Have a Hot Kosher Question? Call the OU Kosher Hotline and We’ll Set You Straight

Since OU Kosher is seen as “The Lexus of Kosher,” consumers turn to the OU for much of their kashrut information.

The complexities of Jewish Kosher law are such that questions about what is and what is not kosher or other aspects of the halacha arise at all times, not only from those who currently keep kosher, but also from those who are considering doing so. Even rabbis, with their deep grounding in Jewish texts, need advice at times from the experts on the finer points of kashrut.

Thus, just as a computer manufacturer must offer a help line (or hotline) to deal with the intricacies of the product, so too the OU, as the world’s largest and most recognized kosher certification agency, also operates a hotline to answer questions from rabbis and lay people alike. Maintaining this hotline is part of the OU brand, and increases consumer confidence in the OU’s decisions and processes. Since September, 2004 I have had the honor to staff the OU Kosher Hotline. Some of my impressions follow…

The OU Kosher Hotline seeks to provide consumers with information about OU products and the laws of kashrut. Probably around a hundred consumers each day call the hotline for information regarding OU products and policies. Additionally, many consumers call with general kashrut questions. Since OU Kosher is seen as “The Lexus of Kosher,” consumers turn to the OU for much of their kashrut information.

Frequent questions include the following:

  • “Snyder’s of Hanover Pretzels bears an OU-D, but does not seem to contain any dairy ingredients; is it because it was processed on dairy equipment? If so, how should I treat it?”
  • “I just noticed that in the allergy disclaimer it says that the product was processed on equipment that contains dairy and shellfish; how can it be labeled pareve (neither meat nor dairy)”
  • “Colonna Pasta Sauce lists ‘natural meat flavor’ in the ingredients; how can it be labeled pareve?”
  • When walking through my local supermarket, I noticed Calavo guacamole bearing an OU; is it really certified?”
  • My favorite product used to bear an OU symbol, but I do not see it any more; is it still certified?”
  • “My Balance bars bear an OU on the outside box but not on the actual bar; are they still kosher?”
  • “What can I buy from my local coffee shop?”
  • “Do strawberries have a risk of insect infestation? If so, how can I clean them?”
  • “I’m looking for a kosher bleu cheese; which brands does the OU certify?”
  • “I have to meet a friend downtown; are there any OU restaurants around there?”

These different inquiries are answered in different ways. General questions like natural meat flavors or allergy warnings are answerable from our experience. Other questions such as confirming a product’s kosher certification or seeking kosher products involve checking the vast database of OU Kosher products. Still others, such as whether or not a product contains dairy ingredients or why an OU is missing from an otherwise certified product, require specific knowledge of the product. Therefore, those who answer the hotline often consult with the Rabbinic Coordinator who deals with the makers of the product before answering such a question.

However, in addition to answering product questions, many questions posed to the hotline require rabbinic knowledge. Usually, one would not expect a customer service representative to have a law degree. However, the OU hotline is not your average customer service setup. Many consumers call the Kosher Hotline to ask about OU kosher policies as well as general kosher questions. For these reasons, rabbinical training in the many technical details of the laws of kashrut often comes in handy.

As Rabbi Dovid Cohen discussed in a previous edition of BTUS, complex questions in OU kashrut policy are answered by our rabbinical authorities, Rabbi Hershel Schachter and Rabbi Yisroel Belsky. In his article, Rabbi Cohen also mentioned that all of their rabbinical decisions are saved and organized on an intranet system. Examples of my conversations have included explanations for OU kosher standards regarding supervision of tuna fish.

Other examples include explaining why the OU does not require chalav yisrael (milk constantly supervised by an onsite rabbinic supervisor) on certified dairy products. Another commonly asked question is whether the wax coatings added to fruits and vegetables render them non-kosher (since they may contain emulsifiers and other ingredients that are animal derivatives; they do not because any animal derived ingredients are not considered food and because they would be nullified. (See below for explanation of principle of nullification—bittul.) With these and other matters, openness, knowledge of the subject matter, and professionalism lead not only to consumer satisfaction but to a greater trust of the OU in its policy decisions.

Rabbinic knowledge also comes in handy when answering callers’ questions regarding what blessing to recite on OU certified products. Answering such questions requires both knowledge of how the food is produced as well as knowledge of the laws of blessings. For example, many callers ask which blessing should be recited on granola bars. Based on consultations with Rabbinic Coordinators who work with granola bar manufacturers, we are able to explain that granola bars mainly consist of baked whole oats rather than oat flour. Therefore, the blessing to recite is borei peri ha-adama (thanking God for creating produce that grows in the ground).

