Food Safety and Quality’s Eyes and Ears
by Avrom Pollak, President
Earlier this year, a couple of items in the secular media caught my attention. I was particularly interested in them because they brought to mind how those who are not kosher observant view Kosher.
The first item was a New York Times article which started out by mentioning the fact that this year, for the first time, glatt kosher food (actually STAR-K certified!) will be sold at the Super Bowl. “In an era of heightened concern over food contamination, allergies and the provenance of ingredients, the market for kosher food among non-Jews is setting records,” it said. It then quoted a consumer market research company spokesperson as saying, “It’s keyed into the issues of food safety and consumer fear. The reputation of kosher is stretching beyond chicken, whether there is truth to it or not.”
The second item was a National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast which did not specifically mention Kosher; however, it did have implications for the conception of Kosher in the secular global world. The host interviewed two high school students who, with the help of researchers, recently spent four months testing the DNA of various foods. The results revealed that of the 66 food items tested, the DNA showed that 11 were mislabeled; sheep’s milk was actually cow’s milk, venison dog treats were beef, and the sturgeon caviar was Mississippi paddle fish!
I believe that both of these pieces in the secular media only reinforce the worldwide conception of Kosher, and the pivotal role kosher certification agencies are perceived as playing. Although observant Jews scrupulously adhere to the laws of Kosher for one reason and one reason alone--because we are mandated to do so by the Torah--secular consumers may purchase Kosher because they view a kosher symbol as the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for superior safety and quality. As such, the kosher certification agency is their eyes and ears, assuring them that the product labels truly indicate that what they see is what they get!
I admit, this does not mean to say that there have never been kosher products that have been mislabeled. Rather, the question is what does a responsible kosher agency do about it? We at STAR-K train and expect our mashgichim to look for misrepresentation on labels, even if it has no bearing on the kosher status of the food. In addition, we encourage them to become as informed about ingredients and manufacturing practices as possible. A number of years ago, an incident made us question just how big of a watchdog role kosher certifying organizations should play, in fulfilling such evident consumer expectations.
A fruit juice company, located in the deep South, was exposed in the media for misrepresenting its products as 100% pure. Since the name of the company was very similar to that of a STAR-K certified juice company, located in New Jersey, both our company and our office received a number of complaints from irate consumers. The calls that STAR-K received expressed dismay about our putative certification of a product that, albeit kosher, was not the same product as was represented on the label.
It was clear to us that a kashrus organization is obligated to enforce and monitor the veracity of claims printed on a label which relate directly to a kashrus concern, such as “Pareve”, “Pas Yisroel” or “Yoshon.” But regarding nutritional claims on labels, such as “preservative-free,” “organically grown,” “low in sodium,” or “cholesterol-free,” doesn’t the validation of such claims go far beyond the scope and duty of even the most knowledgeable and alert mashgiach?
One time, STAR-K kashrus administrators noticed that a letter, sent by a flavor manufacturer for approval of a particular ingredient, was forged. When we explained to the flavor company why they could not use that ingredient, we were thanked profusely and all business relations were promptly stopped with that supplier. ‘If the supplier attempted to cheat on kashrus,’ the flavor company questioned, ‘how can we be sure that they are not misrepresenting their products in other ways?’
How has this misrepresentation changed the buying patterns of some kosher consumers? With the bar being raised by consumers, both kosher and organic certifications have shared an integral role in delivering better quality merchandise. Fairly recently, STAR-K formed a partnership with Quality Assurance International (QAI) to offer a twin Kosher organic certification. No doubt, it is this double reassurance of quality standards that a growing number of consumers seek when they look for our twin STAR-K/QAI logos. The similarities in the kosher and organic inspection processes, which certify that the foods, ingredients, handling, processing and packaging are up to certain requirements, provide these consumers with products they can feel confident in, as well as a greater quality assurance for their dollar.