Disclaimer: The ugly business between the Vaad of Queens and Streits is the trigger for this post, but let me say outright that I know nothing special about that case, and that I continue to tell people locally that they should feel comfortable using Streits for Pesach.
As I read the explanations for why the Vaad of Queens needed to cease recommending Streits this year, I am reminded of the old line about not wanting to see legislation or politics or sausage being made. The same may well go for kashrus recommendations.
But having said that, I must add that the problem they face at the Vaad - and at any Vaad - is a huge one: How do you responsibly recommend someone else's certification, without knowing their operation?
I have been head of a small vaad hakashrus for the past eight years, and with the help of wonderful mashgichim we've faced many difficult challenges, but I find few situations harder to handle than the dreaded question, “What do you think of Rabbi Ploni's certification, the Sun-K?" (Note: This certification does not exist. I think.)
Some argue for chezkat kashrut - the idea that, within halachah, everyone who is Shabbat-observant is assumed to be credible until we find out otherwise. This, though, is halachically incorrect.
Chezkat kashrut refers to immunity from suspicion of malfeasance; I can trust that a Jew who observes Shabbat will not knowingly violate the laws of kashrut. But if the Sun-K and I have different understandings of what "kashrut" requires - such as if we differ on how often a mashgiach (supervisor) should visit a plant - then all bets are off.
So here's how the process generally goes:
Step 1 - Do I know anything myself?
The answer, generally, is, “Absolutely nothing.” How could I know what the Sun-K does at their plants, short of visiting those plants myself? Sorry, I don't have a travel budget to cover that.
Even if I know the certifying rabbi personally, that may not be enough; I know that local vaadim often need to accept certain unusual leniencies for the sake of their communities, or because of grandfathered certifications, and how can I know that this is not the case with that certification?
This is a two-way street, of course: I would not want anyone to accept my certification because they went to yeshiva with me, because I created WebShas, or because of any other irrelevant factor - let them find out the specifics of the certification, and then go from there.
Step 2 - Check with people I trust
So I call or email people I trust, who have a better handle on the Sun-K’s operation or the particular product in question, and they tell me whatever they can tell me. On that basis, sometimes, I can answer the questioner.
But often that information is insufficient, because the people I call don’t have any better clue. So now what do I do? I still need to provide an answer! So-and-so wants to hire a caterer, but I can’t find anyone who knows anything. A bakery wants to bring in a product certified by the Sun-K – what can I tell them?
Step 3 - Contact the Rabbi in question
This comes third, rather than first, because (1) I don't want to get into a personal war with someone if I choose not to recommend the certification, and (2) These inquiries tend to be useless.
I call Rabbi Ploni of the Sun-K, who, invariably, reassures me that everything is on the up-and-up, even better than what I do in my own vaad.
“Do I know you from Lakewood?” he name-drops.
“The OU used to certify my plant; they stopped because the company didn’t want to pay their fee, but I haven’t changed a thing. Really.”
“I have a bigger beard than you.” (Yes, a certifying rabbi really said that to me.)
So I try to ask penetrating questions:
* How often do you visit the plant? Do you use full-time mashgichim (supervisors)?
* Do you accept X item (ie gelatin, unchecked strawberries, etc)?
* Do they prepare milchig and pareve in the same plant?
* Where did your mashgichim learn?
* Do you, your mashgichim, your in-laws or their in-laws like Lipa?
All right, just kidding on that last one.
But these questions are really just shots in the dark; every answer could be technically right, and the recommendation could still be wrong. Sometimes I can get a vibe in the course of the conversation, but it's generally just not helpful. The best I can hope for is an invitation to visit the plant itself, but even then, how do I know what happens the month before that visit, or the month afterward?
The bottom line: After these three steps, I'm often still stuck, and that's the way it is; I have no other options. It's not politics, and it's certainly not money (I am a volunteer for our Vaad, which barely breaks even and then only thanks to our Federation's help); it's just the absence of a good investigative mechanism.
So what do I tell the questioner? "I'm sorry, but I don't know enough to say."
This has led to all sorts of fun. I've had kosher certifiers call me up and use rather un-kosher language on the phone with me. I've received "lawyer letters" threatening all sorts of damage. Etc.
But, at the end of the day, I can't approve something unless I feel confident that I know it's all right. My word means too much to me to do otherwise.