Monday, October 31, 2011

Still think you can trust the fish counter?

In my days as a Rav haMachshir [head of a kosher supervision agency], I heard quite a few people say they could buy filleted, skinned fish at the fish counter at their local supermarket, trusting the store management to be honest because of the risk they would run in playing games.

Of course, even if the fish is the right fish, there still are problems from non-kosher fish residue on the equipment, and from the common practice of leaving all of the fish in buckets overnight, leaking brine on each other.

But trusting the fish counter is, itself, problematic. This in from ABC News this past week:

Investigation Uncovers Rampant Fish Fraud

A new investigation provides fresh evidence that restaurants and markets continue to dupe seafood lovers into paying top dollar for low-grade fish.

As part of a special “Fishy Business” series, the Boston Globe spent five months buying fish from dozens of establishments throughout Massachusetts and sending the samples off to a lab in Canada. DNA tests found 48 percent of the fish had been mislabeled as a more expensive type of fish.

Fish samples were gathered from 134 restaurants, grocery stores and seafood markets, and the results were staggering. Every one of 23 white tuna samples tested turned out to be something other than tuna. In most cases the fish labeled tuna was escolar, which the Globe said was “nicknamed the Ex-Lax of fish by some in the industry for the digestion problems it can cause.”

Milk remains unique in its acceptability without kosher supervision in North America, because there is no incentive for milk producers and distributors to cheat - it would be ridiculously counterproductive for them to raise pigs and milk them. But many other products, including products people take for granted, are often adulterated or outright switched with inexpensive substitutes. Hence the need for hashgachah.


  1. Rabbi, if you think that a product's being under hashgochah is any guard against a switch or adulteration in ingredients, I'm afraid you're wrong. Last pesach I purchased a non-gebrokts cake mix that was supposed to be a vanilla cake. Imagine my surprise when the cake mix produced a chocolate cake. No way to know what else was switched in that mix besides the chocolate/vanilla problem. And this from what is touted as a super reliable hechsher. Or how about opening a can of white tuna to discover that what was in there was dark tuna? Again, a reliable national kashruth group. Plenty more examples. Truly a case of let the buyer be ware.

  2. ProfK-
    Very true. My Rebbetzin and I still talk about our discovery ten years ago, when we opened a bag of Bodek kosher l'Pesach frozen vegetables (broccoli and cauliflower, I believe it was) to find a kernel of corn. If they can't find the corn, how are they finding the bugs?
    Nonetheless - When we know there is a problem, we protect ourselves as best we can. Locking the front door doesn't guarantee protection against burglars, but we still do it.

  3. What about when the skin is present? That's what I've heard people allow...

  4. If the skin is present and you can identify scales, it's possible to identify the fish as kosher -- but it still might not be the same species you were expecting ;-)

  5. Interesting point about non-kosher fish residue in machinery. I had read on the website of a reputable Hashgacha agency that the only fish fillet that can be purchased without hashgacha is salmon because its pink colour is unique.

    But what about the residue issue if processed near non-kosher fish? Just goes to show always best to buy with a hechsher if possible.

    Thanks for last Shabbat, hope all went well.

  6. Anonymous 5:24 PM-
    As Steg notes, that can identify it as a kosher fish.

    Went fine, thanks.
    Re: residue - Yes, I always recommend rinsing the surface. And even that won't help if the fish spends the night soaking in brine of non-kosher fish.

  7. Thanks, important post. Please send to KCC!

  8. of course then one can't drink coffee, buy (cut?) a place without hashgacha. Which of course was the case in all those inn's in the alte heim?
    Joel Rich

  9. Batya-
    Thanks, I didn't think of that!

    Why extrapolate to those? Here there is a clear financial incentive to fraud, and the fraud has been proven to be rampant.
    In any case: This is a matter of practical reality, and potential changes in that reality. It is entirely possible that a merchant may be trustworthy regarding a given product in one place or era, and not in another.

  10. entirely possible, but is it born out by the facts?
    and the coffee /starbucks issue is new?
    Joel Rich

  11. Facts - Did you read the fish article?

    Coffee - Why couldn't practical realities change in that arena? As someone whose vaad oversaw various franchises - Carvel, Rita's Italian Ice, Dale and Thomas, and more - I can tell you that store practices and policies absolutely change over time.