When Bob, the purchasing agent at kosher-certified Joe’s Fine Baked Goods of Palo Alto, California, is evaluating a potential supplier of margarine, he uses some of the same criteria that anyone involved in a purchase would consider: he wants the product to be of appropriate quality, and it should be appropriately priced. But before he begins negotiating these points with a potential supplier, Bob also has an additional criterion – the margarine must be kosher certified. He asks for a letter of kosher certification for the margarine from the supplier. He submits the letter to his kosher certifying agency and, if the agency approves the product Bob will have the support of the kashrus agency to purchase the new ingredient. Each time Bob considers a new supplier for a product, the product has to be vetted, so to speak, by the agency certifying Joe’s Baked Goods to make sure that the kosher standards of the supplier are acceptable. This method of applying to use ingredients before purchasing them is the operating system at the large, established kosher certifying agencies; the people at the certified company know that submitting ingredients for ingredient approval is a contractual obligation the company has shouldered. The limitation that kosher certification imposes on a manufacturer’s supplier base is offset by the fact that the company can advertise itself as being kosher.
What happens, however, if Bob is looking into a new supplier of salt, or sugar, or flour, ingredients that are unlikely to have kashrus concerns? Can Bob use the standard free-market guidelines without limiting his pool of suppliers to kosher certified companies? Or should the kashrus agency instruct Bob that he can only purchase salt, or sugar, or flour, from a kosher certified source?
The kashrus agency has the difficult responsibility of handling these questions. On the one hand, requiring that a Jew specifically supervise and attest to the kashrus of every ingredient used in a kosher certified product would seem to be the least risky and the most appropriate disposition. On the other hand halacha, in principle, permits using ingredients even without specific hashgacha, if they have no kashrus concerns associated with them. And so insisting on hashgacha on such ingredients would, in some cases, be unnecessary and excessively heavy-handed.
How does a kashrus agency establish a presumption about the kashrus (or lack of kashrus) of an ingredient? The answer, for the most part, is knowledge. A kashrus agency must know how foods are made before permitting it from any source. This point is stated most succinctly by Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 114, 6, based on Tosefos, Avodah Zorah, 32a), who notes that it is necessary “to be careful, to check, and to investigate” the production process of beer and beverages made from honey to verify that these products were not made using non-kosher wine. If the information indicates that there is nothing problematic, then it is permitted to purchase these products even, so to speak “without a hecksher.”
Shas and Shulchan Aruch contain many examples of foods that were presumed to be kosher. Chazal prohibited pas ba’al habayis (homemade bread made by a non-Jew) only because of a concern that eating such pas would lead to intermarriage; Chazal were not, apparently, concerned about the ingredients used in pas, nor in the baking equipment used to bake it. Indeed, pas palter, which is pas produced for sale, is, according to Shulchan Aruch is permissible, which means a Jew would be able to buy it without hashgacha. Butter, flour, salt, spices, vinegar (when not made from wine), fish, and many other ingredients and foods are taken for granted in Shulchan Aruch as being inherently kosher. Some of these foods have external requirements, such as bishul Yisroel. But their inherent kashrus was presumed because, in general, people simply knew how foods were made; with few exceptions, they were prepared locally, using age-old methods.
Even in those days there were surprises. In the case of pas itself, for example, a concern is mentioned in the Poskim about the use of wine sediment in fermenting bread (cited by Shach, Y.D. 114, 21). The Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 114, 12) also notes that the Rashba avoided saffron because it was common – and well established – that saffron dealers, in the time of the Rashba, would sprinkle non-kosher wine on saffron, and even expertly incorporated fine strands of meat that would pass as saffron. The Shach, centuries later, notes that in his own day saffron is no longer encumbered by the difficulties the Rashba faced. Tosefos (Avodah Zorah 33a) notes that blood could be used to whiten salt (although he states that even so the salt would be acceptable).
But in general foods were made more simply, and people knew how foods were made, and earlier generations took for granted their kashrus. Ever since the production of foods (like other goods) became industrialized, however, food preparation has become increasingly removed from most people’s lives. Because factories can capitalize on an economy of scale, the price of many prepared goods – pickles, bread, wine, vinegar, mayonnaise — is often less expensive than preparing the goods at home. And so the inclination to buy already-made foods is perpetuated. This tendency has led to a general lack of knowledge, even basic awareness, of the food production process. Indeed, many yungerleit who have learned hilchas melicha may have never seen an actual melicha performed! And so the responsibility that we have to know about how foods are made before establishing a presumption of their kashrus is made more complicated.
