The Consumer’s Role In Kashrus: Is Your Light On Or Off?

OU Kosher Staff

It was a hot summer night when Chaim entered his local ice cream store, Great Taste Ice Cream Parlor, with the intention of purchasing his favorite treat, a medium-sized cup of Rocky Road ice cream with chocolate sprinkles. Chaim had frequented this nationally kosher certified franchise both locally and out-of-town based on a list that he had seen a few years ago from his local Vaad and a letter of kosher certification he saw last year behind the counter. This time, however, an unfamiliar man, wearing a tee shirt with the word “Patrick’s” was behind the counter. After having consumed his purchase, Chaim asked him, “How do you enjoy working for Great Taste?” The man responded with a smile. “It’s not Great Taste anymore. I bought the place last month and now it’s Patrick’s Ice Cream Parlor.”

Chaim couldn’t believe it. He looked at the area behind the counter for the letter of kosher certification. All that remained in its place was a remnant of scotch tape that the certificate had been affixed to. Chaim hesitatingly asked, “Are you still kosher certified?”

“No sir, I couldn’t afford it, but trust me — I use the same ice cream.” A bit dazed and very concerned, Chaim pointed to the front of the store and protested, “It just can’t be, the storefront sign still says Great Taste Ice Cream Parlor!”

“Mister, you’re right,” Patrick responded, “but the sign is not lit. The light is off!”

Poor Chaim, his kashrus light was off as well. It happens all too often that people make assumptions about the status of a certified store, or a certified product, only to find out that the store has changed management, or the product is no longer under hashgacha.

Kosher consumers cannot afford to go on automatic pilot. There are certain pieces of information a person must always verify, regardless of how long something has been under hashgacha. This article will outline some of the points. All of the problems are all-too-real. Consumer vigilance will help put an end to them.

Rule Number One: Read Letters of Kosher Certification Carefully!

A Letter of Certification (also known as a LOC) is issued by a kosher certifying agency so that a manufacturer or store can prove that his product is kosher. When you are going into a store make sure an LOC is available. Read it carefully. It must be up-to-date. It must apply to the specific retail store selling you the product.

Kashrus agencies issue two types of certificates. One type covers packaged goods. For example, an LOC refers to a list of ice cream premixes. The other type covers the retail store.

Often stores will post, or otherwise retain, an LOC that refers only to packaged goods. An ice cream store, for example, may post an LOC that refers to ice cream premixes or may even refer to the final, original factory sealed packaged ice cream products. These kinds of certificates do not cover the store. The consumer will often wrongly interpret this kind of certificate to mean that the ice cream is certified. In fact, the store may not even be selling the ice cream that is listed on the LOC. On-site supervision of the store is needed to ensure the kosher status of the ice cream, the cone, toppings, and other ingredients that may be used.

If there is on-site supervision, the LOC will identify the specific location and any details regarding the kosher status of the store.

Other common instances of LOC misrepresentation include non-supervised delis selling meats that were, in fact, manufactured under hashgacha. The deli posts the LOC for the kosher meat. And yet there can be cross contamination from the deli’s equipment, or other non-kosher meats may be substituted. A variation of this scenario is when a less than scrupulous store posts a large sign stating “We use meats under XYZ hashgacha“- implying that the store’s products are certified by a recognized certifying agency.

One more example relates to candy and nut stores that sometimes post LOC’s. The candies and nuts that are being advertised as kosher certified may have been removed from their original package and are now sold in bins. The customer should bear in mind that the kashrus agency that issued the LOC would not guarantee that the loose product in a bin in the retail store is kosher.

Finally, it is perfectly normal for a customer at a store to read the LOC when first shopping there. The same customer might not confirm the hashgacha on subsequent visits. While in many instances changes in hashgacha are publicized, there are unfortunately all too many situations when a store will drop its hashgacha or change to another hashgacha without informing customers.

Caveat emptor – buyer beware! Read the Letter carefully. If the Letter does not correspond exactly to the product and location that is being represented as kosher, then a phone call to the kashrus agency is in order.

Rule Number Two: Determine Who is Responsible for Repackaged Goods

It has become a common practice for retail stores to purchase bulk candies and nuts and repackage at their on-site facility. A computer label is printed for the product. The label will commonly list the manufacturer name, product name, kosher certification (if any), and weight and price of product. The consumer should be aware that repackaged product is not supervised unless the store has on site supervision that oversees the repackaging process. Any repackaging of product must be done under kosher supervision and the kashrus agency who supervised the repackaging should be clearly identified on the label

Rule Number Three: Check Retail Labels Carefully

Consumers should check the label on retail products for kashrus information. Remember, the certifying agency’s method of conveying vital information to the consumer is via the symbol being used. And the way for a kashrus agency to tell the consumers that a product is no longer kosher certified or that its kashrus status has changed (i.e. Parve to Dairy) is by removing or changing the symbol. As in all kosher issues, consumers can not rely on information seen on products previously purchased but must check the label for changes.

Another potential pitfall occurs when a consumer is accustomed to seeing a particular brand of product as kosher. “Smart Choice” potato chips have been kosher for as long as Shloimie can remember. He loves their regular, ripple, BBQ, and cottage fries varieties. One day, Shloimie notices a new Smart Choice variety, Jalapeno. He’s halfway through the package when he realizes, to his absolute chagrin, that there is no kosher symbol on this variety. Remember; check each product label for kashrus information!

One final point regarding product labels- It’s a good idea to read the ingredient panel. While kashrus certifying agencies do require manufacturers to review labels for accurate kashrus information prior to production, there is always room for error. The ingredient panel is one place that the alert kosher consumer might spot such errors. The Pareve status of the salad dressing that you are holding is questionable if you see “milk powder” on the ingredient panel. If such a situation occurs, please contact the kosher certifying agency of the product. Other common dairy ingredients include milk, yogurt, cheese, cream, whey, lactose, casein, or caseinate.

Rule Number Four: Be Careful About Kashrus Claims

Sometimes a company makes an innocent representation of kashrus which can be misconstrued and applied to products that are not kosher. For example, manufacturers who have kosher and non-kosher products describe themselves as being a kosher certified company. A variation of this occurs when a supermarket advertises particular products in their sale fliers or directories as kosher. The rule is: Always look for the kosher logo on the product.

A more contemporary form of this problem is found in a company’s electronic publicity material. Such materials are often developed well in advance of a product’s release. Marketing people who anticipate becoming kosher certified may tell their publicists to incorporate the proposed kosher certification into their publicity material. When, months later, the product is manufactured without certification, the kashrus claim is overlooked and a false representation of kashrus is presented to the consumer. In these, as in all instances, consumers should confirm that the kosher symbol appears on the product itself rather than accepting such claims.

In conclusion, consumers are advised to periodically check products and stores for their kosher status. When it comes to kashrus, you always need to keep the light on.