Food Service Hashgacha

Mashgiach at a Food Service Establishment

Food Service KitchenThere is a common misconception that being a mashgiach in a food service establishment is a simple job, and that the mashgiach in such establishments has minimal responsibilities. In reality, the food service industry, which includes restaurants, caterers, hotels, hospitals, yeshivos and nursing homes, has always been a challenging area for kashrus organizations and the onsite mashgichim that perform the actual supervision. Demands on a food service mashgiach are multiple, unpredictability is the norm, and evaluations have to be executed immediately. To help appreciate the above, I am sharing with the reader some of the intricacies that must be dealt with in a food service establishment.

It is important to understand that the approach and technique of the food service mashgiach differs from that of the industrial plant mashgiach. For example, a mashgiach at a cookie manufacturer in Kalamazoo, Michigan may have a relatively set number of recipes to track. Based on prior experience and knowledge of upcoming orders the cookie plant can anticipate their ingredient needs and source the approved ingredients from their approved suppliers in sufficient quantities. The overall ingredient list for the plant will remain fairly constant. The Kashrus agency or Rav Hamachshir will provide the mashgiach a pre-authorized list of the plant’s ingredients with sources and required Kosher specifications. His inspections ensure that the ingredients meet these Kosher specifications. Any changes in formulas, ingredients and/or sources are communicated to the mashgiach in advance of their implementation. The need for Kosherization (“Kashering” ) of utensils may be infrequent or unnecessary.

In contrast, a food service mashgiach lacks these supervision “luxuries”. While the mashgiach is provided with general guidelines for food service hashgacha the list that is provided from the certifying agency or Rav Hamachsher is in a constant state of flux. Part of the reason for this is that the same ingredients and products can come in with different labels or different hechsherim on any given day of the week. With so many hechsherim present in the market, a mashgiach is often not familiar with all of them and their acceptability. They also have to be aware of which products require Kashrus certification. In addition to the specific training the mashgiach must receive, he must be in constant communication with the office or the Rav Hamachsher of the Kashrus organization. Kosher sensitive situations constantly arise that require innovative and timely resolutions. Special menus, incoming and outgoing deliveries, private parties, and constant changes to menus can make the mashgiach’s daily job extremely difficult. The need for kashering may be more frequent especially when Kosher events are being held at non-kosher hotels.

The food service mashgiach must be fully aware of everything that is going on in the kitchen and to constantly observe and supervise simultaneous Kosher sensitive events. For example, in a hospital setting, a dairy lunch meal might be in progress at the same time that a delivery is awaiting the mashgiach’s approval and the chef is desperately in need of broccoli to be checked for the following meat dinner. In addition, the mashgiach is sometimes called upon with questions that need quick answers, which require a combination of knowledge of Halacha and common sense.

The mashgiach must check every delivery coming into the establishment as it is coming off the truck, if possible, to make sure the proper hechsher is on each box. Nothing should be taken for granted. It is very easy to overlook this and therefore extreme vigilance is needed in checking every delivery. Both the outside and inner packaging should be checked by the mashgiach for the proper hechsher as companies sometimes reuse boxes. There are times when products, which always had the proper hechsher, might come in without any hechsher at all. The mashgiach cannot assume that this is merely a labeling problem. It might be an oversight or it might mean that the product is no longer certified. The fact that a “Shomer Shabbos” distributor is sending the product does not automatically mean the product is kosher. An investigation needs to take place regarding the specific lot of product that was received. The mashgiach must call his office for guidance on any questionable products. If by some chance, he cannot reach anyone in the office, he should do one of two things: send back the item in question, or, accept it and put it aside unused until he can get an answer from his Rav Hamacsher. However, he must ensure the item is not used until he can ascertain its kashrus status. Also, any product that has been repacked from the original factory sealed packaging (e.g. items that have been repackaged at the distributor level to provide a specific customer requested quantity) must be opened and checked by the mashgiach for the proper hechsher on the individual items contained therein.

Some other hashgacha responsibilities include checking of vegetables, inspecting incoming deliveries, taking challah, dealing with kitchen staff and customers, sealing of outgoing deliveries, making sure no outside unauthorized food finds its way onto the premises.

