Ask the Expert: Kosher Symbols

What's the difference between the different hashgachot?

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Question: I've noticed that there are a lot of different symbols that indicate something is kosher. An OU, a triangle K, a cRc in a triangle, etc. One of my friends only eats things with some of the symbols, and not others. What's the difference?
--Pam, Austin

expertAnswer:
You're right that there are dozens of different symbols that indicate something is kosher. Each symbol comes from a different organization or rabbi. So when you see an OU on a package, you know that product was certified as kosher by the Orthodox Union. A cRc comes from the Chicago Rabbinical Council. KSA stands for Kosher Supervision of America, and so on. You can look up symbols and their organizations here.

If all products with symbols on them have been certified as kosher by someone, then why do we need so many symbols? Well, because some people only trust certain organizations to do a good job of making sure something is kosher.

To help explain this I consulted with Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Congregation Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel in Chicago. He said that sometimes a rabbi or organization will accept a halakhic (Jewish legal) leniency regarding food that others take issue with.

What's a good example?

"While there have been some lenient opinions over the centuries regarding gelatin,” Rabbi Lopatin said, “current Orthodox practice, at least in the Diaspora, is to not accept gelatin from non-kosher animals. Therefore, supervisions which do accept the leniencies of gelatin from non-kosher animals are not acceptable to (Orthodox) community standards." And once you have an organization that allows for gelatin from a non-kosher animal, the community might be nervous accepting that organization's supervision on any food, even if it doesn't contain gelatin.

Think of it like hiring a babysitter. If you find out that your babysitter has been giving your kids ice cream for dinner, you might decide not to trust that babysitter to be in charge of your kids ever, even if you ensure that there's no ice cream in the house.

Rabbi Lopatin brought up other concerns a community might have: "The second issue might be that while the rabbi giving the supervision might be a great scholar, he might not have the expertise to supervise a complicated system which requires expertise in modern machinery and processing systems. The third issue is that sometimes a supervision is just not seen as rigorous enough in really watching what is going on.  There are some supervisions--local and national--where people have seen first hand that the mashgiach [the person in charge of supervising the facility for its kashrut] is not around and that things are going on that might make the products non-kosher."

Ensuring that a product is kosher is something people take very seriously, so they want to be positive that the people charged with that duty knows what they’re doing, and are present consistently enough to be sure that nothing improper is going on.

There are two more factors that differentiate between the kosher symbols. One is money. In order for a product to be certified kosher, the company has to pay a rabbi or kosher supervision organization to come in and supervise. This can be very expensive, and it's fair to assume that when a company decides which organization they want to bring in to certify their product, they will choose a certification that fits within their budget.

Finally, it's worthwhile to note that all of the kosher certification bodies are competitors with each other, and so it behooves them to maintain firmly that their own hashgacha (supervision) is the most trustworthy.

As you might expect, a rabbi whose brother is the head of a kosher certification body might be inclined to tell his community that his brother's organization is the best one out there. There can (and have been) all kinds of political shenanigans related to kashrut and kosher supervision, but it's difficult to know exactly if and when this is going on. Most people come up with a standard policy about which symbols they'll accept in conjunction with their rabbi and/or community.

All this talk of food supervision is making me hungry. I think it's high time that I supervise the making of some cookies…

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