Kashrus Scandal: What Steps Can We Take to Protect Ourselves?

Following the kashrus scandal at a restaurant in Manalapan, NJ, Anash.org spoke to kashrus expert Rabbi Nissan Zibell to clarify what steps a consumer could take to protect himself, and what one need to be aware of when eating out. Exclusive.

Following the latest kashrus scandal that has shaken the kosher keeping world, Anash.org approached Kashrus expert Rabbi Nissan Zibell – the kashrus administrator at the RCF (Rabbinate of Central Florida) and a co-founder of “Kashrus: Be In The Know!” for some guidance. The purpose was to provide practical information for the average kosher consumer to be aware of when eating out. What follows is a concise kashrus guide to eating out comfortably.

By Rabbi Nissan Zibell for Anash.org

When it comes to eating out, there is no shortage of delicious kosher restaurants or catering options to suit one’s needs, but there are many questions that may arise. To properly enjoy the experience with confidence and clarity, one must be armed with the right information and be sure that everything is actually kosher and has been prepared according to personal or community standards.

When it comes to eating out in restaurants a question that commonly arises is, “Can I eat at a restaurant that is not under an official hashgacha, if the owner is a frum G-D fearing Jew? What if I trust the owner and I know him personally?”

This topic is discussed in Halacha and has many nuanced details. It is beyond the scope of this article to cover it in depth. Instead, a brief summary will help explain it. Generally, if a G-D fearing Jew announces that something is kosher, they are trusted. That holds true unless they are in a situation where their answer may cause them to lose or gain financial profit. In this case, authorities question the extent to which one may trust them when asked about kashrus. When someone, even a G-D fearing individual, is running their own restaurant and a kashrus situation arises, they may be tempted to ignore it or take the lenient approach to avoid a monetary loss.

In addition to that, the owner of a restaurant has many responsibilities. There will be so much going on, that it will be impossible for him to try and keep track of everything going on in the kitchen regarding kashrus to a proper standard. There are so many nuances and details that can go wrong, as well as so much that must be known about kashering equipment, reliability of hashgachos for products, and checking produce. Even ensuring that the restaurant is set up according to halacha isn’t simple. The list goes on.

The next questions to tackle are, “Does seeing a hashgacha certificate given by an Orthodox Rov suffice for an establishment to be properly kosher? Can a restaurant under a very prominent and respected Rov’s hashgacha be relied upon with ‘closed eyes’?”

It is important to mention that having a kashrus certificate issued by an Orthodox Rabbi won’t do the trick. There are over 1,500 Orthodox hashgachos around the globe. But a hashgacha is not, and should not, be automatically relied on. Even if it has many Hebrew words and states ‘mehadrin’ or the like, or even if a very prominent and respected rov is giving the certification, one should only rely on a solid, reliable hashgacha.

If a hashgacha is deemed a non-reliable hashgacha, it does not mean that the certifying Rabbi is not someone with a good name and reputation. Many times, there are reliable, trustworthy Rabbanim who sign their names to certify a restaurant or catering business, and it could still be considered a weak or unreliable hashgacha.

So what makes a hashgacha reliable? How can one differentiate between one hashgacha and the next?

That actually depends on several components. Kashrus can be compared to any other areas of expertise. In every field, there is a wide range of reliability, some individuals are excellent, others are incompetent, and many are in between. For that reason, people generally investigate professionals before hiring them. They try to speak to people who have used the services and ask for recommendations. One does not select professionals by simply finding their names in the Yellow Pages.

Many people mistakenly think it is easy to give hashgacha and any Rabbi can do a good job. In truth kashrus in many ways can be very complicated and requires much knowledge, manpower, and skill.

To determine if a hashgacha is acceptable, there are various factors that must be considered.

Standards: Certain Hashgachos may have lenient standards and will not require their food to be Pas Yisroel, Cholov Yisroel, Yoshon or other practices that one may be particular to keep. This doesn’t disqualify the hashgacha, but it may not be the standard you personally keep. Consumers should consult with their Rabbis to decide what standards are appropriate for them.

Halachic Knowledge: There are many complicated halachic questions that come up in the course of kashrus supervision. A reliable hashgacha must have all its halachic decisions made by competent poskim. Simply having semicha or the title Rabbi does not in any way qualify someone to give hashgacha.

Enforcement: A third and very crucial aspect one must keep in mind is the enforcement of standards. There are certain Hashgachos that have very high standards on paper, but hands-on enforcement is lacking. Enforcement requires manpower, it requires people on the ground, and it requires capable suitable individuals who will actually enforce the standards. If enforcement is lacking, then it doesn’t matter how high the standards could be, and how choshuv the rov hamachshir might be. If the enforcement is lacking, then you stay far away. Therefore, a hashgacha could be considered weak because they just don’t have the manpower and capability to manage the establishment under them properly and things fall through the cracks. Running a hashgacha is time-consuming, and one must be on top of their mashgichim and check in with their establishments constantly in order to uphold proper standards. Properly working cameras with high resolution controlled by the hashgacha is another crucial way to be on top of things.

