Kosher certification exists to ensure orthodox Jews who comply with Old Testament teachings that everything is “clean, fit, or proper as it relates to dietary laws.” The Old Testament specifies which foods are acceptable to eat and how they must be prepared. Kosher products are prepared in a facility that complies with the dietary and sanitary requirements of Jewish law, and all ingredients must be kosher-certified.
Can anybody produce a product and label it “kosher?” Yes, and the “K” symbol, indicating “kosher,” appears on numerous products. But this symbol carries little weight with observant Jews. That’s because there has been no supervision by a kosher-certifying agency. Anyone—a home-cook, for example—can claim the product has been made in a kosher kitchen from kosher ingredients, adhering to all rules. She can bake her cookies and sell them locally with a “K” on the product label. People who know her and her strict practices may buy them with confidence.
But beyond that, consumers who are more observant require a higher level of certification. They rely kosher certifying agencies worldwide to ensure that each ingredient in the product is kosher, each piece of equipment used is kosherized and all rules have been followed. Each has an official identification symbol, or hecksher. There are hundreds of kosher certifying agencies worldwide. Even within the U.S., some, like the Orthodox Union, are very large; others can be a single rabbi operating within a limited geographic region. The most observant people will only purchase products with the hecksher of the certifiers they know, whose diligence they are comfortable with.
Certifying Agencies & Heckshers
In interpreting ancient dietary laws and adapting them to modern times, ingredients and processes, different rabbis have different opinions about what is kosher, or what is a kosher environment (in one recent contretemps in New York City, one rabbi certified as kosher a Dunkin Donuts that also served bacon). The following are four certifiers known worldwide for their stringent standards of quality, although there are many other fine certifiers:
The Orthodox Union of New York City (OU), the world’s largest kosher certifying agency, is known for having one of the strictest kosher standards in the world. Their first kosher certification was awarded to Heinz Vegetarian Beans, in 1923. The OU is the certifier for many Fortune 500 companies, including Coca-Cola, General Mills, Hershey’s, Kraft Foods, Nabisco, Pillsbury and Procter & Gamble.
The Chicago Rabbinical Council is an example of a strong regional certifier, the largest regional, not-for-profit, Orthodox organization in North America. The cRc symbol is also universally accepted, and works with food companies around the world.
Kof-K Kosher Supervision, headquartered in Teaneck, New Jersey, is another internationally recognized kosher certification agency.
Star-K, of Baltimore, provides global supervision and was the first agency to certify technology—a kosher Connect Io™ Refrigerated, Internet-Controlled Electric Double Wall Oven, which includes separate Sabbath and Holiday programmable modes. Star-K has a separate hecksher, Star-D, for its dairy-certified products.
Other certifiers like OK, not well-known in the U.S., are highly-respected in Europe, and will become better-known as more kosher gourmet food is imported. But the overall number of certifiers is staggering—such that there’s a piece of software for the Palm PDA that helps shoppers identify unfamiliar symbols as they shop. While some heckshers can be “sussed out”—cRc and Star-K, for example—others, like KOF-K, are less easily understood simply by looking at the hecksher.
Dietary Laws Overview
According to Jewish Dietary Laws, meat and dairy food must be prepared and consumed separately, and pareve food can be eaten with either meat or dairy dishes.
Foods are kosher dairy, kosher meat or “pareve,” neutral. Kosher products with meat ingredients are indicated (M) or meat, those with dairy have a (D) designation, and those that are pareve have the word pareve* imprinted. Some items that have no dairy ingredients have a (D) designation because they are made on the same hot processing equipment as products with milk ingredients—e.g., bittersweet chocolate with no milk solids that is made on the same line as milk chocolate. This is based on the belief that elements of dairy potentially absorbed by the equipment may be transferred to the non-dairy products.
Foods that contain neither meat nor dairy ingredients are “pareve,” neutral. Fruits and vegetables are pareve until they are cooked together with a dairy or meat product.
In general, meat can be consumed an hour after eating dairy, but dairy cannot be consumed until 6 hours after eating meat.
Milk is inherently kosher, but anything added to the milk, including vitamins must be kosher.
If kosher products are manufactured using the same equipment as non-kosher products, the equipment (utensils, vessels, etc.) must be kosherized before the product is produced. This involves very strict cleaning procedures at high heats which prevent cross-contamination of foods.
*Also spelled parve and parev. A “P” printed near the hecksher on the food package means the product is kosher for Passover (but it can be eaten at any time during the year).
1. a. Sanctioned by Jewish law; especially: ritually fit for use (kosher meat); b. Selling or serving food ritually fit, according to Jewish law (a kosher restaurant);
2. Being proper, acceptable or satisfactory (made sure the deal was kosher).
Food is considered to be kosher if it is prepared in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. Some of these laws include:
Animals must have cloven hooves and chew their cud. Cows, goats and sheep are kosher; horses and pigs are not.
Fish must have scales and fins.
Food must be butchered and prepared in accordance with Jewish law.
All blood must be drained from the meat or broiled out of it.
Utensils that have come into contact with non-kosher food may not be used with kosher food.