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Initial Interview With Rabbi Yehuda Rosenbaum

Rosenbaum is the administrator of Kof-K.
Summary after the jump.

What is involved in obtaining certification? “A company would recognize the need on their own…and then make a contact via the internet or telephone and ask for information…they would get that information via e-mail…what that often is, they would have to submit a list of raw materials…perhaps their machinery would have to be cleaned…a rabbi would have to periodically visit if it’s a completely kosher facility.”
How often do ingredients need to be changed? “Almost 95 percent of the companies that apply…you can’t be a little bit kosher…you’re talking about 100 percent of their raw materials…it’s a rare occurrence when a guy will have 200 ingredients and…salt is kosher all the time…when you’re talking about a company with 200 ingredients, there’s a likelihood.”
What differentiates the various supervisors to the consumer? “I’m not…OU, OK, Kof-K…not much difference in the eyes…throughout the united states and much of the world…whether it’s better or not, when I choose a kof-k…unless of course, you’re in the chasidish market…it’s a reputation that’s earned.”
Why do are some supervisors more trusted in the Orthodox community? “You get a reputation, by things that you know or do…if there were two companies out there: one with a good reputation, one with a bad reputation,” people would tend to choose one over the other.” Products are diffent, some have “15 ingredients, one could have 100 ingredients…flavor companies inevitably use non-kosher ingredients…so in every flavor company that’s real good…many have a mashgiach almost every day…you take a company with a bad reputation…that a rabbi’s coming in once a year to do his review.” Another reason occurs “when a company switches a certification, and we find that they have to switch ingredients, because the rabbi never had a list of raw materials…I get calls all the time…is this certifier responsible…I try to direct that caller back to their own personal rabbi…truth is, the rabbi may have a perspective on his community, it may be good for them…life and halacha, Jewish law is rarely black and white…if a rabbi wants to tell people that you can eat this” then that’s his prerogative.
How do those reputations develop? “How does any rabbi get a reputation? How does anybody get a reputation?”
Some people say that FDA standards are enough to ensure that the ingredients are kosher; how do you respond? “Wow…what creates a scenario…we certify fish companies…and with fish companies…you really need supervision…it does need to have simanim…needs to have skin…when you hear from a fish company that the rabbi relies on a company,” you think he’s not reliable. “Many tiems you get an application from a company” and find that it doesn’t adhere to the same standards. “There was a certification agency that used to certify gelatin, and they don’t” anymore, but they have a bad reputation.
What about Rabbi Yitzchok Abadi’s position? “First of all, he’s a sephardi…my background is ashkenaz…I’m not really sure if the mechaber” maintains the same standards. Further, “forget about ingredients, what about equipment…vegetable oil…could be made in a company that makes animal fat.”
But what about the view that whatever non-kosher remains, either in scraps of food or the flavor in the equipment, would be removed through the requirements of cleaning in a world in which companies are scared of allergens at the level of parts per million? “I would disagree with that because…if you took your fleishig pot, and you cooked in it macaroni,” you’d have fleishig macaroni. But isn’t the equipment essentially kashered in the intensive cleaning process? No, because all that’s involved is “soap, 120-degree water.”
But in the case of, say, peanuts, manufacturers make certain that subsequent products produced on the same line either contain no trace at all or note that it was produced in a peanut line on the label — isn’t that a level of cleaning and lacking ta’am to the point where, assuming peanuts were a kosher problem, we could safely assume that the food wasn’t peanut-infected? Even if there’s “no peanut in there…that pot is a peanut pot.” But, Abadi would say that the cleaning required would make it no longer a peanut pot — what do you say? “I don’t understand that, but, whatever…again, you know where…the Sephardim are not yet on the level of the Ashkenazim…maybe he wants to make a leisure.”
In general, if there were non-kosher ingredients in a product, wouldn’t we know it from a food label? “That’s not the way” his kosher supervision works. “Natural flavors” as a classification can include animal extracts: “castorium comes from beavers…and that’s a natural ingredient…comes from the scrotum of a beaver…grape-skin extract, which is stam yeinam.”
People like Ralbag and the Tablet K’s Rabbi Reuven Saffra claim that the larger supervisors, and especially the Kof-K, go after their contracts; is that true? “That would be unethical…if a company calls us up and says we’re under so and so” he won’t take the contract. “Baruch hashem, there’s enough business out there that I don’t have to call up companies under Rabbi Ralbag and Rabbi Saffra” to try to get their business.
“Lays used to have a Triangle-K and they still do…their regular basic potato chip has an OU…I find it interesting they left out the OU” out of their list of supervisors that take contracts away.
What about their claim that you won’t allow other supervisors’ items to be used? “Not true…many, many many ingredients in our listings are certified by other agencies.”
How do you respond to the claim that more and more products that would seem not to need supervision have certification, such as water? “Water’s not a good example anymore, because of what happened in the New York City water.” But either way, kosher certification is often about “companies that want to get into the stores.” One company “wanted to get certification of an adhesive label…goes in the dishwasher it comes off…doesn’t need to be kosher.” He responded that “all I’m gonna do is charge you money for it, it’s stupid…believe me, I tell them, they don’t need to be certified,” but they want the certification, anyway.
In one case, a “machine oil” company wanted certification of a product used to lubricate the “belt running underneath the soda cans.” His response was “I’m telling you, you don’t need to be certified.” Then, “finally, they backed off.”
One time, the product was “dish detergent, that they insisted on it.” Another time it was “floor cleanser.” In general, the companies’ perspective is that “it looks good, and people like it.”
What about canned tomatoes? “Canned tomatoes are not products that do not need kosher supervision” because of the pasteurizing “water bath” which could also have a can of “pork and beans.”
“Canned products need to be evaluated,” he said. For a moment, he suggested that “certain canned products” might not need supervision, but then said “I take that back, it could happen anywhere,” referring to the pork and beans possibility. After the interview, I sent him a follow-up to this point, in which I wrote:

