Dealing With Kosher Supervision Agencies

Kosher supervision is taken on by a company to expand its market opportunities. It is a business investment that, like any other investment, should be examined critically. It is appropriate for companies to look carefully at how they select a kosher supervisory agency. The agency's name recognition is only one important consideration. Other questions to be raised include: (1) How responsive is the agency? (2) How willing are the rabbis to work with the company on problem solving? (3) How willing are they to explain their kosher standards and their fee structure? (4) Is the "personal" chemistry right? and finally (5) What are the agency's religious standards and do they meet the company's needs in the marketplace?

One of the hardest issues for the food industry is the existence of so many different kosher supervisory agencies and standards. The trend in the mainstream kosher community today is toward a more stringent standard.

One can generally divide the kosher supervisory agencies into three broad categories. First there are the large organizations that dominate the supervision of larger food companies: the OU (Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations), the OK (Organized Kashruth Laboratories), the Star-K, and the Kof-K—all of which are nationwide and "mainstream." Two of these, the OU and the Star-K are communal organizations: that is, they are part of a larger community religious organization. This provides them with a wide base of support but also means that the organizations are potentially subject to the other priorities and needs of the organization. The Kof-K and the OK are private companies whose only function is to provide kosher supervision. In addition to these national companies, there are smaller private organizations and many local community organizations that provide equivalent religious standards of supervision on a smaller scale. As such, products accepted by any of these mainstream organizations will generally be accepted by all other mainstream organizations. Local organizations may have a bigger stake in the local community; they may be more accessible and easier to work with. Although they often have less technical expertise, the smaller agencies are often backed up by one of the national organizations. For a company that nationally markets, a limitation of using a local kosher certifying agency may be name recognition of their kosher symbol elsewhere in the United States. With the advent of KASHRUS magazine, and its yearly review of symbols, this has become somewhat less of a problem. KASHRUS magazine (Box 204, Brooklyn, NY 11204) does not try to "evaluate" the standards of the various kosher supervisory agencies, but simply "reports" their existence. It is the responsibility of the local congregational rabbi to define his or her standards for the congregation. A remote and lesser-known certification organization may be difficult to recommend.

The second category of kosher supervision includes individual rabbis, generally associated with the "Hassidic" communities. These are often affiliated with the ultraorthodox communities of Williamsburg and Borough Park in Brooklyn, Monsey, New York, and Lakewood, New Jersey. There are special food brands that cater to these communities, oftentimes providing continuous rabbinical supervision rather than the occasional supervision used by the mainstream organizations. The symbols of the kosher supervisory agencies representing these consumers are not as widely recognized beyond these communities as those of the major mainstream agencies in the kosher market. The rabbis will often do special supervisions of products using a facility that is normally under mainstream supervision—often without any changes, but sometimes with special needs for custom production.

The third level of supervision is done by individual rabbis who are more "lenient" than the mainstream standard. Many of these rabbis are Orthodox; some may be Conser vative. Their standards are based on their interpretation of the kosher laws. More lenient standards may cut out some of the "mainstream" and stricter markets. Each company must weigh such issues when deciding about kosher supervision.

Ingredient companies are very much encouraged to use a "mainstream" kosher supervisory agency so that they can sell to as many customers as possible. Unless an ingredient is acceptable to the mainstream, it is almost impossible to gain the benefit of kosher certification.

With respect to interchangeability between kosher supervisory agencies: a system of certification letters is used to provide information among certifying rabbis about products they have approved. A supervising rabbi certifies that a particular plant produces kosher products, or that only products with certain labels or certain codes are kosher under his supervision. Such letters should be renewed each year and should be dated with both a starting and ending date. These letters are the mainstay of how companies establish the kosher status of ingredients as these ingredients move in commerce. Obviously a kosher supervisory agency will only "accept" letters from agencies they consider acceptable. Consumers may also ask to see such letters.

In addition, the kosher symbol of the certifying agency or rabbi usually appears on the packaging. (In some industrial situations, where kosher and nonkosher products are similar, some sort of color coding of products may also be used.) Most of these symbols are "trademarks" that are duly registered. In a few cases, the trademark is not registered, and more than one rabbi has been known to use the same kosher symbol.

With respect to kosher markings on products, two issues need to be highlighted:

1. It is the responsibility of the food company to show its labels to its kosher certifying agency prior to printing to ensure that the labels are marked correctly. This responsibility includes both the agency symbol and the documentation establishing its kosher status (eg, meat, dairy, or pareve). Many agencies currently do not require that "pareve" be marked on products; others do not use the "dairy" marking.

2. The labels for private label products marked with specific agency symbols cannot be moved easily between plants. This is why some companies—both private label and others—use the generic "K," which can continue to be used even if the kosher supervisory agency changes. Increasingly, sophisticated kosher consumers are questioning the use of this generic symbol.

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