When the Maccabees reclaimed the Beis HaMikdash from the Greeks, one of the most important tasks they had was to light the menorah. In order to do so, the Maccabees had to find a bottle of oil with the seal of the Kohen Godol still intact. It was essential that the oil was pure olive oil with the seal.
Today, every Jewish home is considered a Beis HaMikdash Me’at (a miniature sanctuary). Any food we bring into our homes should be kosher and processed on kosher equipment. In addition, processed food product that we bring into our homes may need to be sealed with a kosher symbol, which remains intact until we break the seal ourselves.
Kosher certification can be broken down into a two-part process – first, the product has to be produced with kosher ingredients on kosher equipment; and, second, the product has to be marked with a kosher symbol to show consumers that the product is kosher certified and has not been tampered with. If the kosher symbol is missing, or the package is not factory-sealed, then the consumer must assume the product has been altered and may not still be kosher. Sometimes, stores repack bulk kosher items without a mashgiach present or authorization from the certifying agency and continue to use the original kosher certificate to claim the repackaged item is kosher certified. Once an item is opened, one does not have the authority to use the kosher symbol, since the original kosher organization does not oversee the repacking. In addition, some non-kosher vendors buy kosher products and may reheat them or resell them alongside non-kosher food items and still claim the food is kosher under the original certification!
The sample cases below are examples of the kosher symbol as merely an indicator and not a seal. At the OK, the kosher symbol is treated as a seal of approval, with the kosher symbol serving as one in a series of many safeguards, which ensure that the products you buy are indeed kosher.
The OK only gives its certification and allows a company to display the OK symbol if the following conditions are met:
• A signed contract between the OK and the company that requires the company to adhere to all kosher laws and provides legal consequences if the contract is breeched.
• A database of all ingredients, products and product formulae that are approved as kosher for the facility. Each product approved by the OK is assigned a seven-letter kosher identification code (“K-ID”) that is linked to the kosher certificate. As a general rule, anyone can request a K-ID from a certified company and view the kosher certificate at www.ok.org. (Due to confidentiality, some certificates are not available online.)
• Many facilities have a label book with a copy of each label as it is displayed on the product. The mashgiach periodically reviews the book to ensure accuracy. This is in addition to having the company send the OK a copy of labels for review before printing.
• Certain industrial facilities have additional restrictions such as a kosher stamp, signature or a kosher letter accompanying the product. We also record the lot number or assign a lot number to be printed on the product to track what day and hour the product was produced.
• Each facility is assigned a mashgiach who oversees the plant for kosher compliance. Depending on the complexity of the plant, the OK determines how often the mashgiach visits; some facilities require full time mashgichim. The assigned mashgiach reviews all receiving and production log forms. He also fills out an inspection report at each visit, which gets processed and reviewed by the Rabbinic Coordinator, who is equipped to handle any changes or issues.
• Identifying information on removable stickers. The OK does not allow a company to print a generic “OK” sticker to apply to the product label. The sticker must display the company name and product name, to ensure that it cannot be affixed on another product. The OK sometimes uses holographic stickers, which are extremely difficult to counterfeit. The sticker contains the OK logo, an ID number and a special holographic design to ensure the highest level of kosher security.
Consumers are an integral part of the kosher system. As illustrated above, many times it is the consumer that notifies the OK when someone is improperly displaying the OK symbol. To further understand your role as a consumer, it is important for you to understand how to read a kosher symbol and to verify its authenticity.
• Each kosher certified product is assigned a list of restrictions by the certification agency, which is displayed on the kosher certificate. Some products just require the company name to be displayed, some require a kosher symbol as well, some even require a kosher stamp, kosher tape, mashgiach signature or kosher letter accompanying the product. The kosher certificate for every product contains the list of its particular restrictions.
• Certain items have additional kosher indicators displayed on the packaging. For example, once, I was inspecting packages of tilapia. I saw that under the kosher symbol was printed (in small letters) “only kosher when patch of skin is displayed”. There was no patch of skin on the fish, so it could not be considered kosher.
