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Kashrut supervision more complex than he could have dreamed

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Rabbi Moshe HeislerTHERE was once a time, believe it or not, when a potato was a potato. And when a tomato was a tomato.

Not anymore.

“Today,” says Rabbi Moshe Heisler, whose job and calling it is to make sure that things that are called kosher are, in fact, kosher, “it’s not a potato anymore.

“It can look like a potato, smell like a potato, even taste like a potato.”

Potatoes these days are way ahead of their ancestors of just a few decades ago. They have more consistent — hence more marketable — colors. They last much longer than they used to.

Potatoes aren’t alone in this brave, chemically-enhanced, new world.

“Years ago, you could take a tomato and if you left it out for two or three days, it became a little bit ripe, to say the least,” says Rabbi Heisler. “Now you can leave a tomato out for probably months and the firmness will still be there because they inject enzymes.”

The list of such edible alterations is long.

That uniformly brilliant peel on oranges in the produce aisle?  Coloring agents.

The attractive, come-hither, shine on those scarlet apples?  Wax, or other fruit polishing compounds.

“Things are not as black and white as we think they are,” says Rabbi Heisler, kashrus administrator for the Vaad Hakashrus of Denver, source of the increasingly visible “Scroll K” hechscher, kosher seal of approval.

“You can call something ‘natural flavor,’ so you assume it’s natural orange flavor. But what does that mean? Well, you extract the flavor from the orange and apply it to whatever it is, right?

“Unfortunately that’s not true, because when you extract that flavor it’s extremely bitter and very flat, so the first thing the flavoring companies want to do is give it some body. So they put in ingredients like monoglycerides, oleoresin, gelatin, which can all be derivatives from animals.”

If those animals are non-kosher species, or a kosher species that did not have kosher slaughter (or shechita), it poses a huge problem for those intent on keeping kosher.

Obscure Meanings

It also poses an obvious problem for other particular consumers.

“If you’re a vegetarian, for instance, and you go in to get an orange flavored herbal tea at a vegetarian restaurant, you may not realize that you are eating something that came from an animal. It could be anything. You really don’t know what it is because it’s very covered up.”

Many companies don’t detail (and are not forced by the government to detail) their exact ingredients, partly because they don’t want the competition duplicating their recipes.

And while the government allows certain labels and names, such as “natural,” “organic” or “pure,” these terms have obscure meanings, if any precise meaning at all.

Rabbi Heisler says there is hardly such a thing as a “100% pure” shortening, for example, because manufacturers put in various emulsifiers to help the ingredients stay mixed and not separate. Emulsifiers can also come from animal products.

The amazing panoply of substances which manufacturers mix into, apply onto, wrap around or otherwise incorporate into modern food products — so-called “processed” foods as well as so-called “natural” foods — has become increasingly complex and extensive in recent decades.

Such things as flavorings, emulsifiers, preservatives, coloring agents and other additives are very real pitfalls for the kashrus consumer, hence a major concern for somebody like Rabbi Heisler, who takes his role as a guarantor of kashrus very seriously indeed.

Today, there are very convincing butter flavorings that have nothing to do with dairy, even lard flavorings that have no origins in animal ingredients.

“You can duplicate almost anything,” the rabbi says.

“Somebody asked me, ‘In all the years you’ve been doing this, what have you learned?’ Two words: Don’t eat. You really don’t know what you’re eating anymore.

“Another expression we use, which comes from the military: Don’t assume anything.”

Rabbi Heisler, an affable conversationalist and able raconteur, raises his hands in a classic Orthodox gesture of ironic frustration.

“It’s become,” he says, “a very complicated field.”

On the Job Training

Things were far simpler in 1978.

That’s when Rabbi Heisler, who had absolutely no training in kashrus supervision, “accidentally” and unofficially co-founded the Vaad.

At the time, the only truly kosher locally produced food was a special run of bread that the old Star Bakery would bake for Yeshiva Toras Chaim. Beyond that, kosher consumers in Denver who wanted kosher bread had to have it sent in from Chicago or New York or, like Rabbi Heisler’s wife, bake it themselves.

A chance meeting between the rabbi and several grocery officials at an East Side King Soopers resulted in that store opening a new kosher bagel counter.

“I was not an expert at that time,” Rabbi Heisler says. “As a matter of fact, the only thing I knew about kosher was that if something had the kosher label it was okay.”

That initial bagel counter was supervised by Rabbi Heisler, who then and there began his own on-the-job training program.

“I had OJT,” he says with a smile. “It’s interesting because today in my position, to do what I do, you need a degree in food science, a background in chemistry and a rabbinical degree.”

Which is itself striking testimony to how complex the field of kashrus supervision has become.

“That was unofficially the beginning of the Vaad Hakashrus. One thing led to another, and now we have 150 different accounts which doesn’t include the companies that we do for other national kosher certification agencies, such as the OU, Star K, Chof K, the CRC and so forth. They basically contact us and ask, ‘Would you mind going down here for us and representing us?’ We’ve worked with them very closely for many years.”

Although the Vaad began as a strictly local supervision agency, it has since gone “Rocky Mountain regional” and even international, supervising or helping to supervise food production plants in places like Guatemala and China.

Rabbi Heisler travels a lot, visiting not only food production plants and factories, but a wide range of chemical companies – the makers of various ingredients that go into the finished food products.

While he has never pursued a degree in chemistry, the rabbi has learned how to talk the talk. He can converse fluently with the chemists who make such concoctions.

“After you’ve been in the business for awhile you learn what each ingredient is and what it does,” he says.

He and colleagues work constantly to update their knowledge, often through seminars and classes of the Association of Kashrus Organizations (AKO, which Rabbi Heisler himself led for many years). The AKO provides up-to-date technical and scientific information.

Rabbi Heisler and his colleagues also consult frequently with the Orthodox Union, which is likely America’s most extensive repository of knowledge on kashrus.

The complexity of discussions at AKO and the OU has risen in tandem with the complexity of food products themselves, the rabbi says.

“I’m always learning,” he says. “I don’t have two days that are the same. That’s what I find fascinating.”



Last Updated ( Thursday, 22 March 2012 09:54 )  

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