by Leonard Sloane
Originally published in The New York Times May 18th, 1975
You don’t have to be Jewish to call on Rabbi Bernard Levy. In fact, each year many non-Jews do call, write or visit with him at his office or theirs.
For Rabbi Levy is president of one of the leading nonprofit organizations in the United States which certify that foods are kosher – or properly prepared in accordance with the Jewish dietary laws. Hundreds of companies making thousands of food products, along with scores of ingredients and packaging manufacturers, have been granted certification.
Rabbi Levy’s group is the Committee for the Furtherance of Torah Observance, whose insignia is the letter “K” inside a circle.
Other symbols and letters, testifying that an Orthodox Rabbi, or group of Rabbis, has found an item to be kosher, can also be seen, usually printed unobtrusively on labels and sometimes mentioned in advertising.
The circle K certification has been given to such products as Sealtest milk, Dr. Pepper soft drinks and Grape-Nut Flakes breakfast cereal.
Some products state that they are kosher, without using any identifying insignia, as do certain restaurants and catering establishments.
Virtually all airlines will provide kosher food, for instance, to customers who request it in advance. Many of these passengers, it has been found are not Jewish, but do prefer kosher meals to the regular airline variety.
When a company calls on Rabbi Levy’s committee, through its OK Kosher Certification, it incurs a charge for the services of the inspecting rabbis. None of the certifying agencies will disclose what the charge is or what gross revenues are, nor are corporations anxious to make their own payments public.
Rabbi Levy observed, however, the cost of certification, he said, are keyed to the frequency of inspection, which could be on a continuous, daily, weekly, monthly or quarterly basis.
Rabbi Levy, a 52-year-old Orthodox Rabbi who was born in the United States and studied in Poland before World War II, has been a “mashgiach” – or “watcher” of food’s kosherness – for 15 years. When he talks about his job, he talks as both a spiritual leader and a man who readily understands what food processing is all about.
“You have to have a thorough knowledge of food technology and food chemistry,” he said about the 40 Rabbis who work for his organization either full-time or part-time. “If you’re not up-to-date on these aspects, you can be most knowledgeable on Jewish law but not qualified to do this work.”
The inspecting Rabbis scrutinize not only components used but also the process by which a product is made. Their aim is to insure purity of supply and they are as likely to check purchasing records or interview employees, as they are to make an “eyeball” inspection.
Some certified products may be manufactured, for example, in a factory that handles only kosher items and relatively few inspections are scheduled. Others may be processed at a location where non-kosher as well as kosher foods are produced, necessitating frequent visits.
The origins, significance and details of “kashruth” – the Hebrew noun from which the adjective kosher is derived – are complex.
There are, however, three general principles with which the Rabbis are concerned: That foods do not contain a mixture of meat and dairy products, that they have been treated according to specific laws – like killing animals with a minimum of pain for example – and that they do not contain ingredients which are considered to be inherently unfit, like pork and shellfish.
Why do companies seek an emblem like the circle K on their products? The major reason is that such an identification gives them a key selling point in reaching the 5.7 million American Jews – particularly the strict observers who simply will not purchase non-kosher items.
Also, many Seventh Day Adventists and other religious groups believe in certain aspects of the Jewish dietary laws and look for the two symbols before buying.
“We believe that there is a certain segment of the population that looks to it as an indication of a quality food,” said William Kittridge, director of quality control of Hunt-Wesson Foods, of the Kosher stamp.
“Without it, one phase of the market is not available to us,” added J.B. Stine, a vice president of Kraft Foods.
Another company that uses the circle K symbol is Carvel, which franchises some 650 ice cream stores all over the nation. “Every store has a visible sign that all products are certified kosher,” said Carl Paley, a vice president, “and from a strictly business point of view, it’s a worthwhile investment.”
If a rabbi inspects a Carvel unit and finds a non-kosher ingredient in the product mix, he informs the corporate management, which dispatches the following to the store owner:
“We have been advised that on a recent inspection of your store there was found an unauthorized product_______________. This is a direct violation of your Dealer’s License Agreement, and it jeopardizes the kosher approval of the entire Carvel chain. This letter is being sent to you pursuant to Paragraph 17 of your Dealer’s License Agreement, giving you 48 hours to correct this violation and give us your written assurance that it will not recur again in the future. We urge you to protect your investment and comply with this request within the prescribed time.”
Some criticism has been raised that the expense of kosher certification – plus the cost of running a plant partially or completely in keeping with the dietary laws – adds to the price of the certified foods paid by all consumers.
The response from marketers of these products is that certification, like advertising, increases sales, lowers the manufacturing cost per unit and thereby reduces prices.
As Richard A. Jacobs – president of the Joseph Jacobs Organization, an advertising agency specializing on the Jewish market put it: “Certification helps companies gain additional business, so it certainly doesn’t increase prices.”
Rabbi Levy, dressed in a dark black suit and sporting a full beard, cuts an imposing figure. He inspects plants that turn out consumer foods or the ingredients that go into them, whether in Europe or Asia, or anywhere in the United States. Much of his time is spent traveling.
The other day, for instance, Rabbi Levy was in Boonton, NJ, inspecting the operations there of PVO International, Inc., a manufacturer of stabilizers and emulsifiers sold to the food trade. PVO uses tallow (a non-kosher animal fat) and vegetable oils as alternate raw materials in certain food additives it makes – and therefore an inspection by a rabbi is required to obtain kosher certification.
What he watched for at this company was that the equipment remained empty for 24 hours after tallow was used, then was filled with boiling water to cleanse it thoroughly. After the water flowed through the entire system, the use of the vegetable oils to comply with kosher certification was allowed.
“Kosher supervision today is rather complicated,” said Rabbi Levy. “We must know the highly secret formulas of synthetic flavorings, as well as who is selling and buying from whom.”
If a company decides to use the kosher designation, it tends to be serious about compliance. In any case, there are Federal and state laws governing the use of the word kosher in food product labeling.
If a food is promoted or advertised as kosher, but is not prepared according the Jewish dietary laws the Federal Government, through the Food and Drug Administration, treats it as a case of mislabeling. The penalty for a first violation is one year in jail and/or $1,000 for each shipment in interstate commerce.
As for New York, a state law declares that all foods represented as kosher must be prepared in accordance with Orthodox Hebrew religious requirements. Otherwise, a misdemeanor has been committed, with a maximum penalty of $500 and a year in jail.
Rabbi Levy, like many of the others involved with the kosher certification programs, feels that the demand for this type of service will increase as more and more companies – both large and small – intensify marketing efforts. How many more companies does he hope to get?
“The blessing only comes if you don’t count,” he replied.