Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Ugly Side of Kashrus Recommendations

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.

22 comments:

  1. In your opinion, do some opinions on the "kosherness" of some supervisors come about because of heresay and gossip. I was looking into one (which shall remain nameless) and in my googling all i was able to find was that so and so had heard from someone else that it wasn't ok for reasons not explained and it best to stay away.

    In other words...Lashon Harah.

    the fact is, as soon as Rabbi So and So leaves any plant, who is to stay the workers don't start doing all sorts of non kosher stuff around the food? (a bit of an exageration but you get the idea).

    Might as well grow everything yerself ;)

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  2. A simple web search shows where all the money to the Queens Vaad goes:

    http://dynamodata.fdncenter.org/990s/990search/990.php?ein=112774666&yr=200612&rt=990&t9=A

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  3. Shorty-
    I agree - Googling is not going to get you substantive information. But as far as the question of what happens when the rabbi leaves the plant, that's a huge issue, and it's part of what sets apart certifications you can trust. The ones you can trust won't certify companies who aren't, themselves, careful.

    Anonymous-
    I looked at the 990, but I don't see your point. It indicates that most of the Vaad's income comes from taharot, and is spent on paying the people who do the taharot. Why is that news?

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  4. Shouldn't the question have been "Do the vaads of Queens/5 towns accept ANY product under individual certification or do they ONLY accept products under national certification?" If their policy, publicly stated, is to accept NO product under individual certification, then this should have been publicly stated long before 4 weeks before Pesach. But they did not say this, nor does it seem to be their policy given other products they allow in. They also did not state that Streit's matzoh was unkosher, that there was a specific issue, and they never went to actually inspect the factory. In short, why was this issue raised 4 weeks before Pesach and in this way? Whatever is going on cannot be ascertained by reading the article you linked to, nor does the opinion seem to be held by all members of the vaads in question.

    Perhaps a better question would be why the vaads mentioned should take precedence over other vaads which did NOT assur the Streits matzohs? Brooklyn, the home of chumrah-central, made no such public announcements about Streits, nor did any of the other vaads in the city or elsewhere. The CRC specifically said that the matzohs are fine. So did the OU.

    Sounds more like an internal war of money and/or politics between the vaads, the national certification organizations and a kosher product producer, one that went public before anyone took a moment to think about the possible ramifications.

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  5. ProfK-
    I have to disagree on the money/politics point. Because I know a few of the parties on the Queens Vaad, I strongly doubt there was either one involved. And because I know how easy it is to mess up in (not) recommending products due to lack of good information, I tend to think this was either a massive error, or the result of something which has not yet been made public.

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  6. “I have a bigger beard than you.” (Yes, a certifying rabbi really said that to me.)

    LOL.

    "I'm sorry but i don't know enough to say" is a much better answer than the vague and lashonharaish "not recommended [with no explanation]" that you get from many people.

    Where did your mashgichim learn?

    How do you decide what's a good answer for that question?

    The way my rabbi put it, there are three issues in hekhshers:
    1. Do they hold the same way as you halakhically?
    2. How good are they at enforcing their policies?
    3. Are they trustworthy?

    Even though people generally frame the question of accepting hashgahhas in terms of #3, it's usually an issue of #2 or #1 — which is part of the horrible lashon-hara‘ situation. People ask "can i trust X hashgahha?" when what they really should be asking is "can i use it".

    My rabbi, while there are various hashgahhas he doesn't recommend due to #2 or #1 issues, has only ever encountered one hashgahha that fails the #3 test.

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  7. Rabbi,
    your post's point in my mind, is also applicable to finding out about shidduchim with out-of-town families. One high school principal (a chareidi) told me the young person in question's mother had a conservative conversion, and was not aware of any halachik geirus to fix the situation. End of that shiddach. Was this principal telling the truth? I don't know. It does make his school look bad, for having such people as students. There are some reasons it might be mutar, there are some reasons it's not good, this shiddach suggestion showing how dangerous it is. But with the in-town person saying that about the family, it could not be disregarded.

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  8. My word means too much to me to do otherwise.

    You've gotta stop reading the Vorkosigan novels! ;)


    It seems like this sort of thing could be averted if each certifying authority made public their halachic interpretation on things that tend to vary. Couldn't there be a basic Vaad FAQ they publish, including how often they visit the plants, etc., so the only remaining questions are issues of enforcement or for very specific situations?

    All this having to call around seems very old-school (I know, I know, that's how the Orthodox like things).

