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.
i never doubted that the OU has the highest standards and the most professionalism of all the agencies certifying food. I don’t think that was ever the question. When the young Chassid said that he wanted to find baby food with a better hashgacha, he was displaying the chinuch he received that control of everythng is from within the group. In the same way that German Jews only use KAJ , Satmar Jews used their certification. It is group identity more than piety, I think. We go to our schools, get married in our halls, and live in our neighborhoods. That way we will not get swallowed up into the maelstrom.
There is much to be said about having one kashrus organization for a kehila that is accepted by all members of the community. It means we don’t have to ask whose hashgacha the caterer has or the restaurant,etc. Everybody eats by every occasion. Then, as we get bigger, there are those who break this self imposed monopoly for whatever reason and we get incipient machlokes. That is a shame and we need to find a way to deal with diversity in kashrus while respecting the integrity of other supervisions. I don’t know if that is realistic as our community grows and various groups become more independent within the whole. But, the OU is as kosher as it gets and its money goes to NCSY and other worthwhile programs,which is most praiseworthy.
Does the OU make unannounced visits to the Windex factory?
[YA – Of course! Their policies are entirely, clearly transparent 🙂 ]
I have a few issues with the OU, all in areas where they have chosen to be machmir / paternalistic. What i find is one of their real values is in the process management of complex environments. The proper/halakhic functioning of a kosher full service hotel or pesach program or cruise is incredibly complex. On 2 separate occasions I met a (different) famous chareidi Rov eating at a Jerusalem Hotel without a “heimeshe” reputation. Both told me the same thing: the mashgiach overseeing the hotel may be one of the few around who can supervise so complex an operation. At Hotel X, the mashgiach is a Sheine Yid, who has the necessary skills to give hashgacha to a small restaurant.
Many stand tall on the OU’s shoulders.
The OU is probably the most important kashrus organization in the world, as many other hechsherim rely on their research. So if you had to pick for only one hechsher to survive it would would probably be the OU. Which is in addition to their technical expertise, which is certainly superior to most of the “heimish” hechsherim.
That said, since the OU has as their goal to ensure widespread availability of kosher food across the US (and thereby both enable and encourage adherence to kashrus laws), their standards are not always such that would appeal to people who live in major population centers and/or who prefer higher standards.
This is NOT to say that the OU is wrong for using those standards in pursuit of that goal. Only that people who prefer other standards also have a basis for this.
It’s also worth noting that official policy doesn’t always translate into reality. I have a relative who has worked in kashrus for many years and he has worked for and with the OU and the other major national hechsherim. And he told me that his impression when reporting a potential problem to the OU was that he was a pain in the neck who they would prefer had not spoken up, in contrast to the other agencies who were more eager to hear of potential issues. (He told me this at least 10 years ago, so I don’t know if things might have changed since then.)
All the above notwithstanding, I personally rely on the OU for the most part (other than dairy or meat products and matza and the like). And one of R’ Shmuel Kaminetzky’s sons once told me that his father uses “straight OU” (I imagine he meant along the lines of what I do).
I think that this discussion i missing a crucial difference between the OU and some of the “Heimishe Hashgochos” (which are not all created equally, I am referring to the better ones). Those who are in the know in the in and outs of the Kashrus world, know that what Rabbi Alderstein is stating is 100% correct. The OU today is run by a very professional and upstanding staff with very exacting systems and standards.
However, one thing the OU does not have is Hashgocha Temidis for their factory produced items. The good “Heimishe Hashgochos” do have a mashgiach present at their private runs that they do at their various factories. That is something that the OU does not (or cannot) provide.
That is why there are many that prefer to see both an OU and a “Heimishe Hashgocho” on a product.
“However, one thing the OU does not have is Hashgocha Temidis for their factory produced items.”
Why would you want a resident supervisor for products that don’t really need supervision anyway?
Chazal were quite happy to eat their peppercorn paste concoction imported from India.
Question for Fotheringay-Phipps.
If you don’t use the OU for the things that really do need supervision, you mention meat, cheese and matzah, you can add wine to that list, what do you rely on them for?
A commenter above claims that OU “wants to ensure widespread availability” and therefore have standards that don’t appeal to people in big cities or those with “higher standards”.
