Glossaries of computer terms usually explain that a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) is a list of the most commonly asked questions (with the answers) on a certain subject. The original idea was that the author of the FAQ saved himself the trouble of answering the same question over and over again, but the FAQ has become such a popular format, because any given subject usually involves certain obvious information that an interested person would want to know.
Since kashrus is one of those areas in which the same questions come up over and over again, we present the following Kashrut FAQs:
Q. Is it safe to buy products in an all kosher store or one with a designated separate kosher section without checking for the hechsher? What if I know the owner?
A. One should be careful in all circumstances. It is fairly common, for instance, for Pesach displays in unsupervised supermarkets to include products which are kosher for year-round use but not for Pesach. Even in an all kosher store, the personal standards of the proprietor often do not extend to the products sold in his store. For instance, the store may carry a product bearing a poor hechsher that the owner would not eat from. Another example being a store that generally caters to consumers who eat Pas Palter, with the assumption that consumers who keep Pas Yisroel know what to buy. This being the case, the buyer should always check for an acceptable hechsher that meets his kashrus standards.
Q. Why do supervision agencies supervise products that do not need a hechsher?
A. If by “products that do not need a hechsher“ you mean items that have no connection to food, such as bicycles, they don’t certify such products. Otherwise, it is important to remember that there is no hard-and-fast category of products that do not need a hechsher. To say that a product does not need supervision is essentially to make a judgement-call: as far as we know the product is usually made in ways that pose no kosher concerns. Are these “as far as we know” assumptions fail-safe? By no means. Plants make products in unexpected ways all the time. Some products which now need supervision were possibly acceptable without a hechsher in the past. Many dairies, for instance, bottle water, and some of those have switched from filtering the water to pasteurizing it on the same equipment used for the milk. Additionally, by supervising these products, kashrus agencies are able to confirm that the current manufacturing processes used to manufacture them do not do not negatively affect their kosher status. So the most you can say is that supervision agencies supervise some products that are pretty safe to buy without supervision.
Q. I saw in the store a package of marshmallows with an unfamiliar hechsher listing “kosher gelatin” in the ingredients. What does the package mean by “kosher gelatin”?
A. The gelatin probably came from a cow that was not kosher slaughtered or a pig. There are some opinions that allow for this, but most halachic poskim rule that such gelatin is not kosher. There is gelatin available nowadays from kosher-slaughtered animals, but it is usually identified by something more than the mere phrase “kosher gelatin.” Fish gelatin (which also requires a reliable hechsher) is usually identified as “fish gelatin.”. It is worth noting, also, that it is not a good idea to rely on an unfamiliar hechsher.
Q. Do plain canned vegetables require a hechsher What could be wrong with them?
A. In past decades it was fairly safe to buy certain vegetables without a hechsher. A typical cannery would run only one kind of vegetable and close down during the off-season. In more recent years, canneries have tried to remain open year around in order to maximize profits, and so the likelihood has increased that canned vegetables are heated in equipment used for other products as well, some possibly non-kosher. Many canneries, in addition to their vegetable production, will process non-kosher products such as pork & beans or cheese sauce. A mashgiach once walked into a plant that was supposedly dedicated to a single vegetable and found that in the off-season it was producing shrimp soup and alligator soup!
Q. I just bought a product certified as pareve by a reliable certifying agency, but the product bears a statement that it was made on equipment also used to produce dairy items. Should I be worried?
A. Probably not. The companies are afraid of being sued due to allergic reactions, which can sometimes be caused by very minute trace-amounts of allergens. These trace amounts may result from airborne particles or microscopic residues (with no halachic significance) in thoroughly cleaned production lines. Often, the trace amounts of dairy may be 3 or 4 parts per million, which chas v’sholom could trigger an allergic reaction, but is batul, nullified from the Halachic standpoint. Thus, the company will print the warning label regardless of whether the line is cleaned according to the most stringent of industry standards or kashered properly according to halacha. Sometimes the allergen warnings simply speak of dairy items made in the same facility, i.e. not even necessarily on the same equipment or even in close proximity to the product with the warning label. If the ingredient panel lists a dairy ingredient such as whey, while the hechsher indicates that the item is pareve, then something is amiss.
Q. Can I look at the ingredient statement of a food to determine if it is kosher?
A. No. These statements are not designed to provide kosher information. Many ingredients, such as glycerin, may be derived from either kosher or non-kosher sources, and one cannot tell which from the label. Moreover, some ingredients may incorporate sub-ingredients that the label is not required to list at all. What exactly is in that “natural flavor,” anyway? Even if a product is made from all-kosher or all-pareve ingredients, it can be rendered non-kosher or dairy by the processing equipment.
Q. Why is there no such symbol as “OU D.E.”?
A. “D.E.”—“Dairy Equipment”—is generally intended to mean that the equipment was “cleaned but not kashered,” i.e. the equipment was cleaned well enough to be sure that there is no dairy residue in the product. Such products may be consumed after a meat or chicken meal, but not together. So the certification agency, if things are done properly, is still monitoring the clean-up process and certifying the product as having been produced on equipment cleaned to a certain standard. The OU feels that this sort of potentially ambiguous standard is hard to maintain and that the clean-ups sometimes fail to produce the desired results. Also, many people are unfamiliar with the halachic ramifications of “D.E.” and the OU prefers to avoid confusion. Thus, the OU feels, it is better to either have a full-fledged kashering program or to simply mark the product “OUD.”
Q. In a bulk or variety pack there is a kosher symbol on some of the products. Is it correct to assume that all of the products are acceptable? What if the Kosher symbol is on the outer packaging?
A. Manufacturers often distribute variety packs of individually wrapped food products, only some of which may be kosher certified. The label of the exterior package may bear separate product and nutritional information for each individual item contained. Therefore, consumers should confirm the kosher status of each item by checking the kosher symbol on the individual package or by seeing if the bulk package label only prints a kosher symbol next to the names of some items.
Q. Why do some products have two (or more) kosher symbols?
A. Usually such products are being marketed to two different groups of consumers. Members of one group may not be familiar with certification symbols familiar to members of the other group. An example would be an imported product bearing both a domestic and overseas kosher symbol. Sometimes one sees the symbol of a large, nationally known supervision agency along with that of a “heimish“ one, but it is fairly rare to see the symbols of two large national agencies together,
Q. These frozen vegetables have a hechsher I rely on—does that mean they have been checked for bugs?
A. This depends on the policies of the certifying agency. For some agencies, the hechsher means merely that the vegetables have no additives that pose kosher concerns although the product itself my still require checking. For others, such as the OU, the hechsher means that the product has been established to be acceptable and should require no checking on the part of the consumer. Call the agency for details regarding their policies.