Technical Grasp: The fourth component of a proper hashgacha is knowing how things work. One could have the highest standards, coupled with outstanding Halachic expertise and all the needed suitable manpower for enforcement, but there is a lack of touch with reality. The Rov might walk into a restaurant and not know how the various types of ovens work. How can they be kashered? How do they ignite? These are all practical things he must know to properly ensure the kashrus of the establishment. And this issue is only compounded in factories with high-end equipment. The supervising Rabbi must be proficient and understand the working of sophisticated and complicated pieces of equipment in factories.

Substandard: At last there are rabbis who take a very lenient subpar approach to kashrus. It could be because he is a kal, due to his lack of authentic Halachic values and lack of realization of how important every nuance of halacha matters. Or perhaps he believes the correct approach is to be meikel, to make kosher more accessible to the masses. Regardless of the reason, such a hechsher is obviously not recommended.

***

There are other key factors that must be mentioned as well.

In truth, a reliable hashgacha alone is not what determines whether you should feel comfortable eating somewhere. There is a crucial and critical three-linked chain that ensures that the kashrus at any establishment is fully reliable and trusted: The hashgacha, the mashgiach and the owners. If all of these three factors are properly in place and are trustworthy and reliable, then one can rest assured with absolute peace of mind that they will actually be eating kosher food.

The reliability of a hashgacha was addressed above. What follows expounds on the other two factors. 

The Mashgiach:

A hashgacha is only as good as its mashgiach. The hashgacha’s standards can be excellent but can only become a reality if implemented by a knowledgeable, capable, and reliable mashgiach.

A major part of kashrus is making sure that all the rules are being followed. That is why the mashgiach plays such a pivotal role in kashrus. A mashgiach needs to be observant and detail-oriented. A person can be very knowledgeable about all the halachic requirements of supervision, but if he is not down-to-earth and observant, he may be misled. A mashgiach obviously also needs proper training to be familiar with all halachic and technical aspects and intricacies of his job.

In addition, a mashgiach needs to be checked on and held accountable. It’s the nature of human beings to let their guard down with time. In truth, even the best mashgiach with time may start slacking and may not pay as much attention to details as they should. Naturally, mistakes happen. Products can be mistakenly approved, or the staff may forget to approve it with the mashgiach, and it can accidentally end up in the kitchen. In addition, changes in the kitchen’s equipment can also make a difference regarding the kashrus of the restaurant. The mashgiach may not always be attentive to these nuances.

It is therefore crucial to have someone else in the hashgacha who will oversee the mashgiach and the establishment at various intervals. This is commonly known as an “RFR”, a “field supervising mashgiach” or a similar title. This must be someone that the mashgiach feels accountable towards. This is someone that he can constantly reach out to with any questions or concerns. This person should visit the restaurant once or twice a week depending on the hashgacha’s standards. Having such a setup is crucial. Only with this can the mashgiach properly oversee and implement the kashrus standards with integrity, dedication, and scrutiny.

One should therefore inquire of the hashgacha itself, how often checks are made, and who conducts these supervising checks.

Another common question that arises is, “How can I trust a mashgiach that seems to be on a very basic level of frumkeit?”

All too frequently, consumers feel that they can trust or not trust a mashgiach based on his looks. They assume that if he looks the part and gives the impression of being a nice frum Yid, he must be enforcing the kashrus standards properly. That assumption can be very incorrect.

One could find a mashgiach with a small knitted yarmulke and jeans, who may not look the part, but he was trained properly, is on top of his game, knows exactly what is going on in the kitchen, and is strongly enforcing and implementing the hashgacha’s standards. On the other hand, it is possible to find mashgichim wearing the full garb who just aren’t aware of what is going on right in front of their nose.

One should also direct certain questions to the mashgiach when entering a restaurant. This will demonstrate that the mashgiach is knowledgeable. A mashgiach must be aware of the answers to your questions. Regardless of their personal standards, they must know how to answer questions regarding the washing and checking of bugs, their training, and the standards of the meat, dairy, or baked goods.

The Owner:

The third crucial link in the abovementioned chain is the reliability of the owner.

The very basis of any hashgacha depends on a rapport of trust between the kashrus agency and the owner of the establishment. If there is no trust, then there could be 100 mashgichim keeping an eye out for 24 hours a day, but an owner could still find a way to sneak in non-kosher meat, a bar of butter to put in some chicken, or some other non-kosher item. If the owner is a person who cannot be trusted, he can always find a way to sneak something into the food or fridge without anyone noticing. As such, it is critical that the hashgacha establishes trust in the owner.

