What OU Kashrus Looks Like From the Inside
Last week’s essay on kashrus supervision attracted far more attention than I would have anticipated. I sensed that misinformation abounded about the OU, the people who work in kashrus, and their halachic standards. The comments that came in showed the usual mix. Some people really got the point; others really missed it. Many of the comments provided useful insight about the OU and other agencies, as well as opening sidebar conversations that were fruitful.
In short, we’re at a teachable moment. So I leaned on our own Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer – who just happens to be a rabbinic coordinator for the OU, specializing in cheese. (Maybe that’s why he smiles so much!) He, in turn, did some very informal intelligence-sharing, trying to put things in perspective. This is what he came up with::
Much heated and vibrant discussion was generated by the exchange of Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, Mr. Yoel Gross and a host of online commenters regarding the perceived differences and features of OU kashrus protocol and the kashrus protocol of the “heimishe hashgochos”. In truth, there is a great need for both reliable national kashrus agencies as well as for smaller kashrus agencies that service specific kehillos and apply the unique and established standards and hiddurim of those kehillos. Eilu v’eilu – both are good and both are welcome and needed. In fact, the OU and the heimishe kashrus agencies are in frequent consultation with each other, enjoying a sense of mutual camaraderie and chizuk, as they collaboratively share expertise and insights and strive to jointly raise the level of kashrus to its highest on an ongoing basis.
There are many perceptions “out there” about OU kashrus standards, and, as an employee of OU Kosher, I would like to clear the air a bit and explain.
Halachic Standards: Every single OU position on halachic matters reflects the deliberate rulings of its poskim, Rav Belsky and Rav Schachter, who spend many hours at OU Headquarters every week and provide p’sak and hadracha for all aspects of the OU kashrus program. Whether it is the OU policy to not allow pareve chocolate to be manufactured on the same equipment as milk chocolate (a unique halachic approach, due to the fact that chocolate-making machinery cannot be kashered with water, and our poskim do not allow this machinery to be kashered with liquid pareve chocolate, as some other agencies allow), or the OU’s position that tuna processors need only regular hashgacha but not hashgacha temidis, or the OU’s certification of cholov stam, or the OU’s refusal to allow the use of a “glow bar” (a hot light permanently stationed in a factory oven to create Bishul Yisroel and Pas Yisroel status – the OU instead requires the mashgiach to personally ignite or increase the fire), or the OU not relying on the Heter Mechirah for Shemitah, or the OU’s very strict Bekias Tolo’im policy, or the OU’s denial of certification to Jewish-owned chometz companies that to do a mechiras chometz yet still operate during Pesach, or the OU’s refusal to certify products using bittul, or whatever else – every single OU halachic position reflects elaborate piskei halacha rendered by the OU’s poskim at OU Headquarters.
The OU is transparent with its halachic policies, sharing them with interested consumers by phone, email and live seminars. The OU also publishes detailed OU kashrus manuals for various industries; these manuals all include the lengthy teshuvos upon which everything in the manuals rests. OU piskei halacha and policy are also laid out in the OU’s many other publications, such as Daf Ha-Kashrus and Mesorah. Online readers can access this all at www.OUKosher.org.
Although the OU’s certification of cholov stam, pas palter, and foods that are likely not yoshon is based on well-grounded p’sak halacha of gedolei ha-poskim, the OU of course recognizes and appreciates the p’sakim in these areas that are more strict, and the OU respects that many people will hence be machmir. The OU is not here to redefine halachic standards or to tell people what to eat; people should follow their own rabbonim and communal minhag regarding particular p’sakim, chumros and hiddurim. What is crucial, however, is the area of execution and administration, which sets the OU apart, for even if a kashrus agency is mapkid for certain more stringent halachic positions, if that agency’s mashgichim are not expertly trained, its rav ha-machshir is not a mumcheh in ingredients and food technology, and there is not an organized and efficient system for operations, all of the chumras in the book, as it were, will not ensure kashrus. The OU has the most developed, organized and seamless kashrus system and infrastructure in the world – and it is this superb arrangement that distinguishes the OU and sets it apart and beyond.
Aside from the OU being fully transparent with its halachic policies, and aside from the fact that the OU has an (often unknown) abundance of chumros both in halacha and in procedure (too numerous to detail here, but explained in general above and below), the OU strictly enforces all halachic criteria that are indicated on an OU product’s label. If an OU product is labeled as yoshon, cholov Yisroel or whatever else, the OU makes sure that it meets this standard l’chumra and in a manner that the relevant clientele expect.
It must be noted that products certified by all kashrus agencies in the world rely on basic ingredients that are certified by the OU, such as flavors, sweeteners, emulsifiers, and oils. This, coupled with the OU’s database of hundreds of thousands of ingredients, all subjected to rigorous halachic review by poskim and thorough evaluation by food technologists and flavor specialists, as the case may be, has made the OU the prime source for kashrus information in the world. The OU shares this wealth of information with other kashrus agencies as part of a collaborative quest to bring top-notch kashrus everywhere.
Actual Kashrus Protocol: The OU prides itself on its elaborate organization, specialized expertise, and the exceptional training provided to its kashrus staff. This translates into execution of an incredibly professional kashrus program. For example:
• All plant visits are unannounced.
• Plants may not have compatible dairy/pareve ingredients or kosher/non-kosher ingredients on site unless these plants have a mashgich temidi.
• Even frum-operated plants require regular hashgacha – the fact that a company is run by b’nei Torah does not lessen the kashrus oversight provided by the OU.
• Advanced research is conducted on all new ingredients and processes, consulting food scientists and outside experts as necessary. On the plant level, OU mashgichim are trained to use high-tech and intricate verification systems, and to master production and auditing processes of every facility, in order to conduct a thorough kosher inspection.
• Specialization – Every rabbinic coordinator at OU Headquarters is a trained specialist in certain food industries, and in addition to the OU’s regular first-rate staff of mashgichim, a cadre of regional senior mashgichim, backed by an OU Plant Review Department, provides additional oversight and guidance for the hashgacha team.
• Plant Kashrus Maintenance: No ingredients, even OU-certified ingredients, may be introduced into a plant without prior written approval from the OU. No product label bearing the OU symbol, even if it is a mere rewording of an already-approved label, may be applied to product made at OU facilities without prior written approval from the OU.
• Mashgiach Reports: Every single hashgacha visit must be followed by the issuance of a very detailed electronic report to OU Headquarters via our live online system. These reports cover about 20 specific aspects of a plant’s kashrus program.
There are so many more facets of the OU system that can be enumerated and presented, but I think that this gives a glimpse into what the OU is doing.
We are thankful to Ha-Kodosh Boruch Hu for the zechus to work with various hashgacha agencies to together contribute what we can in order to assure the highest levels of kashrus. May we all have the siyata di-shmaya to always fulfill this sacred mandate.