Navigating Through A Sea Of Confusion: Choosing Acceptable Hashgachas

OU Kosher Staff

While we shop, before purchasing a particular item we routinely ask ourselves, “Is it kosher?” The prudent kosher consumer will always check the label to confirm whether a kosher symbol appears on the label. However, due to the vast number of kosher agencies that operate throughout the world, sometimes checking labels for kosher symbols can resemble alphabet soup. Today, the number of kosher symbols internationally exceeds 700, and we often find ourselves in a sea of confusion. If a kosher symbol appears on a product label, we might be tempted to tell ourselves, “It must be fine, isn’t it? I am sure it’s all the same”.

A woman walks into a grocery store to purchase chocolate candies for her children. The store did not have the chocolate she usually buys. However, she notices bags of chocolate from two different companies on the store shelf, which she has never seen before. Each company’s product bore different kosher symbols on the labels that she was unfamiliar with. Should she investigate the acceptability of the two hechsherim? Or, should she assume that both products are acceptable since they bear kosher symbols? Her children were waiting………..

What are the primary components of an acceptable hechsher? Which aspects need to be measured in order to distinguish between kosher symbols? How can one obtain the necessary information?

I. Halachic Considerations

When a Rav Hamachshir or kosher agency places its symbol on a label, they bear responsibility for the kosher status of that product, and certify it as kosher. A product can be certified if it meets the halachic standards of the Rav Hamachshir or certifying agency. A primary distinguishing characteristic between agencies is their halachic standards and policies. The Orach Chaim and Yoreh Deah sections of Shulchan Aruch are replete with many intensive discussions amongst poskim, which decide whether something is kosher or treif. Policies of agencies are very often established by taking positions on areas which are disputed among poskim. At times, positions assumed by various agencies may be uniform, but very often that is not the case. Many areas of kosher supervision are subject to this phenomenon. This includes areas traditionally viewed as sensitive, such as meat, fish, wine, and cheese. For example, must chocolate equipment undergo kashering with water, or may the kashering be accomplished with the day’s first run of chocolate? Chocolate equipment is very sensitive to water, and companies are often reluctant to use water on their chocolate lines! Delving into involved topics, such as kashering procedures, is a daily occurrence for Rabbanim Hamachshirim and kashrus agencies. To begin with, Rabbanim Hamachshirim must be well versed in the relevant sections of Shulchan Aruch, and they must be capable to take positions. Halachic policies should not be assumed to be identical between agencies. Frequently, they differ.

II. Technical Aspects

Differences between agencies do not start and stop at the door of halachic policy. In fact, it is just the beginning. A position in Halacha can be misapplied, without a correct or thorough understanding of a situation’s circumstances. Rabbanim Machshirim and mashgichim must also be wholly familiar with the manufacturing practices of a plant, its equipment, and how it is used.

This idea is best illustrated by special productions. Special hashgacha temidis kosher runs often occur in plants that usually manufacture treif, or dairy in the case of special pareve productions. These runs must be preceded with a kashering. However, the correct implementation of kashering procedures will require a mashgiach to acquire a thorough knowledge of the manufacturing process at the plant, with a detailed understanding of how each piece of equipment, and know how to verify that proper procedures have been followed. An incomplete comprehension of how a plant operates, or how to check the implementation of kashering procedures, will almost guarantee that a plant’s machinery will not be kashered correctly. Proper hashgacha in a technical environment requires developing a technical expertise. The lack of comprehensive technical knowledge can ultimately lead to a serious error.

III. Ingredient Research

Ingredients also pose a great challenge in the modern world of kosher supervision. We live in a world of additives, and it is becoming increasingly uncommon for something to remain completely free of additives. Food manufacturers routinely use enzymes as catalysts for chemical reactions, and emulsifiers to stabilize mixtures for consistency. Our food is frequently enriched with vitamins. How are these items derived? Are they kosher sensitive? How, and in what, are they used? Lecithin, for example, is a common emulsifier used in chocolate manufacture (an emulsifier enables water based liquids to blend with oil based liquids). It is a natural antioxidant which is composed of many other sub-ingredients that could be treif. This technical knowledge is crucial in order to properly apply the principles of Shulchan Aruch and determine the status of additives that might find their way into our food. Researching the status of ingredients must involve the skill of highly knowledgeable individuals (See the sidebar ” The changing status of ingredients” ).