Now, every hashgacha has its own barometer for who they trust. Some only trust frum Yidden, who keep Shabbos, keep kashrus, and live a life based on Halacha. Others will trust a Yid even if he isn’t personally frum, as long as he respects Torah and Mitzvos. Yet others will trust a goy, as long as he is coming from a background where religion is respected, he understands the idea of G-d, and has a deep respect for and values a system based on the G-dly commands. But even these hashgachos won’t give a certification to a non-Jew who comes from a background lacking religious values or belief in G-d, especially one for whom the only goal in life and sole motivation is making money. Such a person can’t be expected to be sensitive to kashrus and have integrity in the matter. Then there are those hashgachos that will even give hashgacha to the latter if they feel comfortable trusting them and they set up the strongest possible system for enforcement.

Unfortunately, just because an owner may be frum and seem like a G-d fearing Jew, does not assure that all will be well. In the past years, there have been scandals associated with such owners as well. Therefore, some hashgachas will only feel comfortable giving hashgacha to an establishment owned by a frum Jew if the hasgacha are the sole holders of the key and the establishment operates with a mashgiach temidi. This isn’t the widespread approach, but all agree that even with a frum owner the hashgacha needs to have strong measures in place to enforce the kashrus.

A person, therefore, needs to make their own research and speak to their personal rav and kashrus expert as to what standards they should be keeping. Do they only feel comfortable with a frum owner? What if the owner has the keys? How to approach an establishment owned by a non-frum Jew? Do they feel comfortable with a non-Jewish owner? And so forth.

***

So, when going out to eat these are the three key points to look out for. The hashgacha – a strong and reliable certification with high standards that keeps a tight ship with strong oversight and enforcement. The mashgiach – someone who is aware of everything going on and is in touch with the intricacies of what he is certifying. And the owners – reliable, trustworthy owners.

One who wants peace of mind should verify all three aspects before going out to eat, whether by a phone call, speaking to the mashgiach personally, or by being in touch with a kashrus expert. Do your due diligence and research all the above.

Finally, there is something that all consumers can learn from the latest scandal: “If you see something, say something.” If you find something that seems strange and does not fit with the certification standards, reach out to the certifying hashgacha‘s representatives. At the end of the day, they are not out there on the ground, and things may pass under their watch without being noticed. You are not just a bystander; as a consumer, you are an active participant in the kashrus. Hashgachos really appreciate feedback. You can act as another pair of eyes to help them be more alert and effective.

The above is an excerpt from a detailed guide Rabbi Zibell is working on called “Eating Out Without a Doubt”. It will soon be published by “Kashrus: Be In the Know!”.

Discussion
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  1. I have worked in a restaurant where the manager who knew that he wasn’t supposed to, used vegetables that weren’t checked, and then lied to the Mashgiach who came to check that he didn’t know. All the “hashgacha” did was put someone there full time, but he just stays in front and answers the phone, no checking to see what the manager is doing. This is a place where about 100 people go every night, and they have no idea what they eating.

    1. Nice long elaborated however somehow superficial.
      as a Rav Hamachshir and responsible for 17 restaurants, I stated from Rav Dovid Steigman ע”ה that meat looks like meat and the profit is close to 500%, in other words
      “מה יעשה לא החטא”
      All the precautions are completely futile if the boss is a non-Jew (Rav Chaym Palagi) and even a Yreh Shamaym only if he and his family don’t eat from the function (restaurants or caterers) (Radvaz).
      תן לכם וחכם עוד.

  2. This is NOT the Hechsher which the recent scandal was about, that Hechsher from my experience has been great, in being responsive if there’s an issue, and on backing up the Mashgiach if there’s an issue.

    1. Please give more details so we know to avoid this restaurant, on addition has the hashkacha been informed of this issue?

  3. The “hashgacha” has been informed. They did the mere minimum by putting someone in there full time, problem is the manager is extremely shrewd, and can do whatever he wants while making sure the new person stays by the front answering the phones. Not in the kitchen. I can’t say which place, my point is to show that anyone going to any restaurant has to do their research if it’s a reliable Hashgacha like the article says.

    1. If there’s a serious issue, you have an obligation to expose it, not to would be lifnei evir. Obviously we must do research, but we should also share such research, in order to help others.

  4. Another problem could be workers. Workers could use the ovens to warm their outside lunch while the mashgiach isn’t looking..

  5. Until the hashgachot pay their mashgichim (like what goes on in Baltimore with the star k) there will be problems. If the restaurant is in charge of hiring/firing/paying the Mashgiach funny business will go on. I heard stories from both my husband and son in law about them. And they both worked for excellent hashgachot. But nowadays the restaurants want the mashgichim to be regular employees on top of being mashgichim. Chefs don’t want outsiders in “their” kitchen and often a power struggle ensues which is against kashrus.

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