Good mashgichim understand how to budget their time wisely and to be proactive in order to avoid last minute pressurized situations. An example of this would be with regards to the checking of vegetables. Checking of the vegetables should always be done in advance. The mashgiach must take into consideration that sometimes there is a higher than expected demand for a particular vegetable. A good mashgiach will check menus daily. In doing so Kashrus concerns that might arise can be prevented. For example, he might notice on the menu that Caesar salad dressing (generally containing anchovies) is being scheduled to be served together with a steak and salad meal. By instructing the chef to alter the menu, the inadvertent eating of meat together with fish will be avoided.

Establishments that serve both meat and dairy such as hospitals, hotels and caterers, have many more concerns than establishments that are exclusively dedicated to serving dairy or meat dedicated. Amongst them are the following:

  1. Workers must change gloves or wash hands when going from meat to dairy or vice versa.
  2. Keilim must have proper simanim on them denoting meat, dairy or pareve status. Paint, tape or special tags are commonly used.
  3. These simanim must frequently be checked and reapplied if necessary as some will wear off after a few months
  4. There are some products on the market that are made in both pareve and dairy versions such as mashed potatoes, buttered flavored cooking oil, margarine, non-dairy creamer (yes, non-dairy creamer), cake mixes, etc. The mashgiach needs to be very vigilant to both identify when dairy equivalent substitutions have been delivered and ensure that they not be used inadvertently in a fleishig restaurant or a catering facility.
  5. Two food thermometers must be kept on premises – one for meat and one for dairy. In addition, when the health inspector comes in for a visit to any facility, he must use the facility’s thermometer rather than his own.
  6. There is often cooking done simultaneously in both meat and dairy areas. Therefore, the mashgiach must alternate between both areas with a careful eye on any possible mix-ups.
  7. Food coming back from a dining room of a hotel requires special attention by the mashgiach to make sure that it is separated by meat and dairy status. e.g. bread returning from a meat meal should be placed in a box marked for meat only or sliced lemons from a meat meal should be placed in a meat container. Chefs many times use leftover bread for breadcrumbs in making southern fried chicken. That is why breads coming back must be separated as dairy or meat.
  8. There should always be separate spices, breadcrumbs, coatings, etc. used on the meat and dairy sides. The best way is with small tables on both dairy and meat sides with a marking on the table denoting its status. Furthermore, large 100-lb. bags of sugar should not be left around the kitchen in which a chef can stick his greasy hands or a meat pan. This is something can easily occur and a mashgiach must be aware of this possibility.

The checking of hechsherim alone is not enough. The mashgiach must ensure that establishments meet Cholov Yisroel, Pas Yisrael, Bishul Yisrael and or Yoshon standards when required to do so.

Kosher consumers must discern when choosing a kosher restaurant, caterer etc. to ascertain that the Rav Hamachshir and the mashgiach have the expertise necessary to properly supervise these complex facilities and maintain Kashrus standards in line with their own. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

  1. Checking of Lettuce for Infestation

What is the system in place for ensuring that the lettuce served is checked to be free of infestation? Is every head of lettuce checked? Are they checking only the first 3 heads from the case? Is prepackaged Kosher certified lettuce being used? Is the person checking the lettuce adequately trained?

  1. Access

Does the mashgiach open the kitchen? Who has keys or access to keys to the refrigerators and freezers? What are the closing procedures for the kitchen? (Gas, Locks, Seals etc.) After the establishment closes at night and the owner and mashgiach have left, does the cleaning crew remain or does a new cleaning crew come in to clean the kitchen?

  1. Service at the Affair

Will there be French service at the affair? If there will be choices of meat or fish for the entrée, what safeguards guarantee the vegetables being served are not coming in contact with both the meat and fish. This is a consideration both in the kitchen as well as in the hall where they are served. What precautions are being taken to prevent the chefs and waiters from using their own utensils?

  1. Bishul Yisrael

Who turns on all the fires for cooking? Are they relying on pilot lights? Are there pilotless ovens in usage? Who is turning on and monitoring the fires used at the Smorgasbord where various types of equipment might be used (e.g. electric stove tops, Sternos, woks etc.)?

This article has only touched the surface of some aspects about food service hashgacha. Numerous other considerations such as food service hashgacha for Shabbos, Yom Tov (particularly Pesach), equipment and Kashering methodology have not been presented due to the limitation in space.

The food service of Kashrus organizations has seen a dramatic growth in the past few years. It is only through the constant efforts of dedicated mashgichim on a daily basis that Kashrus standards are maintained. These committed mashgichim are continuously being mezakeh Klal Yisrael at a level of Kashrus that they maintain within their own homes.

OU Kosher Staff