IV. Human Resources

Proper kosher supervision must have capable personnel. One of the primary foundations of a good hashgacha is a good mashgiach. Mashgichim must be skilled and highly competent, regardless as to whether supervising an industrial setting, or a foodservice environment. Moreover, we live in a global economy, and goods are constantly exported and imported throughout the world. It is not an uncommon occurrence to find on our store shelves products from Australia, Europe, South Africa, or South America. When giving a “long distance” hechsher, a Rav Hamachshir or certifying agency must have a “local” mashgiach that can properly supervise the plant, and communicate with plant personnel. Hashgachas must have the appropriate resources, especially when certifying products abroad. In some instances, mashgichim today have taken up permanent residence in far out places, even in the Far East!

Hashgachas must also have adequate personnel in order to effectively communicate with companies and mashgichim. Computer systems are often required in order manage and keep track of the vast amount of information required for the proper administration of a hashgacha.

……….The woman decided to investigate the acceptability of both chocolate companies. She contacted her Rov, who in turn spoke to both hechsherim. The Rov discovered that both chocolates contained glycerin. Glycerin can be derived from either kosher vegetable or from treif oils. One of the hechsherim told him that the glycerin used at the chocolate factory was from Malaysia. The hashgacha required the glycerin to be manufactured under hashgacha temidis, with a mashgiach flown in for special supervision. However, the other hechsher allowed glycerin from China produced by a company that was known to manufacture both kosher and non-kosher varieties, with a Rav Hamachshir from abroad visiting twice a year.

In summation, no two kosher symbols are exactly the same. Behind every symbol are halachic policies, which frequently touch upon matters of dispute amongst poskim. Hashgachas must be thoroughly familiar with the surroundings they supervise, including the highly technical aspects of an industrial environment. Rabbanim Hamachshirim and kashrus agencies nowadays must develop knowledge in the area of food chemistry, and food industries. Furthermore, a proper hashgacha requires no less than a skilled and highly competent mashgiach, in any setting.

Consumers should take initiative, and learn about the standards and practices of Rabbanim Hamachshirim and kashrus agencies to the fullest extent possible. The best way to accomplish this is by asking one’s Rov for information about a hechsher. A Rov may be able to ask questions to the Rav Hamachshir that an average consumer may not think of. Also, one can supplement one’s kashrus knowledge by reading materials published by the many certifying agencies and independent organizations.. These materials contain a wealth of information.

Never rely on rumors! Information pertaining to kashrus must come from reliable sources.

…The Rov advised the woman that since glycerin is a highly sensitive ingredient, she should purchase chocolate from the company whose hechsher required a mashgiach temidi during the production of the glycerin.

Sidebar: The Changing Status of Ingredients
By Rabbi Gavriel Price

Often, research into ingredients yields important knowledge about its kashrus status. Take, for example, glacial acetic acid. This ingredient is generally made from petrochemical feedstock, which is as innocuous as it gets. As a result, generally any supplier of glacial acetic acid has been accepted as an ingredient at kosher certified companies, regardless of whether the supplier of the acetic acid is itself certified. However, Mashgichim have reported that some manufacturers react glacial acetic acid with non-kosher ingredients, and then recover whatever glacial acetic acid was not left over from the reaction. The residual glacial acetic acid, now rendered non-kosher, is sold to the original glacial acetic acid manufacturer, who now incorporates it into its production.

The details of the processes are proprietary, and cannot be described here. But the phenomenon of using “dirty” glacial acetic acid is substantiated in major chemical engineering encyclopedias, which also detail the extent to which manufacturers are engaged in this practice. Such information provides parameters for a kashrus agency to determine whether or not glacial acetic acid can continue to be accepted without further inquiry into the kosher status of the supplier.