When you see the OU on a product, it is a testimony to the vitality of the Jewish people,” Rabbi Menachem Genack is fond of quoting his rebbe, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l, as saying. Rabbi Genack is chief executive of the OU Kosher division of the Orthodox Union. A shopping trip to any American supermarket offers tens of thousands of such testimonials. Equally, however, a visit to a U.S. supermarket testifies to the unique status of OU Kosher as the most trusted provider of kosher food supervision in the world today. OU Kosher’s undisputed reputation for integrity, its vast base of knowledge and experience and the professionalism of its kashrut and food production experts around the world, as well as its unique status as a not-for-profit mean that when significant questions arise in the world of kashrut, all eyes turn first to OU Kosher for guidance.
Here’s an inside look at how the OU has earned and maintains that trust:
Nearly a hundred years ago, kosher food and meat in the United States were supervised and certified by individual rabbis and private agencies. When the Orthodox Union, a national synagogue group, established its not-for-profit communal kashrut agency in 1924, its English-speaking kashrut supervisors and experts offered a model of honesty and transparency, operating under the rabbinical oversight of the Kashruth Commission of the Rabbinical Council of America. Since then, OU Kosher has been at the forefront of developing innovative methods of kosher supervision and setting standards for the entire kosher industry, including the secure and confidential management of proprietary information from many of the world’s largest food manufacturers. This has earned OU Kosher the unreserved trust of both the industry and the consumers that it serves.
A (Kosher) Cut Above.
What Distinguishes OU kosher From The Rest?
First, the numbers tell the story: half a million kosher packaged food products are available for sale in the U.S. today and the familiar OU Kosher symbol is found on more than 70 percent of them. Add to the calculation industrial products and raw ingredients and one learns that OU Kosher actually certifies the kashrut of well over 900,000 items produced in more than 10,500 plants in more than 90 countries.
OU Kosher was founded at the prompting of the Orthodox Union’s Women’s Branch, and certified fewer than 200 products in its first years. Heinz Vegetarian Beans was the first-ever product to bear the now world-famous OU Kosher symbol. With the arrival in 1950 of Rabbi Alexander S. Rosenberg, who bore the title of rabbinic administrator, OU Kosher’s significance rose dramatically. Thanks to Rabbi Rosenberg’s efforts to ensure that mashgichim (kosher supervisors) stationed near and far complied with a universal set of kashrut supervision standards, and his insistence that they conduct themselves with the highest professional ethics, OU Kosher became the kosher certification service of choice in the United States, and, eventually, the world
Since his appointment as CEO, Rabbi Genack has maintained the highest standards of professionalism and has grown OU Kosher to include more than 50 in-house rabbinic coordinators, hundreds of rabbinic field representatives around the world, and a large professional support staff. OU Kosher employs modern information technology and management systems to keep up with the fast-paced, changing world of food production today.
Rav Hershel Schachter,OU Kosher’s posek (halachic decisor), is frequently consulted by our kashrut professionals in order to ensure one hundred percent accuracy in kosher certification. His rendered decisions are backed by matchless Torah scholarship and the rulings are recorded in the OU database for reference, should similar issues arise in the future.
Not-For-Profit, In The Truest Sense
The OU distinguishes itself from other kosher certification agencies in that it’s entirely a not-for-profit organization. All the revenue generated by the activities of OU Kosher is returned to the Jewish community in the form of programs and projects that enhance Jewish life. Broadly, these include NCSY, the international youth movement of the OU; Yachad, the National Jewish Council For Disabilities, which promotes inclusion in Jewish life for people with special needs; the Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OU-JLIC) which partners with Hillel at 22 secular universities across North America to provide Orthodox life on campus; the OU Department of Synagogue and Community Engagement; the OU Advocacy Center, the non-partisan public policy arm that represents our interests in the political arena; OU Israel, which educates and serves constituencies throughout Israel including programs for tweens, teens, soldiers and English-speaking olim; OU West Coast; OU Alumni; Israel Free Spirit-Taglit Birthright; OU Press and many other worthwhile initiatives. Revenue from OU Kosher truly accomplishes a great deal, though it must be understood that philanthropy is equally crucial to each of these programs as they grow and expand their service to the Jewish people. (To learn more about each of the OU’s programs, including how you can help, please visit ou.org.)
