THERE was once a time, believe it or not, when a potato was a potato. And when a tomato was a tomato.
Today, says Rabbi Moshe Heisler, whose job and calling it is to make sure that things that are called kosher are, in fact, kosher, its 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 arent 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 its 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 thats not true, because when you extract that flavor its 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.
It also poses an obvious problem for other particular consumers.
If youre 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 dont know what it is because its very covered up.
Many companies dont detail (and are not forced by the government to detail) their exact ingredients, partly because they dont 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 youve been doing this, what have you learned? Two words: Dont eat. You really dont know what youre eating anymore.
Another expression we use, which comes from the military: Dont assume anything.
Rabbi Heisler, an affable conversationalist and able raconteur, raises his hands in a classic Orthodox gesture of ironic frustration.
Its become, he says, a very complicated field.
On the Job Training
Things were far simpler in 1978.
Thats 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 Heislers 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. Its 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 doesnt 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? Weve 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 youve 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 Americas 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.
Im always learning, he says. I dont have two days that are the same. Thats what I find fascinating.
Pursuing the Evidence Trail
A bit of Sherlock Holmes is required in the work that Rabbi Heisler does. When he speaks of the countless potential kosher pitfalls in modern food manufacturing, he sometimes sounds like a detective following an obscure and complicated trail of evidence.
When he inspects a food plant for kosher certification, he not only has to study the food ingredients, but the machinery on which it is processed and the materials in which it is packaged, not to mention the barrels or tanks of additives which, in all likelihood, were manufactured at another plant entirely.
Sometimes these ingredients have already been supervised, which makes his work considerably easier.
Most flavorings and coloring agents already have a hechscher, Rabbi Heisler says, so you just have to determine that its a reliable hechscher. Hechschers are only as good as the rabbi who goes in there.
A few ingredients, such as water, are classified as Group 1, meaning they need no hechscher or specific supervision
Other times, however, he has to pursue the evidence trail.
Ingredients called processing aids are not necessarily listed as an ingredient but as far as we are concerned, if it goes into the food and has contact with the food, we consider it an ingredient.
Rabbi Heisler once discovered that an otherwise kosher sweet roll had been rendered non-kosher because the paper it was packaged in a special liner designed to make the product less messy when heated contained potentially non-kosher ingredients.
Who thinks about paper releasing oils? the rabbi asks. But youve got to think along those lines. What kinds of oils are going in there? Its very possible it could be an animal product.
The same exactitude applies to containers.
Glass is generally no problem, but plastic and paper might be, especially if theyre treated with oils, as many containers are.
When empirical evidence and common sense come up short, kosher supervisors also have the option and the Vaad occasionally uses it of taking samples of a product to an outside lab to double check the ingredients.
This is a failsafe way of keeping manufacturers honest about what they put into their products.
The company will say, Oh, we forgot to tell you . . . Or they might not even have known, Rabbi Heisler says with an experience-based smile.
Once, in the course of supervising a vegetarian food company, the Vaad discovered that the food contained animal-based additives in its ostensibly natural flavors. The supervisor of that firm was shocked when the rabbis informed him that his products werent really vegetarian.
Rabbi Heisler has dozens of similar stories, gleaned from his years of supervision.
He has learned that a widely used red food coloring agent, based on the well-known carmine dye, derives its vivid color from a certain species of beetle which, under Halachah, is treif, or non-kosher.
He has learned that most so-called non-dairy coffee creamers are made with something called sodium caseinate, a byproduct of milk, making them not only problematic for kosher consumers but also for people with food allergies.
He has discovered that even the making of potato chips is not simple. Its not just a matter of washing, peeling, boiling and frying the potatoes. In the cooking process, manufactures add a defoamer to deal with the fact that potatoes create starchy foam while boiling and this chemical itself has to be thoroughly investigated.
He has also learned through the experience of a friend, no less that commercially sold apple juice often contains enzymes and other wheat-based products, making them potentially harmful for people with wheat allergies and to observant Jews, who are forbidden to consume wheat products during Passover.
Apple juice! Rabbi Heisler exclaims. Its got to come from apples, which is true, but what else is in there?
Rabbi Heisler has also learned to keep an open mind.
Once, while supervising a social affair in Park City, Utah, Rabbi Heisler told the chef that he would have to change his main course because the marlin fish he planned to serve was considered treif.
The chef protested, insisting that the marlin had scales and fins crucial features that determine a fishs kashrus. The rabbi consulted higher authorities at the OU which, despite the marlins long-held reputation as non-kosher, declared the fish to be kosher.
The chef in the case above was very impressed, not at his own cleverness, but at the rabbis honesty and willingness to investigate his argument, Rabbi Heisler says with a humble grin.
In the face of such complexity and the sheer quantities of modern food production how can Rabbi Heisler be absolutely, positively sure that everything his agency supervises is truly kosher?
Isnt it like trying to count stars, or grains of sand on a beach?
The Vaad Hakashrus has a policy of zero tolerance when it comes to the presence of treif in any product bearing its hechscher, he says, applying the same absoluteness to other respected kashrus agencies.
Even though the USDA allows a certain miniscule level of insect and rodent contamination in hot dogs, for example, if such products bear a hechscher then they are to be considered trustworthy, if they have decent supervisors, he says.
The rabbi is pressed: But how can anyone be absolutely sure.
He smiles and relents at last.
Were only human and there are mistakes, he says.
The Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, goes into what happens if youre mistaken what do you do? How do you handle it? Sometimes we call something pareve and theres actually something dairy in there. Things do happen like that. Therefore, we have a whole section of Jewish law that helps us make decisions when it happens.
We can do the best we can, but you know, if I take a gun and shoot you accidentally, youre still shot. Im still held accountable. Im not G-d and I cant tell you how much, who, what, where and when, but there is a thing called repentance. We would go through a lot of soul-searching to make sure that it doesnt happen.
G-d knows our intentions and our thoughts and He knows were trying to do good. Could I have done a little better? Thats always the question that comes up.
Kashrus supervision is a huge and complex responsibility, and fraught with pitfalls, but youve got to try, Rabbi Heisler says.
He is fully aware of how completely kosher consumers put their trust in his judgment and of how seriously these people take their mitzvah to keep kosher.
He is also absolute in his belief that keeping this mitzvah is precisely what G-d wants Jews to do.
Those are reasons why you want to make extra sure that you do not make a mistake, he says. Youve got to do your very best.
Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News