Should I Eat This?

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As any rabbi working in kashrus will easily attest, one of the most frequently asked questions we get is, “Is this hechsher acceptable?” Or, “Can I eat this product?” “Can I eat in this restaurant?” “Do we rely on this hechsher?”

Given the hundreds of different hechsherim out there, it is no easy task to decide on which ones to rely. While there are published lists available online informing consumers about reliable hechsherim, relying on a list can be an oversimplification of an otherwise complex subject. While it is convenient to arrange the scores of hechsherim into two neat columns, acceptable and not acceptable, such an approach does not always work in reality. Kashrus is far too nuanced and layered for such a simple approach to do it justice.

I was recently at the bris of a friend’s newborn son. The bris was catered by a popular local caterer who had an “acceptable” hechsher. I noticed many people simply eating everything without asking any questions. I approached a number of them and asked whether they were aware that the “acceptable” hechsher certifying this caterer did not require canned tuna to have a mashgiach temidi. Needless to say, these people were genuinely surprised and promptly discontinued the consumption of their tuna bagels.

Similarly, I was recently talking to someone and he was telling me about a certain restaurant he ate in and how good it was. He was, again, utterly shocked when I told him that to my knowledge that restaurant, with its “acceptable” hechsher uses baked goods that are not Pas Yisroel.

These mistakes happen because we have adopted an approach to kashrus that is far too simple. We either consider it acceptable, in which case we eat everything without any further thought or we consider it unacceptable in which case we don’t eat it at all.

To properly understand what our approach to kashrus should be, let us first understand how a typical kashrus agency works and what would make one either acceptable or unacceptable.

There are 3 main components to a hechsher:
• The Rav Hamachshir, or in a larger agency a Vaad HaKashrus.
• The standards the agency claims to uphold.
• The ground game and how they run their day to day operations.

The Rav Hamachshir/Vaad HaKashrus is the rabbi (or team of rabbis), along with a Posek (often from outside the agency), who are responsible for all of the Halachic decisions and for setting the policies and standards of the kashrus agency. These rabbis must be known to be experts in Halacha and Yarei Shomayim and have a reputation for following Shulchan Oruch without compromise or shortcuts. If a hechsher does not have such a rabbi/vaad standing at its head, then obviously it is not going to be worth much and should be treated as wholly unacceptable.

Every kashrus agency has standards. Examples of standards are: Cholov Yisroel (including whether they kasher between Cholov Yisroel and Cholov Stam), Pas Yisroel, mashgiach temidi, processes used for checking produce for insects, Glatt/Beis Yosef, and kashering requirements, techniques and methods. Different hechsherim have different policies and standards when it comes to these areas. These are standards that they should be transparent and upfront about. The consumer then, knowing exactly what standard the hechsher is claiming to uphold, can decide whether or not they wish to consume the food.

It should be mentioned that having different standards does not make a hechsher unreliable. For example, if one eats only Cholov Yisroel, a hechsher that also certifies Cholov Stam is not “unreliable”; the Cholov Stam product just does not meet your family’s kashrus standards.

The ground game. For a kashrus agency to be reliable it’s not enough to have the most prominent Posek and to claim the high standards. There needs to be Rabbinic Coordinators overseeing each company and mashgiach, and a solid plan and system for implementation and follow up. This includes hiring and training competent mashgichim, making frequent visits and inspections, manpower, technology to monitor and track all the different ingredients and products they certify, and they must address problems that occur in a timely and thorough manner. If any of these are lacking, the hechsher cannot be deemed acceptable.

One of our restaurants asked to use a certain item. I did some research on the product and realized right away that while the rabbi certifying the item was knowledgeable in Halacha, the ground game was not properly implemented. He thought someone was visiting the plant where the item was made and that person thought it was the rabbi himself who did the inspections! Of course we could not accept the product.

So how do I make a decision?
An acceptable hechsher must have a reliable Rav HaMachshir/Vaad HaKashrus and a solid ground game. These two areas are black and white and can be pretty easily researched. This is the primary criteria on which the lists of acceptable vs. unacceptable hechsherim are based.

The second point, the standards, is a much more complex and nuanced one and, unfortunately, this information is not always so readily known and available.

This is the part where we, the consumer, must assume responsibility. When deciding whether we will purchase an item in the store, or eat at a restaurant or event, we need to ask ourselves whether we truly know the standards upheld by this hechsher and whether those standards are aligned with our own. When we blindly eat anything because it has a “good hechsher” we are not being true to ourselves.

We might decide that for one product we will accept a certain hechsher and for another we won’t. This, I believe, is the more correct and honest approach to kashrus. It cannot be simply that we do or don’t accept a hechsher, rather it should be product by product, item by item.

When it comes to dining out, either at a restaurant or a simcha, there is no reason to accept a lower standard than what we keep in our own home. We all have standards to which we adhere in our own kitchens, usually a combination of what we learned from our parents, our community minhagim, and what we’ve heard from our personal Rav.

The first step is to know and understand your personal kashrus standards. The second step is to educate yourself and find out before you eat in a restaurant whether or not the kashrus there meets your standards. You can ask the mashgiach working there or call the agency’s office; either way, we need to make it our responsibility to investigate and educate ourselves about the nuances of the kashrus before eating.

How do I know what questions to ask?
What follows is a list of questions you might want to ask when deciding whether or not to eat. This is by no means a complete list but some important general points to get us thinking.

Is it Glatt? Is it Beis Yosef? Is it Chassidishe Shechita? Do they kasher liver or only buy pre-kashered? Split chickens?

Do they source their fish from companies that have Hashgacha Temidis? Does the fish come in with the skin still on? If the fish comes in already filleted, is it thoroughly rinsed before being used? Do they require hashgacha temidis on canned tuna?

• Is there a mashgiach temidi or only unannounced inspections?
• What kind of training did the mashgiach get?
• Does anyone other than the mashgiach have the keys? Who?
• What is the standard and procedure for hafrashas challah?
• What is the standard and procedure for checking vegetables?
• What is their standard for kashering keilim? At what temperature?
• What is their standard for tevilas keilim?
• Are they careful about linas layla (not leaving raw cut onions and garlic or cracked raw eggs overnight)?
• Are they careful about chodosh?
• Are they strict about Bishul Yisroel Beis Yosef?
• Are all baked goods Pas Yisroel?
• Is all the dairy Cholov Yisroel?
• How is Bishul Yisroel being ensured?
• What secondary hechsherim do they rely on?
• What is their policy for alcoholic beverages?