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.