To whom is the kashrus agency responsible? It seems like a strange question. Of course, we are obligated first and foremost to Hashem! The core of a kashrus agency’s responsibility is to ensure that all the products under its certification are 100% kosher. As we delve into this matter, we find that a kashrus agency actually has a very complicated balance of responsibilities. The agency is accountable to Hashem, but it also has responsibilities towards the consumer public, the certified companies, and, finally, to itself and its reputation.
A kashrus agency’s responsibility toward the consumer public is a given. The agency is providing a service to kosher consumers and the consumer relies on the kosher supervision when purchasing products for oneself and one’s family. It goes without saying that the kashrus agency has an obligation to disclose its kashrus standards and alert the consumer when there is a kashrus issue.
The kashrus agency’s obligation to the certified company is multi-faceted. (Of course, we are not discussing a company who would like to “just” receive certification with the least hassle. Nor are we discussing an agency wanting to provide certification with the least effort on their part.) The agency must provide the best possible kashrus certification, because that is what one is contracted for. In addition, the agency has to provide proper customer service to the company. This includes answering questions and submissions in a timely manner, problem-solving, providing competent, professional mashgichim, providing proper documentation, and so on. The kashrus agency also has a responsibility to back up the company when false allegations are made about the company’s kashrus status. When such slander occurs, it is imperative that the certified company can rely on the backing of its kashrus agency and its efforts to preserve the company’s reputation.
In addition to balancing responsibilities towards consumers and certified companies, a kashrus agency has an obligation to uphold its reputation and the reputation of its Rav HaMachshir, as well. An integral part of kashrus is the reputation of the kashrus agency. All companies want an agency that has a sterling reputation and is known for a high level of kosher supervision in order to market their product to the largest group of kosher consumers. Kashrus agencies are acutely aware of this and work diligently to protect their reputations. Consumers also benefit from the agency’s efforts to uphold a good reputation, because they are ensured that the kashrus agency will do its best to provide the most stringent kosher certification.
What happens when there seems to be a conflict between an agency’s obligations to Hashem, consumers, the certified company, and itself? It is safe to assume that a reputable kashrus agency’s obligation to Hashem, to follow halacha, remains steadfast, no matter what the situation. But what happens when there is conflict between the other obligations? On one hand, a kashrus agency is hired by a certified company and feels some sort of loyalty to the company. On the other hand, the agency has a responsibility to the consumer who relies on the kosher symbol when purchasing products.
What happens if the certified company is found with a questionable ingredient, or even G-d forbid, a non-kosher ingredient in one of the certified products? Many companies would like to keep the mishap under wraps, but consumers want (and deserve) to be notified that there is a problem with a product. To avoid an unpleasant dilemma in such a situation, the OK has a clause in the certification contract that requires the company to publicize this information or reimburse the kashrus agency for such a notification.
These situations do happen and someone has to take responsibility when it does. Does the responsibility for kosher errors fall on the certified company, or on the kashrus agency? If the company blatantly fooled the agency, the answer is simple. But, what happens when there is a misunderstanding? What if the company claims that they were authorized to use the ingredient? The kashrus agency knows that if a mistake on behalf of the agency is publicized it may affect the agency’s reputation.
In such a situation, to whom does the agency have primary responsibility? To itself? To the certified company? When a ship is sinking, it is well known that the last person to leave the ship is the captain. Getting his crew and passengers to safety is his responsibility.
In his later years, my father, Rabbi Berel Levy ob”m, worked intensively for the Lubavitcher Rebbe ztz”l in Russia. One of the burning issues for Russian Jews at the time was trying to escape Communist Russia. Since they were Chassidim, many people would request that my father ask the Rebbe to grant them permission to leave.
The Rebbe answered my father with the following story. A political official in Israel came to the Rebbe and boasted that he was taking all of the rabbis, shochtim and teachers out of Morocco and bringing them on aliyah. The Rebbe said, “Gevald! When the Nazis ym”s came into a city the first people they would kill were the rabbonim, shochtim and melamdim.” The Rebbe said, “How can you take these people first and leave the rest behind?” Therefore, he concluded those who did not have problems with the authorities must stay behind in order to help the people there.
The message is quite clear. As a Rav HaMachshir, you are the last one you should think about. The agency’s responsibility is first to Hashem, then to the consumer, the company, and lastly to itself.
Last Pesach we had an issue where a shaila came up on cocoa that we certified along with another Rav HaMachshir. At the OK, we are proud that we did not attempt to cover up the issue and blame the certified company. Rather, we showed complete transparency to the consumer public and did not try to place fault on the company. There was actually no shaila found, but the OK tested the cocoa anyway and found that there was no issue.
At the OK, we always try our best to learn from the past. Even though we still stand behind what we certified last year, there is a saying that “good has no boundaries”. Whatever one does, there is always room for improvement.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe says that during the month of Elul, which is the month of introspection, even a tzaddik (a righteous person) can do teshuva (return). When one does teshuva one elevates oneself, and achieves a higher level. Since we are all a part of Hashem, a chelek Elokai mi’ma’al mamash, even a tzaddik can bring himself to a higher level. One can always find a better way to do things and with that in mind, as we proceed toward the New Year, we have already undertaken methods to improve on the past years and continue on our never-ending quest to improve kashrus. May our diligence in upholding high standards in the area of kashrus, and in halacha in general, help to bring the immediate Redemption and may we all be written in the Book of Life.