Indeed, not only is food production more distant from our daily lives. The ingredients used to make even basic foods have evolved, which means the foods themselves have changed. Food technologists are constantly trying to figure out ways to produce foods in less time, or to permit their foods to have a longer shelf life while retaining an appearance of freshness, or to pack more vitamins and minerals in a food while still tasting normal, or overcome a myriad of other challenges. To accomplish these goals, they have had to resort to new ingredients to produce the same foods. Pas is no longer made simply of flour, water, yeast, and salt. There are mold inhibitors (calcium propionate) dough stabilizers (diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono and diglycerides) staling retardants (polyoxyethylene monostearates), dough strengtheners (ethoxylated mono- and diglycerides) and sweeteners (high fructose corn syrup). Obviously, pas is no longer acceptable min ha’shuk, and without a hecksher.
Ingredients, furthermore, are now sourced from all parts of the globe. It is just as cheap for a Turkish vinegar company to buy alcohol from Brazil as it is to buy it from Europe. American companies can buy apple juice concentrate from China just as easily as they buy it from the apple farms in New York State.
Still, many ingredients continue to be manufactured in a straightforward way, no matter where on the globe it may be being made. And it remains a responsibility to know which of those ingredients are acceptable from any source – not only to instruct the purchasing agents of kosher certified companies, but also the purchasing agents for Jewish families – the mothers and fathers that go shopping. Because of the complexity and globalization of the contemporary food industry, a kashrus agency is in a unique position to make those assessments.
With siyatta d’shmaya, the OU has been able to keep pace with the globalization of the food industry. Mashgichim are being sent to the four corners of the world – from Iceland to the Fiji Islands, Argentina to Indonesia, to certify food production. It is true that mashgichim spend much of their time visiting certified companies, facilities that have deliberately changed their procedures to become kosher, and therefore these companies do not provide a perfect window into the food production industry as a whole. But agencies also see companies before they are certified when, for example, mashgichim are sent to gauge the feasibility of whether a company can in fact become certified. These companies also describe their own operations in their initial applications for certification, and so the kashrus agency sees, in writing, the manufacturing process. And often a company may maintain an uncertified area of production. Furthermore, visiting kosher certified companies permits a sense of how an industry as a whole operates, and what kinds of ingredients are used within it.
In the last few years, for example, a large kosher-certified salt producer has been using glycerin in one of its salt products that has industrial applications (peanut butter or potato chip companies use it in their products). The glycerin is a medium to spray yellow prussiate of soda, an anti-caking agent, to the salt. Glycerin, when kosher, is made from vegetable oil; when it is not kosher it is made from animal fat. The kosher certified salt company of course uses kosher certified glycerin. What if there were another salt manufacturer out there using non-kosher glycerin, in a similar or analogous process? Would that mean that salt can only be purchased when kosher certified? This is a question Poskim must respond to. But the question would not begin without having had some hand in the industry in the first place.
The experiences and observations of these mashgichim is the primary basis upon which kashrus evaluations of ingredients can be made. It is only because representatives have gone to Indonesia that they know that vegetable oil produced there is absolutely free of kashrus concern. Or that they’ve been to Holland to see cocoa butter production that a kashrus agency can have some command of how cocoa butter is made – and know, for example, whether cocoa butter poses any Pesach concerns.
There are additional ways to find out about ingredients. Just as the discipline of food science has become more sophisticated, food industry magazines, and journals and encyclopedias in the field of food science provide detailed descriptions of food production processes. These articles offer a much-needed vocabulary for understanding some of the considerations that food producers are involved in. Many foods processes are patented, and reading the patents for these foods also provides helpful background to understanding how products are made – although these documents do not provide a precise picture of any given production. An Italian patent of instant coffee, for example, notes that maltodextrin, a starch derivative (and potentially chametz) can be added to instant coffee. Many patents describe the production process for polyethylene cups (also known as Styrofoam), so for those people keen on learning about the production but not able to visit an actual facility, these patents can be studied (but not used as a basis for psak, since they only give background to possible production methods).
However, gathering knowledge itself will never be perfectly comprehensive. Halacha provides guidelines on how, and if, presumptions can be established based on the knowledge one has. Making such assessments requires p’sak. Generally, kosher certifying agencies are strict with regards to these questions, since certifying a product as kosher presupposes specific knowledge, and not simply a presumption (even when permitted) of how the ingredients of the product were made.