Behind the Scenes of the Largest Kashrus Certification Network in the World
What difference could there be already between a product that bears the
Badatz kashrus symbol and one that does not? • What is there to be careful about with fruits from Eretz Yisrael, and what halachic significance is there to the packing plant’s sticker? • How might a product be tainted with a suspicion that it is actually associated with idol worship, and how can it be that two competing plants safeguard their most important secrets with the same body? • Which food processing plant serves as a beis medrash govoha for 183 Rabbis, shochtim and supervisors in which to learn practical food-preparation halachah? • Are fins and scales on a fish sufficient to render it kosher, or are there other aspects that could cause it to be non-kosher? • The story of how a fish was de-certified because of a suspicion of stealing. • The world of codes and numbers, without which the kashrus system would not be able to function.
When it comes to how food ingredients are produced and the degree of their kashrus, the bitter tragedy that befell the Menachem family with the death of their daughter illustrates powerfully how critical a single microscopic component in food can be. The 25-year-old woman from the community of Bat-Shlomo, near Zichron Yaakov, was in a village near Dharamshala, in northern India, when she suddenly took ill and fainted. The doctors in the local hospital could not save her, and she died. A relative later explained that “she had always been allergic to milk, and was careful all her life not to go near it, but this time she apparently put something in her mouth, maybe something cooked in a pot that had milk in it beforehand … and sadly, could not be helped in time.”
As we see all too often, an acute allergy can pick up on even tiny particles of a harmful element and bring about dangerous symptoms, even death. In an analogy with the world of kashrus, one who eats a food that contains just one solitary ingredient, or even invisible traces thereof, can be in violation of Torah prohibitions, Rachmana litzlan.
Ensuring that these small particles do not taint what we eat and cause Jews to violate the laws of kosher food, the largest kashrus organization in the world — the Badatz of the Eidah Hachareidis in Yerushalayim — employs countless emissaries and mashgichim in Israel and throughout the world. Their job is simply to make sure that non-kosher ingredients, products of mixtures of non-kosher and improperly slaughtered animals, and other prohibited products do not enter the foods under their supervision.
Under a veil of secrecy, we were taken behind the scenes of what can be called the sanctuary of world kashrus, and learned the secrets of the extensive certification system operating in thousands of factories in Israel and around the world — some even in far-off and barely-heard-of places. All this, so that everything you eat, from the cream spread over your delicious Shabbos cakes to your toddler’s food substitute, will be perfectly kosher, without a shred of safek.
The kosher insignia of the Eidah is often the only mark distinguishing between that which is kosher and that which is treif. There can be two products from the same company that look exactly alike on the outside, but one is kosher and one is not. During our visit to the Eidah kashrus headquarters we came to understand that this open secret must always be remembered: To avoid mistakes, make sure you see a Badatz insignia on whatever you buy.
Here’s a small example: One of the Eidah’s mashgichim, Reb M., once received a phone call from a man who had purchased an eight-pack of yogurt manufactured by a certain company. The product wrapping sported a legitimate Badatz seal, but when he later looked at each individual container, he saw to his horror that four of them did not have the stamp. “I asked him how he came to check the individual containers,” the mashgiach related, “and his answer totally surprised me. He said that he felt a different flavor in one of the cups…” The man quickly checked each container, and found that the only difference was that some of them were not stamped with the Badatz seal. “We see that sometimes one can actually taste the difference between a product that is under Badatz supervision and one that is not,” the mashgiach concluded.
In fact, the fascinating tour that we took in the various departments of the famous Zupnik building in Meah Shearim in Yerushalayim was so chock-full of information and precision in halachah that it can only best be summed up in an entire booklet. An entire world of concepts and knowledge was opened before us, over which hovers an exalted aura of pure awe and fundamental fear of sin, under the full guidance and responsibility of the Rabbis of the Badatz.
Mitzvos of the Land: Shemittah, Orlah, Terumos and Maasros
Harav Meir Dovid Bergman, shlita, has been the director of the Land-Dependent Mitzvos Department of the Badatz for quite a while; he has handled five Shemittah years already.