You said that canned tomatoes would be non-kosher if pasteurized in the same water bath as pork and beans, but wouldn’t that be a “triple nosein ta’am” (pork to can to water to can — and then a fourth to tomatoes)? I was under the impression that “No’T bar No’T” was as far as the transference of treif goes.

His response:

You are correct except in these water baths cans break and the insides mix with the water itself.

What about the classification of products previously assumed to not need supervision, such as hard liquor, about which the Orthodox Union published an article by R’ Avraham Juravel that was contrary to many people’s previous assumptions, such as a recent article from the Star-K? “I’m sure what Rabbi Juravel wrote is pretty accurate.”
How much does certification cost? “Anywhweres from $3,000 and up” for “a little company that needs to be visited very infrequently.” Larger contracts “could be $100,000.”
What about the perception that supervision has an inherent conflict-of-interest, and that the industry will tend to say that more things require supervision because they’ll be making more money when they do? “Part of that is accurate…more money comes in as supervision grows…go back to your reputation…if you have a reputation of being careful, of being reliable.” To provide a counter-example for mission creep, he said “if we had a company that was a potato chip company…a totally pareve potato chip company, we would go once a month.” However, if “we decided we need…a full-time mashgiach” to make more money off of that contract, “that’s gonna go real good until they get their oil…and it’s got an OU certification,” and they realize there’s another option out there.
If a supervisor were trying to push its luck with a contract, “word would get around the industry, not just the kosher industry, the manufacturing industry.”
Why do companies get kosher certification on products that don’t need it? Because it’s “good for sales…what do you think it is?”
So is kosher supervision a business or a community service? “I think it’s both…at what point is a doctor’s office a business, and at what point is it a public service…a rabbi of a big synagogue is getting paid.”
And why do some supervisors not get the same contracts — and why do some lose contracts to the larger supervisors? “Based on reputation, because they don’t do a good job…it self-regulates…we sell products with a kof-k industrially…companies that we certify sell it to the OU…vice-versa…the big three or four agencies, and some of the local ones…CRC, Denver, COR…self-regulates, not just based on rumor…but on fact…the garbage collector is providing a service, but he’s getting paid and if he doesn’t do a good job, he’s gonna get fired.”
Is the Kof-K a non-profit? “No…I think it’s an enhancement that it’s not…because somebody’s name is on the line…somebody will lose if things go wrong…non-profit, not his name…I just say that there’s more on the line when you have your name on it.”

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