The Kashrut Side of Private Labels

If you read industry reports, you have surely realized that private labeling is the way of the future. Gone are the days when the term “private label” conjured up images of plain labels affixed to a bottle of watered down ketchup and oily potato chips in huge bags. As quality has increased exponentially, the number of private label products is growing unabashedly up and down each aisle of your local supermarket. While this growth may be bad news for the “name brands” that stand to lose market-share, clearly it is good news for manufacturers and consumers alike.

We here at the OU realize how important it is for manufacturers to satisfy the demands of their private label customers. We are at least as sensitive to the consumer’s demand that OU kosher standards should be exactly as strong in these products as they are in name-brand items. Clearly, a delicate balance in maintaining OU supervision much be reached, whereas the maximum flexibility is provided to manufacturers, and extra systems of “kosher maintenance” set up to ensure the OU kosher requirements are still satisfying the needs of the consumer.

One of the biggest issues regarding the kosher supervision of a private label is maintaining the anonymity of the manufacturer of the product. After all, the whole point of a private label product is that the consumer should associate the product with the name of the label company, not the manufacturer. That creates an issue for kosher supervision, as the same anonymity could potentially hide where a product is made from the OU, which obviously interferes with our ability to certify said product as kosher. So here it is: the label company needs anonymity (which the manufacturer wishes to grant) and the consumer needs disclosure.

How does the OU address these contrasting needs?

Private Label Agreements: The OU requires a separate private label contract between every manufacturer and every label company. In the contract, the label company agrees to only produce the product in the approved OU facility(ies), and not to make a parallel OU and non-OU product. Provisions are set for changing production sites, as well as to the handling of leftover labels and termination of certification. By signing this agreement, the manufacturer and the label company have both promised to keep in touch with the OU regarding any sort of change to ingredients or finished products, thus serving as a first step in keeping a handle on the kosher certification of the product.

Private Label Letters of Certification: Rather than issuing the standard letter of certification (which includes both the manufacturer and plant of manufacture on it), the OU has programmed its database with the ability to generate letters of certification that include only the OU internal code for the manufacturing company. That way, the label company can show its proof of OU certification to its customers, without disclosing where they were manufactured. Another issue affecting the OU’s supervision of a private label product is addressing potential differences in kosher status between the in-house and private-label version of a product. A private label cookie, for example, might require milk in one whose in-house version does not contain milk. The private label sardines may be made for export to Israel, where additional rabbinic supervision is required. The private label of a juice product might require the use of a nonkosher grape juice, and a kosherization may be needed after its production to return the production lines to their kosher\ status before the next kosher run. Obviously these issues must be vigorously addressed, without imposing excessive restraints on the manufacturer.

Private Label Ingredients Must Appear On the Schedule A: Some manufacturers mistakenly believe that the ingredients used in their private label products are the responsibility of the label company to report to the OU. In fact, it is the plant producing the product which is ultimately responsible for confirming that the proposed ingredients are OU approved, and appear on Schedule A.

Production Scheduling: Especially where kosherizations are required, the OU must monitor the production of both the regular production and the special production. The plant will obviously need to contact either their Rabbinic Field Representative or their Rabbinic Coordinator here in the OU office to alert us to the upcoming change in status of the production equipment, as well as to schedule any necessary kosherization. The Rabbinic Field Representative in turn
must review the production records in the plant during his regular, unannounced visits to confirm that no changes in the production happened in his absence.

Monitoring of Labels: Both the manufacturer and the Rabbinic Field Representative must be vigilant in making sure the correct kosher symbol is present on the packaging. This is always the case, but especially when the private label version differs in kosher status (dairy versus pareve, or kosher versus non-kosher) from the in-house one. Product made bearing the wrong symbol will need to be recalled, which is always a headache. Recalling a private label product is so disruptive to the distribution chain that a manufacturer could very well lose the entire account because of one such mistake!

A third major concern of consumers is that the anonymity of a private label could potentially allow the label company to produce in a non-OU facility and falsely claim to be OU certified. While the name brand has a reputation to maintain, a label company may be “here today and gone tomorrow.” How does the OU address this concern?

Careful Maintenance of Schedule B (List of Certified Products): Whenever a consumer doubts the kosher status of an OU product they call our “kosher hotline” to confirm the product is registered on our database. Once we find the product, we can confirm the product is duly registered without providing any information about the manufacturer, thus confirming kosher status to the consumer without disclosing the identity of the manufacturer.

A Community of Inquisitive Consumers: Because the OU symbol is so widely respected, consumers notice when a new product comes to market bearing the OU. They regularly contact our office to confirm the product is in fact OU certified. We have an entire department dedicated to answering these consumer inquiries (made via our website, by email, phone and fax).When a product is not in fact OU certified, it is referred to our Trademark Compliance Department.

Trademark Compliance Department: The OU has a well-staffed department dedicated entirely to issues relating to trademark compliance. If a product bears the OU fraudulently, the matter is publicized through various print media. It is reported to law-enforcement authorities of the various jurisdictions, and potentially triggers legal action. This can include forcing a product to be removed from store shelves, and injunctions against manufacturing and distributing a trademark-violating product. Manufacturers realize that the OU will defend its trademarked OU symbol fully, and thus refrain from illegal use of the OU symbol.

The OU realizes that private labeling is the wave of the future. As the world’s most respected kosher supervising agency, it is our mission to surf the wave expertly, and continue to provide smooth sailing for consumers and manufacturers alike.

OU Kosher Staff