“Every time a Shemittah year begins, I have no idea how we will be able to get through it and abide by every detail of its laws,” he says. “And then when it ends, I have no idea how we managed to do it. It is clearly a case of Divine help with no natural explanation; a series of open miracles.”
Harav Bergman explains that for the Badatz, Shemittah is not just once every seven years. “Our preparations for Shemittah begin as soon as the previous one ends.” That is, in the first years after Shemittah, the produce that grew during the Shemittah year must be tracked. Soon afterwards begin the efforts to find places from where to take produce during the coming Shemittah. Lands owned by non-Jews, with no financial connection to Jews at all, must be found. Data in the hands of the Eidah show that 13-15% of Israeli residents consume mehadrin produce, meaning that close to 1.5 million people must be supplied with kosher-for-Shemittah fruits and vegetables. This is an operation that requires detailed coordination and logistics. And, of course, there are also issues of orlah (fruits from trees that are not yet four years old), which is a complicated issue in the Badatz. Harav Bergman tells the following story that shows how critical it is to be on the alert:
Harav Bergman recently received a call from a mashgiach in a certain vineyard, reporting on strange weeds growing adjacent to the vines. The mashgiach said he asked the owner why he didn’t clear them, as he always did in previous years. The owner responded innocently that he learned in an Agriculture Ministry course eight different reasons why it is beneficial to leave the weeds growing. The issue of kilayim, of course, wasn’t raised, even though it could very well be that the weeds could be used for food for humans or animals and are mixing in a forbidden manner with the vines. The mashgiach instructed him to immediately cut away the weeds, and only then certified the vineyard kosher. Harav Bergman emphasizes how important it is to be on the alert, since so many farmers simply don’t know all the many laws.
The main problem regarding orlah can be summed up in one sentence, Harav Bergman says: “Agriculture today is very money-oriented, with nothing to do with ideology.” In the past, orlah supervision involved only the first three years of a tree’s life, but today it is much more complex. This is mainly due to the significant national investment in new varieties and strains of growths. Each new type requires a new counting of the three years, and it is no easy task to keep track of the various fruits. Preserving the new strains in a nursery and transferring them to a tree while they are still attached to the ground is not acceptable to the Badatz kashrus organization because of the halachic complexity.
And what of terumos and maasros? This field, too, requires careful and precise halachic supervision. Not only must the mashgichim ensure that non-tithed fruits and vegetables not mix with those that have been tithed, they must also supervise the tithing process itself, so that terumos and maasros are taken only from produce of the appropriate status. For instance, tithes cannot be taken from one year’s produce for another year — something that is liable to occur in the large packing plants with giant refrigerator rooms. The Badatz inspectors must ensure that each crate is dated correctly, otherwise the tithing could be done wrongly and consumers could, chas v’shalom, eat tevel.
Harav Bergman says that Jews abroad must be careful with produce imported from Israel, and be aware of issues of tevel and orlah. If there is a packing-plant stamp, the produce becomes, halachically, kavuah, meaning that rov (majority) can no longer be relied upon, and tithes must therefore be taken to remove all doubt (after ascertaining that there is no problem of orlah).
One of the dominant and influential figures in the offices of the Eidah Hachareidis is Harav Pinchas Hacohen Binder, shlita, a world-renowned expert in the areas of chemistry and biotechnology. He has expert and precisely detailed knowledge of the ingredients in no fewer than 1,000 (!) different raw materials in the database of the Badatz.
Our talk with him was a fascinating experience, encompassing many aspects of the scientific details of kashrus. His terminology is replete with scientific names and acronyms, and without his gracious patience in explaining everything, it is doubtful whether I would have been able to last more than five minutes into the interview. We started off discussing many of the kashrus issues involved with raw materials, beginning with this example: “Cysteine is an amino acid used for baking and extracts. It is derived from various sources, including goose and duck feathers and human hair. It turns out that its production process involves placing the feathers in boiling water, which means that the ‘flavor’ of non-kosher animals is absorbed.” In addition, it must be ensured that the human hair does not come from China or India, where the shaving of hair for purposes of idol worship is widely accepted. In practice, Harav Binder explains, now that technology has been developed for the production of cysteine by fermenting carbohydrates, the Badatz has switched to the exclusive use of cysteine produced only in this manner.
