To eat is to live – to keep our physical bodies alive. For without the body, there is nothing. No experience. No memory. No joy and no hardship.
But man, unlike animals, eats to live and to enjoy. So how should a Jew respond when he is challenged as to why he imposes upon himself not just ceremonies dedicated to the enjoyment of eating but even more to the limiting of what he can eat?
Of course, this is a false question. Understanding the rules of kashrut as a restriction is to miss the essential nature of creation and of our relationships with God and what it means to truly enjoy partaking of creation.
Jewish tradition holds that what gives meaning to food – no matter how beautiful the “presentation” – is the presence of God and Torah. Our rabbis teach that it is forbidden to enjoy anything of this world without a blessing. That is, to fail to engage the connection between the physical and the spiritual, the created to the Creator, is to reduce the experience of eating to mere consumption and to blur the distinction between man and animal.
We are more than physical beings. Our bodies are merely temporary shelters for our souls. That said, God, who created man “of the dust of the earth,” recognizes that man must eat to sustain his physical health. God created a biological being, one in need of physical nourishment. To make sure that the connection between the base need to eat and the holiness of our deeper natures is maintained, we observe the laws of kashrut.
The laws of kashrut are restrictions – but only in the sense that they are restrictions that enlarge us. Despite the weakness of our natures, despite our propensity for evil, there remains within us the possibility of redemption and renewal, of teshuvah. The laws of kashrut define God’s master plan of fusing body and soul within the reality of corporeal existence.
Eating is truly an expression of our essential natures – our physical nature and our spiritual nature. Only when we embrace both can eating be truly and completely ennobling.
The individual Jew observes the laws of kashrut as a spiritual act. But for his observance to be true he must place his trust not just in God but in the agencies that produce, regulate and attest to the food he eats. He must rely on the certification agencies that assure him the food he consumes and blesses is, in fact, kosher.
It wasn’t so very long ago that such trust was sadly misplaced. In his recently published book, Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food (Harvard University Press), Dr. Timothy D. Lytton, professor of law at Albany Law School, notes that kosher certification was not always as reliable as today. At the beginning of the last century, the kosher food industry was rife with fraud. The New York City Department of Markets estimated in 1925 that 40 percent of the meat sold as kosher in the city was, in fact, not kosher. Consumer groups and industry associations thought that figure to be too low and placed it between 50 and 65 percent.
Kosher certification suffered from the same financial incentives to cut corners that characterize private food-safety auditing.
The decisions, efforts and actions that brought about the reforms that allowed independent kosher certification agencies to establish uniform industry standards represent the heart of Dr. Lytton’s observations about the strengths of kosher certification and why it might be a model for improving the even greater failings in the governmental food certification process.
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The kosher food market is big business. Kosher foods generate more than $12 billion in annual sales. This market is comprised not only of observant Jews but also of health-conscious non-observant and non-Jewish consumers who like the idea that “kosher” certification speaks to our deep relationship with the food we eat.
Dr. Lytton suggests that the growing popularity of kosher food among non-observant Jews and non-Jews reflects a pervasive anxiety about the industrialization of the food supply. Not only does rabbinic supervision ensure a heightened degree of food purity, it also personalizes a vast, complex and globalized food production system.
By and large these consumers are right to place their faith in the kosher certification system. Regular, unannounced inspections of kosher food production facilities serve many purposes, not the least of which is a general increase in vigilance. Such vigilance not only prevents contamination that would render a product “non-kosher” but also serves to prevent the kinds of pest infestations that occur all too often when such vigilance is lax.
A famous advertising campaign proclaimed, “We answer to a higher authority.” Whereas federal regulations allow for a certain threshold of contamination in food – for example, fewer than two maggots per 500 grams of canned tomatoes – kosher certification allows for zero tolerance when it comes to any such contaminants.
When our authority is God, there is not the same “wiggle room” that exists in governmental regulation.
While Dr. Lytton praises the kosher certification process as a model for government inspectors, he also notes that kosher certification is not a substitute for federal regulation. He acknowledges that kosher requirements often overlap with food safety standards – kosher inspectors are trained in Jewish dietary law, food chemistry, and food technology – but they do not have the training or expertise to address bacterial contamination or safe food handling practices.
From Dr. Lytton’s perspective, the most valuable contribution kosher certification offers to food safety might be a model of reliable private certification. The key to this, he suggests, is to yoke market demand for certification with the kind of competitive pressures that minimize corner cutting – that is, utilize the kosher certification model.
In an opinion piece he wrote for Food Safety News titled “Kosher Certification: A Model for Improving Private Food Safety Audits,” Dr. Lytton listed a number of features of the kosher certification system that make it so successful:
1. Sufficient consumer demand. As we have noted, the kosher food market is significant. In order to succeed in this market, companies are willing to allow kosher inspectors into their facilities.
2. A core of vigilant and active consumers. Ultimately, it is the consumers who hold producers’ “feet to the fire.”
3. Brand competition based on reliability among kosher certifiers vying for food company clients counteracts incentives to cut corners.