Sometimes, our rabbinic knowledge and product knowledge combine to save people money and effort. Because observant Jews are not allowed to mix meat and milk, any mixture would render the food, as well as the equipment in which it was produced, non-kosher. Any pots in which milk and meat were cooked by mistake must either be kosherized or, when impossible, disposed of. This is the reason why OU Kosher requires companies it certifies to place a “D” or “dairy” next to the OU symbols on all dairy products. Yet, this does not mean that a tiny drop of milk would necessarily invalidate food or the pot in which it is cooked. In Jewish law, there is a principle called nullification (bittul), which means that if a non-kosher ingredient was unintentionally added to a kosher product below a certain percentage (usually 1.6%), the food remains kosher.

This is where the OU Kosher hotline comes to save the day. We often receive calls from people who overlook the “D” on a product label. Because they did not realize that the product is dairy, they had cooked it in food that contains meat or in pots that were dedicated for meat use. Sometimes it turns out that the OU-D product in question was merely produced on dairy equipment without containing dairy ingredients (which means that their dishes and pots are safe). But in many other cases—this happens most often with margarines and rice mixes—they do indeed contain dairy ingredients. Without revealing any proprietary information, we inform those who call whether the dairy contained within their pots is nullified because it is less than 1.6 % of the total mixture. Not a month goes by without the Kosher Hotline saving a pot from being either kosherized or thrown away.

Passover is the busiest time of the year, as there are many more complications involved in making one’s home kosher for Passover than during the year. Additionally, it is customary for one to be more stringent regarding the kosher laws of Passover than during the year. During Passover, Jews are prohibited from owning bread products as well as eating them. Because the OU is seen as the standard of kashrut and kosher information, kosher consumers (not to mention many rabbis) turn to the OU hotline for guidance.

In some cases, the stringency associated with Passover leads people to act more strictly than Jewish law requires. At these points, rabbinical training comes in handy as the hotline counsels these callers into a course of moderation. For example, Jewish law does not consider prescription- strength, non-chewable medicine to be considered akin to food. Unfortunately, however, many Jews have been misinformed and assume that such medicines must be Kosher for Passover in order to take them. At such points, the Kosher Hotline uses its rabbinical role as a representative of the OU to counsel callers in the proper way.

In one extreme example, a caller asked if Zoloft (a prescription medicine commonly taken by those suffering from clinical depression) is kosher for Passover. Since Zoloft is of life-saving importance, the caller was informed in no uncertain terms that the medication does not have to be kosher. Since many people suffering from depression commit suicide, it is absolutely mandatory for him to take his dosage no matter what might be in it. While it is impossible to know whether any lives were directly saved from our efforts, it is a privilege to prevent people from unnecessary danger.

Another area in which moderation is suggested is that of other non-food items, such as soap, shampoo, or laundry detergent. Jewish law states that items such as these are considered beyond the scope of food and thus do not have to be kosher for Passover. Thus when callers ask about the kosher for Passover status of these and other similar items, the legal reasoning behind these questions is discussed when advising leniency.

The Kosher Hotline receives calls from all over the United States, from Maine to Washington, as well as from foreign countries such as France, the Netherlands and Sweden, to name just a few. Additionally, while the majority of callers are Orthodox Jews, our audience is often much wider. First, since many non- Orthodox Jews keep the laws of kashrut to varying degrees, we receive calls from them as well. There are also many Jews who do not keep kosher the rest of the year but make a point of keeping kosher for Passover. Once they decide to keep kosher during the Passover season, they seek our advice in trying to “do it right.”

At times we have received questions about OU products from Muslims and members of other religions who seek information regarding kosher law. For example, Muslims ask whether the gelatin found in various OU certified products comes from pigs or other non-permitted animal sources. In alleviating their concerns, we tell them that OU Kosher policy requires OU-approved gelatin to come from either fish or properly slaughtered animal sources.

In another instance, I received a call from a Muslim who had called the consumer service hotline of an OU certified breakfast cereal. He wanted to find out what the source was for the Vitamin B-12 found in the cereal. The customer service operator told him that the source was lanolin, an animal derivative. Since Muslims also cannot partake of animal derivatives that are improperly slaughtered, the questioner was perplexed. Because the cereal is OU certified, he called the Kosher Hotline. When he called, I told him that lanolin is a derivative of sheep hair, and does not come from the actual body of an animal. For this reason, I explained, our rabbinical authorities permit the use of lanolin in OU-certified products, though I added that before he partakes of the cereal he might want to get a second opinion from his local cleric.

The OU Kosher Hotline is an important factor in the OU’s prominence in the kosher world and is one more reason why the OU is the brand that kosher consumers all over the world look to. If you have questions, call the hotline at 212.613.8241, or email at . It will be our pleasure to respond to your questions to the best of our abilities, backed by the resources of OU Kosher.

OU Kosher Staff