While on the topic, he shows me something he happens to have on his desk: a chemical compound called ethyl butyrate, used to enhance flavor in processed orange juices. He explains the two accepted ways to manufacture it, one of which involves problems of non-Jewish milk and wine. But, he sums up with satisfaction, the one on his desk was manufactured using a third method, by the refining of citrus fruit oil.
Very complicated kashrus work awaits the Badatz in extract-manufacturing factories. Each plant of this type involves between 3,000 and 10,000 different types of extracts. Harav Binder explains that there must be a kashrus supervisor who knows all the different types and sub-types of all the raw materials; the plant managers themselves cannot be relied upon for this information. Not infrequently it happens that the expertise of a Badatz representative carries the day, as happened at least once when a mashgiach proved the existence of a certain animal-based or dairy ingredient that did not appear on the list on the wrapper. “We know that ingredients A and B don’t go together — yet in order to make C, A and B must have some D, so why isn’t D listed?!”
Extracts, with all their complexity, are only one aspect of the kashrus work of Harav Binder. A superficial review shows that he and his team of more than 10 people in the Industry and Raw Materials Department deal expertly and intensely with every field in the food and pharmacological industries. These include oils and fats, starches and dextrins, proteins, amino acids, stabilizers, yeast products, enzymes and cultures, liquors, vitamins, minerals, fruit lubricants and polishes, petrochemicals and aroma chemicals (synthetic aromas) and fine chemicals of all kinds and types. And we have not yet even begun to discuss food additives, a complicated issue with thousands of ingredients in and of itself.
The mashgichim of the Eidah Hachareidis don’t certify a product as kosher if they don’t first know all its secrets — even the most closely guarded ones, which every respected food manufacturing plant has. The plant managers must divulge these secrets to the Badatz, without hiding a single detail. When they see that they are dealing with experts and scholars who sometimes know the material better than they do, they have no choice but to yield and tell all — unless they are willing to dispense with the chance to receive the coveted certification. When necessary, the mashgiach will even go to the lab with the specified raw materials to check whether the results he comes up with match those claimed by the company, and until they do, the product is not Badatz-certified.
Among the very many items on Harav Binder’s desk, I see two capsules produced by two rival international companies, both with the Badatz kashrus seal. “Both companies have told us how their product is made,” he says. “This is the secret of our success. Even though in general, they keep their trade secrets far from the public eye, and certainly far from that of their competitors, they know that we will not certify them without knowing precisely what goes into their products — and they also know that we are trusted not to divulge them to their competitors.”
Our conversation continues for a long time, but it seems that no matter how long he speaks, his overflowing wellspring of information and interesting facts from the places and factories he has visited in the framework of his job around the world will never cease.
The Mehadrin Milk Revolution
Welcome to a plant that works seven days a week, even on Shabbos, and yet the Rabbis not only don’t object to it, they even certify its produce as 100% kosher. Not only that, but there are hundreds and possibly thousands of such plants throughout Israel. For those who have not yet guessed, we’re talking about a simple and elementary refet, or barn. Yes, a barn, with all its cows, is an industrial plant for all intents and purposes, and works around the clock 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Those under Badatz supervision, of course, operate according to all required halachic specifications.