What Does Kosher Certification Consist Of?
“When we certify a company we enter into a binding legal agreement that the firm will meet agreed-upon standards,” explained Rabbi Nahum Rabinowitz, senior rabbinic coordinator of OU Kosher. “The fact that a company is using an OU symbol on their product really demonstrates the commitment of that company to their kosher program.” OU experts verify adherence through appropriate regimens of supervision.
OU Kosher reviews a list of all ingredients processed or stored at production sites and inputs that information into an internal database, the Ingredient Approval Registry. The database also serves as an excellent resource for clients and kashrut professionals. For example, it is very helpful to manufacturers as they research new product lines.
“We can have facilities with hundreds of ingredients, and we need to know each one’s kosher status and whether it’s dairy, parve or meat,” said Rabbi Moshe Elefant, chief operating officer of OU Kosher. “If we don’t have clarity on just one ingredient out of 999, then it’s not going to fly.”
Each certified client is assigned a rabbinic coordinator to act as its account executive, to assist in the maintenance of its kosher program.
Each manufacturer has a specific list of products that the OU has certified and on which the OU has authorized the use of its kosher symbol. The kosher symbol is often accompanied by one of several added designations, such as “D” for Dairy, “P” for Kosher for Passover (and year-round use), and “Kitniyot” — a new category introduced in 2013 — among others. “Approved lists of ingredients and certified products are dynamic documents,” Rabbi Elefant noted. “Companies add or eliminate ingredients and products, and need to register every change with us.”
OU Kosher in the Age of Technology
OU Kosher has adapted well to today’s technological norms. Today, OU Kosher employees and clients can update and retrieve data from anywhere in the world, on virtually any secure, web-capable device.
Consumers can engage with OU Kosher at OUKosher.org and OUPassover.org (where information from this OU Guide to Passover and much more is currently available), on Facebook and Twitter, and with the OU Kosher App for iOS and Android. The app includes kashrut alerts, a guide for which bracha (blessing) to make over which food, educational videos, and a general information hotline.
For the less tech-savvy, kashrut information is also available by telephone. The official OU Kosher consumer hotline at 212.613.8241 provides answers to questions about the intricacies of kashrut and the OU Kosher symbol. The OU also responds to consumer inquiries via email, with its Webbe Rebbe service (kosherQ@ou.org).
The busiest times of year on the kosher hotline and the OU Kosher social media channels, of course, coincide with Jewish holidays. During the week preceding Passover 2015 the hotline recorded many thousands of calls about the kashrut and kitniyot status of numerous products and foodstuffs for Passover.
OU Kosher for Passover
If the certification process for kosher food is intense on a regular day, it’s even more rigorous when it comes to food that receives an OU-P symbol, which indicates that the OU certifies the product as Kosher for Passover. To receive that symbol, an extremely high level of supervision is required including hashgacha temidit (constant onsite supervision), and proper kashering of equipment. Every ingredient used in an OU-P product is scrutinized to make sure that it is 100% chametz-and kitniyot-free. OU-Kitniyot products undergo similarly rigorous supervision of their Kosher for Passover status.
Pesach does not begin in the spring at the OU. Providing Kosher for Passover food is a year-round effort: Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Singer, who manages Passover supervision at the OU, is in regular contact with companies certified by the OU for Passover about their current and forthcoming products, as well as new companies in the process of developing products for Passover.
To sum up, it takes a lot of people stationed all over the world to make the world’s largest kashrut organization run successfully.
“The kashrut field is exciting because it represents the nexus of Jewish law, technology and commerce, and we have to be on top of everything to meet the challenges that occur as a result of changes or new findings,” Rabbi Genack said. “OU Kosher is a success only because of the combined efforts of all our different departments and their united front for the benefit and betterment of the Jewish community.”