Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Is it kosher?

Nowadays the consumer has to rely very heavily on the mashgichim (supervisors) to ensure the food they eat is kosher. It is impossible for the average person to know all the ingredients in products s/he buys, and extremely difficult for them to check on the kashrus of each one.

In restaurants the diner has to trust that the mashgiach is doing his job, and not off 'davening mincha' when he is supposed to be superivsing. It would be virtually impossible to know whether the food you are eating is kosher or not by the time it lands on your plate.

Nowadays the consumer is reliant on supervisors even for plain meat. Gone are the days when you would take your chicken to the shochet and then the Rabbi and you could see yourself whether it is kosher or not.

So stories like these are very disturbing to me. I have no idea whether they ever sold non kosher meat, or whether they were only storing it in the fridge (and I think we should be 'dan l'kaf z'chus):

On Monday at 5:30 p.m., an official from the Chief Rabbinate's Kashrut Supervision Unit discovered that the Tamar-Biton butcher in Kfar Saba had meat in refrigeration earmarked for retail sale that had not been properly koshered according to Jewish law.

In the report entitled "Severe Stumbling Block - Tamar-Biton Butcher," Rabbi Rafi Ochai, head of the anti-fraud unit, wrote: "From the above findings it can be concluded that there were serious lapses and breaches in kashrut supervision directives that raise the possibility that the public was tricked into eating non-kosher meat."

The business was fined NIS 1,000. The Kfar Saba Rabbinate was advised by the anti-fraud unit head to suspend Tamar-Biton's kashrut supervision certificate.

(look at the strength of the Rabbinate - 1000 shekel fine! You could jaywalk ten times for that price!)

But what does disturb me is that the husband of the owner of the store is the one who pays the salaries of the mashgichim:

In addition to helping in the management of his wife's butcher shop, Yaish Biton is also the treasurer of Kfar Saba's religious council. He signs off on the paychecks of all religious council employees, including the chief rabbi's.

Najati said in response that Biton had promised to add a nikur expert to the Kfar Saba religious council payroll. "As treasurer of the religious council, Biton is the man who controls financial issues here," said Najati.

Ochai said the Kfar Saba case was "just the tip of the iceberg."

He said that although he was not sure if this was the case in Kfar Saba, in many cities and towns the local chief rabbi was weak while religious council officials, often appointed for political reasons, have extensive powers. "As a result, economic interests often take precedence over religious strictures," he said.

The Movement for Fairness in Government's Eisenberg said that in many religious councils there were "bullies" who did not respect the religious authority of the local rabbi. "Sometimes, like in Kfar Saba, there is an extreme case of conflict of interests," said Eisenberg.

"It is not right that the manager of a butcher shop is also the one who gives orders to those who are supposed to supervise him," he said. "There is no doubt that such a state of conflict of interests disqualifies him from serving in a religious council and from being able to sign off on paychecks."

This is a problem which is not really dealt with. In some cases, like this, the conflict of interest is clear. What is not talked about is that most restaurants also pay the salary of their mashgiach. Sometimes the money goes directly from restaurateur to mashgiach, sometimes through an organisation. But ultimately any mashgiach knows that his job and livelihood may be on the line if he says something is not kosher.

That is not a good situation. It is very hard not to be bribed by the knowledge that doing your job properly may get you fired.

I don't have a solution, but next time you eat kosher food think about who you are relying on for the supervision, and to whom (apart from G-d) they are answerable.

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