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  9. former allentownerApril 13, 2009 at 4:19 PM

    to shorty: interestingly, there ARE definite controls in what goes on when the mashgiach leaves -- usually effective, sometimes not depending on how effective the mashgiach or certifying agency or agent is (though i dont understand how they operate in china, a country where people / manufacturers LIE to each other, so how can you expect them to conform to standards (such as lead in toys, melamine in milk, and kosher in kosher (though at least on kosher, there ARE some medium of controls)

    anon -- the 990 doesnt show anything bad, but it raises the question of other activities NOT reported on the 990. (though to be fair, many other orgs have activities not reported on the 990.)

    profk -- you are 100% correct -- if kashrut is the issue, they could have / should have done this months ago, not last week. further -- what is the vaad but a little local certifier. whose kashrut members actually work for the natl certifier (prob angry they lost out on the streits job). and i happen to be friendly with that particular rav.

    to tziporah -- i actually saw an faq you describe once printed in "kashrus" magazine. the results were humorous, in that the same question had similar answers that seemed to say different things, but in reality conformed to "accepted" halacha and standards.

    the problem is, that some of our larger rabbinic orgs have standards printed on their web site (and not disseminated anywhere else -- "consult our web site" one is told) but in practice, they have loads of exceptions (not in kashrus issues, but in other issues) that they will discuss only with rav who is on a "need to know" basis, but not others, and not the general public. (wow -- sounds like a shidduch issue, a la yid.


    in sum, now i understand how the baal ha-blog must spend hours online, responding to us, and writing drashot, preparing daf, etc.

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  10. Steg wrote How do you decide what's a good answer for that question?Sorry, that's a proprietary algorithm.

    All right, maybe not. But the answer is too subjective for me to be able to put it in clear terms. It's more about the feel of the program than the specific curriculum. How serious are the rebbeim and the students, how focussed are they on practical reality vs iyun, etc.

    Yid-
    100% - It certainly does apply for shidduchim as well.

    Tzipporah-
    It's a sensible idea, and the State of New Jersey actually requires it in its anti-fraud kosher laws, but, as FA notes, there are too many quirks and idiosyncratic situations for that to work across the board.

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  11. I recently read the widely circulated article concerning the Streits matzo controversy(http://thejewishstar.wordpress.com/2009/04/07/different-from-all-other-years-streit%e2%80%99s-matzo-off-preferred-list-in-five-towns/).

    Although I am completely an unbiased reader (I have never met any of the individuals the article gravitates around), I am nevertheless bothered by the glaring fact that there are many deafening, yet completely unanswered questions. After skimming through the comment pages on the numerous websites that discuss the article, I noticed that the masses are bothered by the same simple yet troubling questions.

    How can a Rabbinic organization take such severe action (the article extensively describes the harm it caused to R' Soloveichik) against a respected individual, without even being able to verbalize a complaint against him? The article quotes Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld as saying "He [R' Moshe Soloveichik] just doesn’t swim in the kashrus world … we’re not saying he’s bad; not at all. We just don’t know." What does that mean? Shoot and ask questions later? To put it simply: the whole story just does not add up- there must be politics at play that does not meet the innocent eye.
    I decided to search around the web, to see if I would be able to find any articles that R' Moshe Soloveitchik may have written that would cause him to find disfavor in the eyes of those who attacked his hechsher. It didn't take too long to find a document that began to crystallize a seemingly sinister and petty plot.

    I came across this letter (http://daattorah.blogspot.com/2009/01/r-bomzer-censured-by-vaad-for.html) that was published on a blog called "Daat Torah." One of the Rabbinic signatories on this letter, written in opposition to Rabbi Bomzer's Geirus protocol, is the Rav Hamachshir of Streits Matzo, Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik. When I "Googled" Rabbi Bomzer's name I discovered that he has been a long term leading member of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Young Israel Council, and is the President of the Vaad Harabonim of Flatbush (http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/article.php?p=32337) I also discovered that his son R' Moshe Bomzer, is a prominent member of the Orthodox Union, and serves on the "Rabbinical Council of America’s Executive Committee" (http://www.rabbis.org/about_us.cfm).

    To my laymen eyes, it looks like a simple story of underhanded revenge. Quite saddening if true, but all would agree that the real tragedy would be the utter miscarriage of justice if this story were not properly investigated and reported.

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  12. Anonymous-
    I have little time before Yom Tov, but I must write to oppose that conspiracy theory.
    1) I, too, am a member of the RCA's executive committee. I can tell you we have never discussed Streits.
    2) Further, I sit on a joint commission of the OU and RCA - and we have also never discussed Streits.
    3) The OU has not issued any statement whatsoever against Streits.
    To claim that because a rabbi is involved in the RCA and leads an OU shul, and therefore the Vaad of Queens (and not the OU) would take a stance against someone who opposed his father's conversion procedures... it just makes no sense, and amounts to slander.
    I agree, as I have written, that there must be more involved in this story, but I don't think the truth is aided by concocting obvious falsehood.