Most unfortunately, ever since the establishment of the state, most of the milk economy in Israel has not observed Shabbos properly. According to a famous ruling by the Chazon Ish, as quoted by his brother-in-law the Steipler (Kehillas Yaakov 2:7), one may not purchase milk from a non-Shabbos-observant barn: “For if no one would buy the milk he produces during the week, the barn’s stock of milk would pile up without buyers, and this would cause the owner to minimize his work in the future … Therefore, by buying his milk, whether made during the week or on Shabbos, we ‘place an obstacle before the blind’ and cause him to desecrate Shabbos, and the fault is that of the buyers…”
As of two years ago, approximately 10% of the dairy farmers were Torah-observant, and their produce was marketed with a Badatz stamp via the Tnuva dairy company, carefully differentiated, according to Badatz instructions, from the other products made there with a gold stripe around it.
Happily, however, the sector of kosher-milk consumers is growing, thus requiring a larger supply of kosher milk products. And so, as of last year, Tara Dairy — Israel’s second largest milk processing dairy, after Tnuva — entered the mehadrin milk market, under Badatz supervision, causing a bona fide revolution in the entire dairy economy. The number of Shabbos-observant dairies has now doubled, surpassing the 20% mark. That is, a full fifth of the dairy industry in Israel is under mehadrin supervision. How does it work? A G-d-fearing mashgiach oversees everything that goes on in the barn 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The milk is thus entirely chalav Yisrael, and in addition, there is no chillul Shabbos in the barn; even the food for the animals is prepared beforehand.
In this context it should be noted that the solution once proposed by Harav Wosner, zy”a — cameras recording the goings-on throughout Shabbos, ensuring that no chillul Shabbos is taking place — is no longer in use. Harav Wosner himself negated it shortly before his death, telling the Eidah that he had left a clear letter on this topic. The letter was written back in 2013, and was cited in the work She’eilas Moshe by his student Harav Moshe Shaul Klein. Harav Wosner writes there as follows: “With the improved technology of today, those who are expert in it can change the data; what purpose, then, is there to the cameras? It could also lead to [other] obstacles, and therefore my Torah opinion is that we may not rely on the cameras…” In another letter brought in the same sefer, Harav Wosner writes: “In this matter, which concerns the holiness of that which all Yisrael eat, the Torah opinion is that it doesn’t matter what type of camera is used, and it is best to rely on accepted [human] supervision as explained in the Shulchan Aruch.”
The Eidah people have been surprised to find so many Jews who were happy to join the kosher dairy revolution and receive Badatz certification. The supervisors say that they continually meet people who ask them, “Where were you until now?” And thus the generation is ready, with G-d’s help, and the revolution is gaining steam. Following the recent doubling of the kosher milk economy in Israel, it is almost certain that next year will bring further growth — and the hope that very soon, the entire milk economy will be properly Shabbos-observant.
The Fish Department
“What could possibly be the problem with fish?” So asked, rhetorically and in one voice, the co-directors of the Badatz Fish Department, Harav Dovid Meir Weiss and Harav Zev Frankel. One of them then continued, “After all, Hashem created fish with very clear and straightforward kashrus signs that every five-year-old child in cheder knows!” But then they pull out an enlarged photo of a carp, and in the folds of its head can be seen “another creature created by G-d,” in the graceful language of Harav Dovid Meir, “which are none other than worms, and very common in the heads of carp.” This means, of course, that without examination and supervision, people are liable to stumble over severe prohibitions, G-d forbid, when eating simple fish.
Harav Weiss said that fish that are bred in Eidah-supervised pools can be eaten without fear of worms. However, there are fish from the Kinneret that, because of the nature of the water, have parasites. It is therefore important to make sure only to buy fish with kashrus certification, and to avoid buying fish from the Kinneret that are widely sold in Teveria.
The kosher fish industry is very extensive. Every Motzoei Shabbos, teams of mashgichim set out for different countries, east and west, to oversee the kashrus of fish. Some fish cannot be supervised at all, such as the sol fish imported from China, which is highly infected. The Dutch sol, on the other hand, is approved only under the close supervision of the Eidah — and is then worthy of being served on the table of kings. And let’s not forget the popular tilapia (amnon or mosht, in Hebrew). They are also simple fish, ostensibly, and do not present undue problems of worms. However, the water additives injected into fish that are slated for freezing for later consumption contain phosphates and other materials that are liable to have kashrus problems. Thus, the amnon also requires the Badatz stamp.
