Kosher food certification has come a long way in the past one hundred years (see my earlier posts on the Baff Murder and the L.A. kosher meat scandal). Consumer vigilance has been a key factor in improving the reliability of kosher certification. Of the estimated 12 million American consumers who buy kosher products because they are certified kosher, 8% are religious Jews who eat only kosher food. This core of religiously observant consumers is highly motivated to monitor the reliability of kosher certification. They call agency hotlines to report improperly labeled products—for example, products with a pareve (indicating the absence of any dairy products) label that nonetheless list dairy ingredients on their packages, packages with agency symbols that appear to be counterfeit, or items that contain ingredients that the consumers suspect are not kosher.
The role of active consumers in helping agencies monitor food companies is illustrated by the story of an Orthodox Union (OU)-certified company that made cookies-and-cream ice cream with cookie pieces in it. One day, the company notified OU executive rabbinic coordinator Rabbi Yaakov Luban that it had received a new account from a client who wanted cookies-and-cream ice cream made with real Oreos, which at the time were made with lard and were therefore not kosher. The company promised to keep the Oreo cookies-and-cream production separate from the kosher production, and the OU, after much deliberation, allowed the arrangement.
Several months later, a kosher consumer called the OU and reported that while eating OU-certified cookies-and-cream ice cream she discovered Oreo cookie pieces in it. As a religious kosher consumer, she knew that Oreos were not kosher certified. Luban went to the company and requested ten boxes of cookies-and-cream ice cream, took them back to the OU offices, and put them under the faucet to melt off the ice cream, whereupon he discovered Oreo cookie pieces in all ten boxes.
When the OU confronted the company, the manager explained that the account for the Oreo cookies-and-cream ice cream had been cancelled after the company had purchased $25,000 worth of Oreos with a relatively short expiration date. After attempting to find a new client for them, the company decided to use the Oreos in the kosher production.
The OU notified the company that it was terminating the certification. The company owner called OU rabbinic administrator Rabbi Menachem Genack in a panic and explained that he had just acquired the company a few weeks prior for $25 million and had been unaware of the wrongdoing. He explained that without OU certification, the company would be worthless since its private-label business depended on kosher certification. The owner offered to fire the entire staff and start over if the OU would maintain its certification. The OU agreed to continue certification if the owner fired the entire staff and paid for constant supervision to oversee production. The owner eagerly accepted this arrangement.
The consumer vigilance demonstrated by this story provides a much needed layer of additional oversight that strengthens the reliability of kosher supervision.
This past March, the owner of Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market, Los Angeles’s largest purveyor of kosher meat, was discovered smuggling repackaged meat of unknown provenance through the back door of his butcher shop. The mashgiach (kosher supervisor), had unlocked the door for deliveries and then, against kosher protocol, left the premises to attend to personal business, leaving the market unsupervised. Erupting the day before the start of the Passover holiday, the scandal cast doubt on the status of thousands of briskets roasting in ovens throughout the city. An emergency council of rabbinic authorities held just in time for Passover seder that consumers could presume that meat previously purchased from Doheny was kosher.
The Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), which provided supervision to Doheny’s came under fire for the misfeasance of its mashgiach.
As a result of the scandal, the RCC’s reputation suffered. Several restaurants under RCC supervision switched to a rival certification agency, Kehilla Kosher. To stem the damage, the RCC called in the nation’s largest kosher certifier, the Orthodox Union (OU), to audit its supervision at three L.A. restaurants and reassure the public of its reliability. According to coverage by L.A.’s Jewish Journal:
Rabbi Moshe Elefant, OU chief operating officer for kashrut, said that since his New York-based agency got involved in April, he has visited Los Angeles once and [OU executive rabbinic coordinator Rabbi Yaakov] Luban has visited twice. The OU is the largest kosher certifying agency in the country, but its policy is to leave supervision of local kosher businesses in the hands of local boards of rabbis. In this case, Elefant said, the OU’s intent is to support the RCC, not to supplant it. “To a degree, we’re competitors,” he said. “But as much as we’re competitors, we all understand that we have a higher mission here, and we’re happy to learn from each other.”
Additionally, the RCC asked the Association of Kashrus Organizations (AKO), the national trade association for kosher certifiers, to promulgate a set of standards for all kosher certifiers in Los Angeles.
It now appears that Doheny may reopen under new ownership with RCC supervision.
Although there are occasional scandals today, kosher meat certification has come a long way since the early 1900s when it was estimated that somewhere between 40% and 65% of the meat sold as kosher in New York City was nonkosher. The Doheny scandal illustrates several features of kosher certification that help to account for its improved reliability. Continue reading
The Toronto Star recently reported that several firebombings of kosher restaurants in Quebec may not be the work of anti-Semites but rather part of “a kosher restaurant war in the predominantly Jewish west-end neighborhood of Hampstead.” The Star described the latest bombing in a June 15 article:
Around closing time last weekend two men walked into Montreal’s Chops Resto-Bar, tossed a flaming Molotov cocktail toward the bar and escaped on foot, though not before a security camera picked them up.
The damage was limited to a scorched section of the restaurant’s wall and shock among the 20-odd diners wrapping up their meal shortly after midnight Saturday. But there was clearly something nefarious at play. This was the third time since 2011 that Chops, a kosher establishment that serves Asian fusion cuisine, had been targeted with a flaming bottle.
While shocking, this kind of violence is not new in the kosher world.
In one of the most notorious cases, in 1906, a group of New York City poultry distributors organized the Live Poultry Commission Merchants’ Protective Association, which fixed wholesale prices for kosher poultry and forced poultry retailers to buy exclusively from the association. The association punished retailers who refused to cooperate by establishing competing stores that sold at lower prices.
Thirteen association members were ultimately convicted of illegal price-fixing in 1911 based on the testimony of Bernard (Baruch) Baff, a poultry retailer. Baff’s horse and chickens were subsequently poisoned, his summer cottage and one of his stores were bombed, and he was gunned down in 1914 in the Washington Market by unknown assailants, who fled in a getaway car.
The Baff murder remained unsolved for several years, during which time suspicions focused on the poultry distributors. As it turned out, the murder was paid for by a group of one hundred poultry retailers who resented Baff’s dominance in the retail poultry trade, which he achieved by dealing directly with poultry farmers, obtaining a fleet of trucks, and operating his own slaughtering operations—thereby cutting out middlemen and allowing him to charge lower prices than his competitors.
While kosher food certification today is hardly a hotbed of extortion rackets and drive-by shootings, recent events in Quebec hark back to a darker era in the history of kosher corruption.