As an initial matter, I don’t know what “higher” standards mean. I know of different standards, but not better or worse ones. But more importantly, the commenter gets is exactly the opposite. The OU’s concern is not to promote the availability of kosher foods – this isn’t the 1960s. And its beyond specious to claim that their focus in on the 5% of kosher-observant Jews in small towns, and not on the 95% in the big cities.
Rather, the OU’s concern is in making their hechsher as widely appealing as possible. For that reason, as I commented in the previous post, with specific examples, the OU uses machmir minority opinion, and does not use perfectly acceptable kulos, all towards that end. That is a mistake, I believe, because the OU, merely because of externals factors having nothing to do with actual kashrus, will never appeal to the Lakewood crowd. Its like a political party attempting to play to the critics of the other party – you never satisfy them, and you only alienate your base. The OU populace, for the most part – there are always exceptions – does not play the game of “higher” standards. That is not their (our) language. We want kosher food, period. A kulah is no more or less “better” than a chumrah, and it shouldn’t be scuttled for fear of what our brothers on the right might chatter about. In the end, the kosher consumer loses out.
Yesterday we went to a Mid-Manhattan restaurant for a Mother’s Day dinner. As far as I can tell, it is strictly an OU certified establishment. I could not find any indication of a heimishe hasgacha anywhere. Yet it was full of Chassidim and their families (one even had his talis koton over his shirt). So I guess there are plenty of Chassidim that find the OU kashrus certification alright.
At least at restaurants.
On Mother’s Day.
AK, Boruch Shekivantah. You cite almost the case of which RAL ztl spoke. If the halakha does not require a mashgiach temidi, are we better off with an (incremental) assistant rebbe or a mashgiach temidi? I realize the economic incentive for a manufacturer to have multiple hechshairim, but the increased cost is not necessarily money optimally prioritized from a halakhic/ethical perspective.
Yasher Koach to R Gordimer for helping eliminate urban myths and stereotypes about OU Kashrus.
mb: “If you don’t use the OU for the things that really do need supervision, you mention meat, cheese and matzah, you can add wine to that list, what do you rely on them for?”
To clarify, what I wrote about dairy was about cholov akum. I would use OU for dairy if they specified that it was cholov yisrael. (I don’t buy OU potato chips because a lot of major poskim seem to hold – for some reason – that they need to be bishul yisrael, and OU does not conform to this shita.)
But other than that, they give hechsherim on many many manufactured products. The supermarkets are full of them. (The afforementioned conversation with RSK’s son took place in the aisle of the Lakewood ShopRite, and the context was the type of products sold there.)
DF: “As an initial matter, I don’t know what “higher” standards mean. I know of different standards, but not better or worse ones.”
There are many things that poskim say should be done ideally, but are difficult to implement as a practical matter. (One major example is kashering of machinery.) So if your motivation is to make sure that there is a wide variety of products that are kosher to some baseline level, then you rely on bidieveds and/or minority opinions and so on. And I’m not saying this is the wrong thing to do, given the other considerations. But these are frequently things that you would never do in your own home and kitchen, and if you have the option of doing without this, then this is a valid approach too.
“But more importantly, the commenter gets is exactly the opposite. The OU’s concern is not to promote the availability of kosher foods – this isn’t the 1960s. And its beyond specious to claim that their focus in on the 5% of kosher-observant Jews in small towns, and not on the 95% in the big cities.”
This is simply incorrect, as people connected to the kashrus world know. I believe the OU is pretty open about this too. I am not going to argue about this further, because it’s something that anyone can find out, by speaking to people with actual knowledge.
[YA You would be correct if the OU were someach on “bidieveds and/or minority opinions,” but as R Gordimer explained, this is not the case. This is not to say that it NEVER happens, but it is not usually the case. There is a huge difference between relying on an ikar ha-din (which is the case) and not being choshesh for a daas yachid or minority opinion. It turns out that among the hundreds of decisions that need to be made, agencies that do that in some areas wind up being meikal in others – where the OU is machmir! Going for a hechsher just because it feels heimish does not improve your overall odds of lining up the three glatt turkeys in a row. You would still be playing Kashrus Roulette.]
as RYA says—– agencies that do that in some areas wind up being meikal in others – where the OU is machmir!
it seems the problem is the holy trinity of haimish/haredi eating: pas yisrael, chalav yisrael, yashan . if the OU [or anybody] could get eg chalav yisrael as a mass produced item [so that the cost half and the time-to-spoilage doubled ] , oh what a wonderful world…. but then if the Oreos of the world was pasyisrael/chalavyisrael , why in the world would anyone want a paskesz or hadar or similar haimishe copycat?
