For thousands of years of Jewish life, the options for kosher food were necessarily limited to what was produced locally. People knew their town’s shochet and baker personally and could rely on these close relationships. Today, however, the lifestyle of observant Jews as it relates to food is very different from what it was at any other point in Jewish history.
I can remember a time when people who kept kosher had a simple diet. If a young person today would go back in time even forty years, he would never believe how much more basic the kosher options were. The kosher consumer’s level of expectation has changed dramatically in recent decades. Fortunately, the community as a whole has very high standards of kashrus, but on the other hand, it now has equally high expectations of what we want to eat.
OU Kosher has created a sophisticated enterprise to ensure that there will be reliably kosher food easily available across North America and even worldwide. We run a huge operation, certifying more than 14,000 facilities in all fifty US states and in 106 other countries. We’re proud of the service we provide to the community, and we stand behind our supervision. After the costs of salaries and overhead are deducted, all profit is directly invested in the OU’s nationwide youth and community programs, such as NCSY and Yachad. Since no one is gaining personally, we have no problem saying no to a company if it cannot meet our requirements 100 percent. That’s something that makes the OU stand out from most other kosher certifiers.
At this time of year, it’s worthwhile for the community to have an appreciation of what’s involved in certifying the kosher for Passover food they will be enjoying. We require full-time supervision of any food production bearing an OU-P. Months and months before Pesach, our rabbinic field representatives travel to many remote locations, away from their families for weeks at a time, all to ensure that kosher consumers have the food they need and have come to expect.
It can also be valuable for kosher consumers to realize that while the goal of OU Kosher is to make sure there are more and more Pesach products available—because we know that’s what people want—our own high standards can sometimes work against us. We used to see packages that were labeled “Kosher for Passover and Year Round.” This simplified things for companies, allowing them to print one label and perform one production run. Nowadays, companies don’t put that on the package anymore, because consumers don’t want to buy an item with that label after Pesach since they perceive that it is “old.” Unfortunately, if manufacturers are left with stock that becomes worthless the day after Passover, they aren’t going to make that product at all the following year.
With the continuous growth of the kosher food market, it is imperative for the kosher consumer to stay informed about kashrus and take an active role in its observance. Too often, people assume “it’s the rabbi’s responsibility” or “the mashgiach is paying attention, so I don’t have to.” But kashrus is G-d’s diet, and each one of us must do due diligence to follow that diet as carefully as we can.
To illustrate how important this is, there was a case of a woman who bought twenty-four rolls of frozen gefilte fish from a Pesach store. Only after cooking them did she notice that the package wasn’t marked kosher for Pesach as she had assumed it was. Unfortunately, it was all chametz. So there she was, right before Pesach, with pots and pans that had become chametzdik and no fish to serve to her many guests. What a headache, which could easily have been avoided by carefully checking the label beforehand. We do tremendous work certifying products, but we cannot send a mashgiach along for every customer. People need to pay attention.
In this day and age, kashrus is a highly complex business, and reading labels just doesn’t tell the whole story.
At OU Kosher, we field many thousands of calls annually with kashrus-related questions. The volume of calls increases significantly as people prepare for Pesach, and we have a team of rabbis dedicated to answering these questions. The most common question we get is whether a particular product needs to be certified kosher for Pesach. In many cases, the person calling has a specific need for that product—for a baby or for someone who is unwell, for example. The team at OU Kosher will do the research to understand what the potential issues are with the ingredients. For example, if the item contains kitniyot, there can be room for leniency for Ashkenazim if it’s for a child or for an adult who’s unwell.
However, at other times, it seems the person is asking because he simply isn’t willing to do without the product, which is not the attitude of someone who takes responsibility for his own kashrus observance. Some consumers will read the ingredient list on a product that is kosher year round, and finding nothing they think should be problematic, they call to ask if they can use it on Pesach. But there are many issues regarding what a product is made of, and how it is made, that the consumer does not know.
Along the same lines, we often hear of people assuming that an OU-D label on a product means only that it was manufactured on dairy equipment and they can go ahead and enjoy the food on the assumption that it’s really pareve. But they could be making a serious kashrus error because they are not aware that a machine can impart its dairy status to a product, or that the ingredients may include flavors that could be dairy. We hear similar stories of consumers assuming that fruit juice doesn’t need to have a hechsher because they don’t realize that it could include grape juice, which brings with it a whole host of issues. In this day and age, kashrus is a highly complex business, and reading labels just doesn’t tell the whole story.
In a different type of scenario, we have heard several stories recently of complicated kashrus issues that have come up at fundraisers or parlor meetings. In some large frum communities, such events are held several times a week, so in order to attract attendance, everyone is trying to do something different—to serve something special, to stand out from the crowd. In one instance, the host of a melaveh malkah saw the caterer unloading sushi for his event right after Shabbos, and it looked very fresh. Fortunately, he was paying attention and asked when it had been made. The caterer told him he had non-Jews come to his facility on Shabbos to prepare it. There are so many issues with that—from the possibility of bishul akum [cooking by a non-Jew], to not having a mashgiach present to check the type of fish, et cetera. Simply put, the sushi being delivered by this kosher caterer was not reliably kosher. At a different event, foie gras was on the menu, which is not available with a trustworthy hashgachah in the US. Did the guests think to ask where it came from?
The more people seek out specialty foods, and the higher our expectations become, the greater pressure there is on kosher businesses and kosher certifications to figure out how to provide these foods. And while the OU will always remain loyal to its values and will always insist on its standards, it is incumbent on each and every one of us to be informed kosher consumers—for Pesach and all year round.
Rabbi Moshe Elefant is COO of OU Kosher.