Chinese Takeout in the New Yorker

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Last week the New Yorker published a longish piece (registration required) about Orthodox rabbis who criss-cross China certifying that various food manufacturing companies are adhering by all the rules of kashrut. It’s a fascinating little piece about what it really means to be a mashgiach, or a person who checks that food is kosher.Here’s a part that caught my eye:

How does the process of kosher certification inspection work? Here’s a composite scenario, as I witnessed it.
The Schmooze: This takes place in the conference room, which is perhaps adorned with a wood-and-brass captain’s wheel from a ship. On the wall, there might be a framed certificate for “High Tech Enterprise 2006″ or a large painted sign with an adage in English. “Only Faulty Product, No Captious Customer” and “People and Products Working Together” were two that I saw. Among those in attendance could be a plant supervisor, an engineer, an export manager, a sales representative, and a factory-hired translator. There is always a lot of chuckling–about what, I don’t think anyone present ever has a clue. Finally, the mashgiach turns on his laptop, signaling that it is time for…
The Review of the Raw Materials… More

(Emphasis mine.)

What struck me is this whole issue of everyone laughing for no reason, a point that is picked up again later in the article. To me, that’s a little microcosm of everything that’s going on in the kashrut industry. Everyone is smiling and chuckling and looking jolly and pious, but no one really knows what’s happening.

A product gets an OU on it when the company that makes it pays a significant amount of money to have a rabbi (like the ones in this article) come and inspect the facilities that produce the food. That means that the only person who really knows what goes into our food is these mashgichim. But we all sit around patting each other and ourselves on the back for being so pious, even though the food we eat has been produced and processed thousands of miles away. We’re paying someone else to be responsible for us.

This is not a bad idea in principle, but I think it has led too many of us in the Jewish community to assume that there’s something safer or better about kosher, or even that certified kosher food really is kosher. It might not be.

Bottom line: we are all responsible for being our own mashgichim. We need to be way more aware of where our food is coming from and what goes in it. From a kashrut perspective, but also from a health and ecological perspective. When it’s time to check if something is legit or not, we shouldn’t be grinning like fools–we should get down to business.

Posted on January 6, 2009

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