4. Interdependence among certifiers creates incentives for interagency oversight.
5. Concentration of market power in the hands of a few large certifiers. This simplifies the development and enforcement of industry-wide standards.
6. Certification agency personnel are motivated by a shared sense of mission that counteracts conflicts of interest and promotes cooperation even between competing certifiers. No one should ever doubt that the kosher certification is a business, a highly competitive business. But it is not just a business. For the rabbis who staff certification agencies, it is a sacred trust.
I can speak directly to that final point.
Geared with a divine mission, those of us who work in the kosher certification world dare not fail or err. We approach our task with yiras shomayim. Our awe of Heaven touches every attitude, decision, response and approach relating to the certification process.
At OU, the world’s largest and most renowned kosher certification agency, kashrut personnel agonize over each and every detail, nuance, and implication of kosher law as it pertains to each specific food product and producer. Only then, with knowledge, humility, and faith, is a decision made and a p’sak issued about how exactly to evaluate a specific ingredient, or kasher a particular piece of equipment.
Or perhaps a plant has erred and so a new evaluation and rekashering is required. Such issues are part of the daily kashrut agenda at every certification agency. Each issue, each product, each decision is confronted with a genuine sense of fear and trembling. Not only do we answer to a Higher Authority but countless consumers rely on our correct decisions in their own pious observance.
So weighty is our responsibility that it is extremely rare for any of the OU kashrut personnel to render a decision without consulting colleagues who match them in years of learning, training, expertise and erudition.
In many cases, they will seek out the invaluable scholarship and world-renowned expertise of OU’s senior halachic consultants Rabbi Yisroel Belsky and Rabbi Hershel Schachter. In these situations they will render the final p’sak, particularly when the question is new or novel. In all instances, the decisions are posted on OU Kosher’s halachic database for future reference and study.
It is worth noting that Dr. Lytton does not devote enough of his time to this critical aspect of the halachic process and review that speaks to something very unique in the kosher certification process. While granting a hechsher is a decision, it is really an agreement to engage in an ongoing process. A relationship is established from the first step in the kosher certification process. When a company applies for OU Kosher certification, it submits its ingredients and sources so that a painstakingly meticulous review of its raw materials can begin even as an “initial inspection” of its facilities is conducted.
At the initial inspection there is a physical assessment of each and every component of production – equipment, processes, use of pareve and dairy ingredients in the plant. Only after this initial inspection and a thorough review of the company’s raw ingredients and sources is an initial report submitted to OU headquarters. From the very outset, a determined, learned and pious team works together to make a determination – the rabbi handling the application, members of the “new company” team, senior halachic consultants and senior management.
How could such vigilance and tenacity fail to result in a better product? It is hard to imagine any governmental certification system willing to engage in such a process.
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An OU hechsher is not so much a “seal of approval” as it is a “seal of guarantee” that an ongoing relationship is being established, a relationship that assures consumers that the producer and product will remain kosher. OU kosher certification means regular, consistent, unscheduled plant visits to verify that everything remains in conformity with the policies and regulations stipulated and outlined in the certification contract signed by the company and the OU.
Certification requires verification. Receiving a kosher certification from the OU is just the first step after a demanding, meticulous process. A kosher certification is not a “gentlemen’s agreement.” It is a part of a process.
More than ten years ago, OU Kosher established a Review Department to revisit certified sites and its plant-specific kosher policies as well as to bring new sets of eyes to the information being sent to us by the rabbinic field representatives. Again, verification. It strains the imagination to think that there could ever be a governmental agency as committed to ongoing, zero-tolerance excellence. Is it any surprise that Dr. Lytton finds kosher certification to be “most remarkable”?
The question remains as to why kosher certification had been such a failure in the past. My sense is that the certification system that existed in the earliest part of the last century was a reflection of a financially impoverished immigrant community that, more than financial means, lacked dynamic spiritual leadership. There were no yeshivas, no day schools, and no seminaries to teach and enlighten the New World’s emerging Jewish community.
The modern Jewish community could not be more different. Likewise the kosher certification system. We are a knowledgeable community intensely committed to observance of every aspect of Jewish life, including kashrut. This community of consumers keeps the kosher certification system honest.
Dr. Lytton observes that, despite its many strengths, the kosher certification system will never be perfect. “Fraud still occurs on rare occasions, and there are cases of lax supervision. But there is no denying that the kosher food industry no longer suffers from the widespread dishonesty and corruption of a century ago.”
Of course it is an imperfect system. After all, while God created a perfect Torah, He created imperfect mortals. We err. We fail. We miss the target and underachieve. But we also strive to improve. To learn and to do better. When rabbinical students study the lengthy, detailed and scholarly tomes of the Shulchan Aruch code of Jewish law explicating all details of kosher law (Yoreh De’ah), they surely note the many chapters codifying how to respond to human error.
Making mistakes is part of the human condition. Acknowledging mistakes and repairing them is a divine imperative.
If the kosher certification process models just that for governmental regulators, it will have accomplished a great mitzvah. And in the process it would confirm a central tenet of Dr. Lytton’s fascinating and enlightening thesis.
About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s vice president of Communications and Marketing.
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