Harav Weiss has an interesting story about water additives, showing the extensive influence and responsibility the Badatz bears. There was once a production line of a particular fish, on the packaging of which was a kashrus stamp stating that the fish contained 20% water. In practice, double that amount was injected into it — and so the Rabbis of the Eidah rejected the production line, because it was felt that people rely on the kashrus stamp even regarding the proportions of ingredients. If people bought the fish thinking there was less water than there was, the Badatz feared that its “deceptive” packaging would lead to the seller taking money unlawfully from the consumers.
Security and Stamps
This last department is not directly connected to the halachic aspects of kashrus, but without it, the entire network could not exist securely and effectively. Headed by Harav Zev Frankel, this is the department responsible for the manufacture of the seals and stamps that serve the teams of mashgichim.
The stash of equipment and materials he works with is most impressive: countless types of stickers and stamps, coils and cable ties, plumes and holograms, which can simply not be counterfeited. There are also different sets of computerized code combinations that correspond to lists entered in the system, as well as other creative inventions such as invisible ink that can be read only with a special slide, and more.
Harav Frankel shows us special stickers that can be scratched off to reveal a stamped code underneath. There are also other stickers that can withstand both extreme heat and extreme cold, developed specially for the Badatz for products that are packed and stored under extreme temperatures.
The work doesn’t stop, Harav Frankel says, and his team is constantly working on the development of new products in the area of security, even while working on the routine updating and entering of new codes.
Asked if there is in fact no way to forge the Badatz stamps, Harav Frankel says, “There is no way — with G-d’s help.” He tells a story that bears this out: “Among the many attempts to get around our security was the following. A supervisor abroad was asked by the plant manager to supply him with hologram kosher seals for his products. At one point, the mashgiach began to suspect that the amount requested was greater than the amount of items scheduled to be produced. He in fact checked the data, and found that the manufacturer was taking advantage of his good-heartedness in order to stamp non-approved items with the Badatz seal. It goes without saying that the kashrus certification was removed from the entire line, and the Badatz cut off all ties with that manufacturer. If not for the alertness of the mashgiach, together with the Divine help that often accompanies the Badatz, this deception might never have been discovered.
A Final Kosher Thought to Ponder
Our journey through the complexities of the Badatz kashrus system is over for now, but not yet completed. There is much more to learn in this field, in which the hidden is far more than that which is visible to the common man.
As a parting gift, one of the Rabbis of the Eidah gives us a recommendation for further study: “Take a look, if you please, at the responsa of the Chasam Sofer, Orach Chaim 1:83, and see what he writes there about the importance and value of keeping kashrus.”
We did as he advised, and found that the question posed to him in 1824 concerned a seven-year-old orphan: “The boy does all sorts of nonsense, and seems not to even know what he is saying. He listens when spoken to, but does not understand what is said to him. He is neither deaf nor mute, but he is also not intelligent; all his actions and all his movements prove, attest, and tell that he is totally dim-witted and that his intellect is very weak… All the doctors here agree unanimously that there is no cure for his condition, other than to go to the city of Wein or Weitzen near Pest [part of Budapest] where a school with teachers for such children has been established, and there they are educated and given some intelligence. The doctors say that if he goes to this school, he will most certainly and without a doubt improve intellectually step by step, and though he will never be as smart as other people, he will at least be able to communicate normally. But the question is: Are we permitted to send him there, since he will be fed only non-kosher food — or not?”
The Chasam Sofer responded with a very long treatise, including sources and deductions, questions and proofs, and finally concluded with his holy opinion that, according to the letter of the law, it would be permitted to send the boy to such a place.
However, in truth, “Our early masters have attested that when a child eats forbidden foods, this dulls the heart and begets a bad nature. And therefore I conclude that it would be better for him to be an imbecile all his life [and not eat non-kosher food], and may Hashem grant him understanding and show him miracles from His holy Torah.”