Today, more and more consumers are careful to look for a kosher symbol, such as the familiar OK of OK Kosher Certification, when they buy packaged foods. The mark of a reliable supervising agency is the consumer’s assurance that the product contains only kosher ingredients, processed according to the Torah’s standards. But what assures the agency that the product is kosher?
Kosher supervision is just what its name implies: overseeing a food product’s manufacture to make sure that both ingredients and processing conform to the kosher code. Once, food manufacture was simpler and more localized; the market for kosher products was smaller and more dependent on local companies than it is today. Back then, the supervising rabbi could research every ingredient himself and personally vouch for the kosher status of each component in the products that left the factory under his watchful eye.
Now, however, we live in an increasingly interconnected world. Major corporations and small manufacturers produce food products-raw foods, ingredients, flavorings, and food colorings as well as finished consumer goods-that are shipped across the globe. Today, you can walk into your local supermarket or specialty store and buy foods from all over the world; at the same time, the standard brand items on every shelf may contain ingredients produced a continent-or even a hemisphere-away from the plant that packaged the product. And a modern manufacturing facility may use dozens, hundreds, even thousands of distinct ingredients.
Obviously, the local supervising rabbi can no longer keep track independently of every component in the products under his supervision. Contemporary kosher supervision demands comprehensive, up-to-date knowledge from all over the world. For many years now, supervising agencies and rabbis have issued official letters of certification-Kosher Certificates-for each ingredient that is produced under their supervision.
Just as consumers rely on kosher symbols, the supervising agency relies on Kosher Certificates to verify the kosher status of the ingredients that are used in the factories they oversee. To grant kosher certification, we need certificates for any component whose status might be in question, for even one ingredient can render a product unkosher.
How do we verify that, with the passage of time, there has been no change in the kosher status of the thousands of ingredients found in a major food production plant? The standard practice is that Kosher Certificates are renewed once a year. Certainly, this can be a taxing process: At the OK, for example, we demand that the producer collect up-to-date certificates for every one of its ingredients. In order to guarantee that products under our supervision are unequivocally kosher, we must have clear and current information on every component.
Difficult as this is, the OK spares neither effort nor expense to ensure that our information is as accurate and up-to-date as possible, at the same time easing the burden on our clients wherever we can. Our comprehensive computerized database cross-references all of the companies under our supervision, and we stagger our requests to allow one producer to benefit from the information submitted by another. Once we establish the current kosher standing of any ingredient, its status is updated throughout our system, saving everyone tremendous amounts of time, energy, and money.
At the OK, we are proud of the rigorous and efficient system we have developed to serve both client and consumer. Thankfully, many others join us in the immense task of spreading kosher supervision throughout the international food industry, but it seems that we are nearly alone in applying the strict standards that we work so hard to maintain. More than once we have discovered that other supervising agencies, perhaps afraid to burden their clients, have been lax in demanding annually updated certificates.
The details may be small, but the effects can be catastrophic: One missed ingredient, after all, can undermine the kosher status of a product used by thousands, even millions of consumers. In one recent example, we discovered that a well-known New York cheese producer-certified as Cholov Yisroel (dairy prepared under Jewish supervision) by two kosher agencies-for years used non-Cholov Yisroel starter cultures, while the certifiers remained unaware of the true status of the ingredient, as they never requested its updated certificate.
In our interconnected world, every agency is dependent on every other, and each one takes indirect responsibility for the others’ kosher standards. We do everything we can to catch the mistakes in other agencies’ supervision based on expired certificates. But for a body to be in optimal condition, every limb must be healthy; thus, we at the OK appeal to all our colleagues to “get with the program” in shaping up the kosher industry to rely only on up-to-date Kosher Certificates.