• Meat, fish and wine require two simanim (signs) indicating their kosher status, such as a symbol and plumba (metal tag affixed to the meat), or a symbol and skin tag (for fish). The requirement for two seals makes it more difficult for someone to fraudulently claim a product is kosher. In the case of meat, a fraud may be able to print a kosher symbol on the label, but the meat would be missing the second sign, often a plumba.
• One should closely examine any designations displayed alongside the kosher symbol, including: dairy, meat, Cholov Yisroel, Yoshon, Pas Yisroel, fish, kosher for Passover etc. If a kosher designation is not displayed, a designation cannot be assumed. For example, when something is labeled “dairy,” it must be considered Cholov Stam unless the words Cholov Yisroel are printed on the packaging. The same applies to Pas Yisroel. Products are only Pas Yisroel if it is clearly written on the product.
• Often a kosher certification is issued only for particular products in a facility, not to the entire facility. This is common in stores that sell repackaged bulk items with their own label, as well as sell other items in their original packaging. The hechsher may only certify the repacked items, not items that are sold in their original packaging. One should always check the kosher certificate to ensure the individual product is on the certificate.
• All products with kosher certification should be sealed. Once they are opened, one cannot be assured that the container was not reused for a non-kosher product, or that a non-kosher ingredient was not mixed in. This holds true for stores that repackage products, mishloach manos gift baskets and candies sold loosely in machines.
The Mishna says that the world stand on three things and the same holds true in the world of kashrus. Expert rabbonim, a tight kashrus protocol, and the watchful eye of the consumer ensure that kosher products remain kosher from the moment of production until they are served at your table.
A concerned consumer once called OK Kosher Certification regarding baked goods that were displayed with a small sign claiming the OK certified the items. However the store itself was not kosher certified. I was sent to investigate. When I arrived, I indeed saw a sign advertising that the OK certified the baked goods. I asked the owner to show me the kosher certificate for the baked goods. He handed me a kosher letter certifying the bakery where he bought the baked goods. I thought to myself, “How are we to know that he is buying baked goods from this vendor, and only from this vendor? How are we to know he did not process them further? He has no obligation to the OK to uphold the standard of kosher that we require.” I advised him that if he continues to display this sign, we will immediately take legal action to protect the kosher consumer and inform the public that this is an unauthorized kosher claim. He took down the sign and the OK continues to monitor this location to make sure that the OK symbol is not erroneously displayed.
Another startling incident occurred when consumers alerted the OK that a hot dog stand in Brooklyn was selling knishes and claiming the OK certified them as kosher. I was immediately dispatched to this location. When I arrived I was shocked to see a cart filled with items as far from kosher as you can get: ham and cheese, crab slammers, etc. First, I introduced myself, without letting them know I worked for the OK, so that I would be able to get all the facts straight. The worker explained to me that they were getting kosher knishes sealed in a box, and all they were doing was slicing them, filling them with ketchup and mustard (and G-d knows what else), then warming them up (on the same equipment as non-kosher) to sell to the customers. I immediately got a hold of the owner and explained the situation to him. He answered innocently, “I especially kept the original box to show the consumer that the knishes were kosher.”
There is another case with a well-known producer of Cholov Yisroel cheese (not certified by the OK). The company used stickers to affix a kosher symbol to the individual cheese packets. It was later discovered that someone secretly removed the stickers from the kosher cheese and affixed them on non-kosher cheeses to pass them off as kosher. In light of this incident, the company was advised to change the way it labeled the products with the kosher symbol. The OK requires all of its certified companies to print the kosher symbol either directly on the plastic packaging and/or on stickers that cannot be removed.”
Companies often use the “K” symbol to indicate that they consider their product kosher. In contrast to the symbol of a kosher certification agency, which is trademarked to prevent fraud, the letter “K” is only a letter of the alphabet, not a distinct symbol, so it cannot be trademarked. If a company fraudulently uses a trademarked kosher symbol, the owner of the trademark may start legal proceedings for trademark infringement, but there is no recourse for a company printing the letter “K” on its product to indicate kosher status, therefore the letter “K” has no validity to indicate kosher supervision. (Some states require a rabbi to stand behind a letter “K,” but that is not the universal practice.)