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.
About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s vice president of Communications and Marketing.
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