YA: I didn’t say the OU “usually” relies on bidieveds and minority opinions. But it happens more often for the OU than for many of the heimisher hechsherim.
It should also be noted that – I’m not sure about this but I think this is correct – the OU’s policy is to be meikil on any d’rabbonon if EITHER R’ Schachter or R’ Belsky are meikil.
[As noted above, I personally rely on OU for situations that are basically shailos of ingredients etc. This is because in my assessment, the OU’s technical expertise advantage probably balances out the kulos issue. But I could see where others could disagree. Though of course I agree that relying on a hechsher just because it “feels heimish” (as you put it) is a bad idea – that’s not really what we’re discussing here.]
[YA – I would have to ask you for your source on the OU relying on bedieveds more frequently than others. I believe that this is NOT the case]
F-P on 5/12 at 1:54 wrote:
I didn’t say the OU “usually” relies on bidieveds and minority opinions. But it happens more often for the OU than for many of the heimisher hechsherim.
It should also be noted that – I’m not sure about this but I think this is correct – the OU’s policy is to be meikil on any d’rabbonon if EITHER R’ Schachter or R’ Belsky are meikil.
I’ve clarified with the people in the know. Here is what is actually the case:
The heimishe hechsherim normally apply chumras and hiddurim that the major, reliable national kashrus agencies often do not. This does not at all reflect lechatchilah versus b’dieved/minority opinion, but rather chumra and hiddur versus standard (and very well-grounded and normative) p’sak. This is the key point that we need to keep in mind. It is preferable not to rely on minority opinions. The same cannot be said for relying on what objectively represents standard halachic protocols.
It ain’t so. There is no such flat rule to be meikal on issurim d’Rabbonon if either of the OU’s poskim is meikal. Every situation differs, many factors are considered, but there is no such formula that if one of the two OU poskim is mattir on a de’Rabbonon that the OU will be meikal. In all cases, being meikal could only be done if that approach is well-based, accepted as normative Halacha, and is not something that violates the trust and expectations of the tzibbur.
Does ‘missing the point’ mean disagreeing with your position?
I don’t know why the point is the hashgocho. The point is eating Kosher food. Personally I don’t accept the kula used in tartaric acid, barring my use of sweet ‘n low. That is not an indictment of the OU or my Heimishe credentials. This is just my halachic position. Same with Potato chips, or mayonaise. If they want to rely on their opinion, good for them.This is two opinions, not a kula. I have no idea where they discovered this idea of not relying on bitul. Where does it come from? Is it because of ein mevatlin issur lechatchila? Much has also been made of denigrating ‘heimishe hashgachos’ as though they were one. They are not. There are differences, known to anybody who finds it important.
I would applaud a truly independent investigation of all the Kashrus claims prevalent in the street. Is the OU supervision superior to others’? Which organizations are more forthcoming than others about the halachos they rely on? What do Heimishe hashgachos do different? Which of them have advantages over others? What is the transparency levels of the various organizations? What is the money trail? How much are each making and what possibility exists for corruption? Are the complaints against any of them valid in the slightest?
F-P implied that the OU relies on b’dieveds more frequently than the Heimeshe hashgachos. In fact, I heard from someone working in the Kashruth industry at one of the prestigious agencies for more than thirty years, when a Heimeshe agency does a run at a factory and something goes wrong, they stand to lost their entire investment in having that special run done, and as a result are more liable to rely on “lower” halachic standards (read: b’dieved) than the OU. If the OU is regularly supervising a factory and something goes wrong, the factory stands to lose it’s general supervision, and is therefore more amenable to trashing that one run, whereas the Heimeshe hashgachos usually only supervise specific runs, and therefore the Hashgacho stands to lose if the run does not come out with their supervision.