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  13. there's more than one blog that is also pointing out the connection between the vaad of queens and the OU-here's some examples:

    http://kvetcher.net/2009/04/3011/solidarity-with-streits-and-rabbi-soloveitchik/

    http://failedmessiah.typepad.com/failed_messiahcom/2009/04/queens-5-towns-rabbis-work-for-ou.html

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  14. Anonymous-
    I understand that those websites are doing it, but it's still irresponsible nonsense.
    The OU has been supportive of Streits in both public and private communications. If this were an OU vendetta, wouldn't they be the ones coming out against Streit's?
    The conspiracy story makes no sense.
    And, frankly, the fact that you hide being anonymity rather than attach your name, makes it more than inane; it's criminal.

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  15. You can stick your head in the sand, or you can continue to try to bury many very troubling questions...

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  16. Anonymous-
    You can invent silly conspiracy theories, defying all logic, to try to tear people down, or you can try to do something practical to prevent future fiascos. I know which I would choose; what about you?

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  17. The "Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld and The Queens Vaad Controversy" continues:

    As of today the following blogs are reporting on the story:

    http://haemtza.blogspot.com/2009/04/should-all-private-hechshers-be-shunned.html

    http://failedmessiah.typepad.com/failed_messiahcom/2009/04/queens-5-towns-rabbis-work-for-ou.html

    http://jewkey.com/new-york-the-hashgacha-controversy-on-streit%E2%80%99s-matzo-2/random/

    http://kvetcher.net/2009/04/3011/solidarity-with-streits-and-rabbi-soloveitchik/

    http://rechovot.blogspot.com/2009/04/ugly-side-of-kashrus-recommendations.html

    http://www.thelodownny.com/leslog/2009/04/streits-controversy-continued.html

    http://dovbear.blogspot.com/2009/03/kashrut-isnt-just-for-what-goes-in-your.html

    http://www.vosizneias.com/30030/2009/04/07/new-york-the-hashgacha-controversy-on-streit%e2%80%99s-matzo/

    http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/article.php?p=32874

    A simple question: When will the Rabbis and Organizations involved respond to all these questions?

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  18. Anonymous -
    Now, that is a legitimate question, and, I think, the right one to ask. Have you called the Vaad of Queens to ask?

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  19. Since you have written that you are "a member of the RCA's executive committee" and you "sit on a joint commission of the OU and RCA", perhaps you can explain to your readership why:

    1) The Queens Vaad would "need" some "blogger" to ask for an end of their deafening silence?

    2) Do you think the Organization has an obligation to publicly explain it's shocking public actions?

    3) Do you think that a public organization that makes dramatic moves (that cause the masses to become enraged) and yet refuses to explain themselves, still has a moral and ethical right to exist as a "public organization"?

    4) As a "member of the RCA's executive committee" and one who "sits on a joint commission of the OU and RCA", have you called your organizations for an explanation? (If you did, please share their response with your eager readers)

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  20. Anonymous -
    1) and 2) As I have said - I believe the Vaad of Queens should explain their position.

    3) Depend on their reason; I'm still waiting to hear it.

    4) What for? Neither the OU nor the RCA has anything to do with the issue, as you know quite well.

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  21. "4) What for? Neither the OU nor the RCA has anything to do with the issue, as you know quite well."

    As all the other blogs have already shown:

    The President of the Queens Vaad Harabonim is:

    1) A high ranking executive of the OU

    2) A member of the RCA

    With these facts publicly known:

    How can you expect anyone to view you as an individual with integrity or as a person with the slightest intellectual honesty, after your last comment?

    Unless you are implying that the RCA and the OU does no take responsiblity or concern of the public actions of it's official members?

    Care to explain?

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  22. Anonymous-
    I assume you know how foolish you sound, which is why you (a) don't use your name, and (b) hide your ISP behind anonymous proxies.
    The head of the Queens Vaad's hashgachah division does part-time hashgachah work for the OU, and is an RCA member. Why would that mean that either organization has anything to do with the Vaad of Queens's decision on Streit's?

    I am tired of giving space to your attempts to discredit good, innocent people. I wish you would put your energy into trying to solve the problem, instead of trying to tear down good, innocent people. So here's the deal: Any future posts which make allegations and don't offer any proof will be deleted.

    ReplyDelete