might involve efforts by a member of our ingredient research staff to contact the company, as well as similar companies, to gain as clear a picture as possible of the overall situation. New procedures in manufacturing are likely to raise halachic questions, which will be brought to the attention of our poskim for detailed discussion and a psak halacha. If necessary we will seek the advice of food scientists both here and abroad. Senior management of the OU meets in committee to decide how the OU will relate to that particular ingredient and how points of concern will be addressed.
What about ingredients that are certified by agencies whose standards are unknown to us? Remember, today there are many hundreds of agencies throughout the world, and there is tremendous disparity in the standards that are kept. How can we ensure that each ingredient used in the final product meets the standards of the Orthodox Union?
The first step will be to make contact with the Rabbi to learn something about him and his certification of the plant in question. The Rabbi might be asked to forward to us a detailed report on all aspects of production and his certification. Particular attention will be paid to the frequency of his visits and to his knowledge of the plant, ingredients and equipment in use. At that point it might be determined that only an inspection and detailed report by one of our senior mashgichim will enable us to reach an informed decision. It must be stressed that decisions are always made in committee and only after very careful consideration.
How do such companies or kashrut agencies respond to such overseeing? In the main, the reaction is extremely positive. Companies generally welcome the involvement of the Orthodox Union, as it could potentially open for them vast new markets. Additionally, they have no compunctions about sharing even highly confidential information with the Orthodox Union, as we have a reputation for handling such information with care and sensitivity and in a manner that will never breach their trust.
In the main, other kashrut agencies welcome the opportunity to work more closely with the Orthodox Union and to forge a reciprocal relationship. A not-insignificant part of our work is assistance we offer to other agencies in many aspects of their work, and agencies are happy to avail themselves of all such opportunities to strengthen ties with the Orthodox Union. At times these reviews have led to ongoing efforts, with the Orthodox Union continuing to act in an advisory capacity, to improve kashrut standards at a specific plant. These efforts could continue for many months or even years. All acknowledge, however, the worth of these strenuous efforts, which lead to immeasurable enhancement of kashrut standards as well as the honing of the supervisory skills needed to maintain such standards on the part of the agency. Thus, in the long run, the Orthodox Union earns the respect and appreciation of other companies and kashrut agencies.
Today’s intrepid tourist is likely to find an abundance of OU-certified products wherever he may travel. These products will, in all likelihood, contain ingredients from around the globe, each presenting its own unique concerns and challenges. The familiar products you see in your local supermarket will also no doubt contain ingredients from across the country and around the globe. The consumer can be certain, though, that a product with the OU symbol meets OU standards in even the most insignificant ingredient added in its production.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Morrison is director of the ingredient approval registry at the Orthodox Union.