Wednesday, July 23, 2008

OU, OK, Star-K, Kof-K… and LVKC

Running a small Vaad haKashrus (kashrut certification agency - like my own LVKC) is, generally, un-fun:
Your clientele rarely see a significance bump in their business from kashrut, and so you don’t charge much, and you need to fundraise to pay your mashgichim. (Our Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley is uncommonly generous, thank Gd.)
You have to honestly inform clients that if they hope to market beyond the region, they would be better off sporting a better-known logo.
And you know that when visitors come to your area, or when people see your products on the shelf in New York, the presumption for an unknown hechsher (kosher certification agency) is – and not without reason - guilty until proven innocent.

Recently, the larger organizations – particularly OU and Star-K – made a commitment to help local vaadim. They recognize our importance for local communities, they don’t want to take over our business entirely (although we often wish they would…), and so they are determined to help us succeed.

To their credit, OU and Star-K have taken a step in this direction: Both of them now run occasional conference calls on pressing kashrut issues. Also to their credit, some of their personnel are very good at returning phone calls and giving practical advice.

At the same time, here are three ways in which you, our big brothers, cound increase your assistance:

1) Don’t try to take our client businesses for yourselves.
Faced with a bakery which wanted to push the envelope on some of our standards, we turned to a kashrus administrator with one of the abovementioned agencies for help. His answer: “Tell them to apply to us for certification.” When pressed, he offered to hire our mashgiach to do the on-site supervision on behalf of his agency. This is not what I would call helpful.

[Update (7/31/08): The kashrus administrator involved saw this post and contacted me to clarify. He was under the impression that the business had wanted his national certification, and this was why he had made this offer. I am grateful for the clarification.]

This isn’t an isolated incident. We have had a few of the national agencies actively solicit our businesses… including one client which we would have been happy to see them take, given that they never paid us a dime.

It’s true that we tell businesses with national aspirations that they should go with the big names – but that doesn’t mean we need you to come knocking on their doors for us.

2) Return our calls.
As I said, some of the rabbis at OU and Star-K are great with this. Others, with some of the other agencies, are less stellar.

We supervise a supermarket bakery. A certain wholesaler wanted to supply our bakery, and was certified by a national organization. We wanted the right to make random spot checks of our own in that bakery. The certifying agency agreed – but when it came time to visit, we were blocked. Now they don’t return my calls. This is not helpful, and we will likely end up banning their product soon, if I don’t receive a call back.

It’s really just common courtesy, of course.

3) Share information.
Some of you big agencies are very good with this, but others among you, sad to say, stonewall.

We were working with an ice cream franchise, part of a chain with many stores under a national agency. Rather than re-invent the wheel, we contacted the national agency for its list of ingredients and their supervisions – and got nowhere.

My five-year old knows how to share, but you do not.

4) Legal counsel
Oh, and big guys, one other thing: Could you share your legal department with us?

I’m sitting on scare letters from several rabbis because our businesses won’t use their products. You must get these all the time. If you wouldn’t mind sending your attorneys down here to help out, that would be great. Thanks!

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  1. Wow!
    I guess it's super-complicated in the states, because there's no one "rabbinate."

  2. Muse: Having the Rabbanut in Israel certainly makes things less complicated? ;P

  3. Muse -
    Thanks for commenting, but I have to vote with rivkayael; the Israeli system seems to complicate things still more...

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  5. MUSE:

    but every town has its own rabbinate. and this doesn't take into account multiple badatzes


    "Recently, the larger organizations – particularly OU and Star-K – made a commitment to help local vaadim."

    how do they determine whether a local vaad is reliable or not? i imagine this is a touchy subject for them

    it would be nice if the OU would publish a list of acceptable hashgachot.

    i recently went to trader joe's, which happens to have a lot or products with strange local hashgachot. how am i supposed to know which are reliable and which aren't?

    i emailed the OU a couple of times to inquire about a hashgacha, but they wouldn't take a position. only once did they respond to tell me emphatically not to rely on one particular hashgacha.

  6. Lion-
    Agreed that a published list would make life easier, but there is a very real threat of lawsuits. I am sitting on - well, ignoring, really - several cease-and-desist letters from well-known hashgachot, because I won't let our businesses use their products.

    Speaking for the LVKC, we look at issues like frequency of visits and halachic decisions on key issues, as most of the basis for our decisions. However, we also look at the more amorphous "feel" of the mashgiach - does he seem to be on top of things, does he come off as more serious or more lax. And that's why you won't get a list: Because this last criteria is so vague that you can't quantify it as a "standard."

  7. Yeah, it's always a lot easier to get in touch with the big boys than to get a call back.

  8. yeah. i meant to ask about the scare letters, but forgot when i came back to leave the comment.

    i don't understand. on what grounds can they sue you?


    "And that's why you won't get a list"

    i understand why the OU doesn't want to get involved in making such a list, but it is stil very frustrating. so i am left inthe dark as to which hashgacha is reliable. not a good situation. and it hurts you too. what do i do if i see an LVKC on my next visit to trader joe's?

  9. just for the record, i didn't mean that as a personal statement against you or lvkc. just making a point.

  10. Lion-
    1) They claim libel (or is it slander? when my wife finishes the bar exam I'll have to ask her).
    2) It is absolutely true that this hurts small vaadim, my own included. I met with the admin of a local college recently, regarding their plans to put in a kosher kitchen. I told them flat-out to go with a national hashgachah, because if they went with us - huge windfall that it would be for us - they would not have the name recognition they need.