By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

By Yair Hoffman

The summer is fast approaching. And often, when the weather becomes warmer, our fruits and vegetables become buggier. Eating bugs is a violation of the verse in Vayikra (11:41): “All crawling things that creep upon the ground are disgusting—do not eat of them.” Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, ruled (see Mesoras Moshe Vol. III p. 190) that bugs in lettuce are forbidden because they are considered “upon the ground.”

When it comes to bug hosts, there are three categories of food types.

Foods that rarely have bugs in them. This includes most fresh fruits, and some vegetables, such as carrots, tomatoes, and potatoes. For these foods, a visual inspection to ensure that no bug has burrowed its way into the food is enough to allow its consumption. (They should still be washed, on account of overuse of pesticides. This author knows of one community in Eretz Yisrael where pesticides may be the reason for an excessive cancer rate among residents.)

Foods that have bugs in them every once in a while. This includes dried fruits, beans, and rice.

Foods that almost always have bugs in them. This includes strawberries, lettuce, romaine, cabbage, dill, parsley, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, and spinach.

Foods in categories two and three must always be checked (some of them are so infested that it is advisable to avoid them altogether). Many poskim hold that not checking them and then serving them is considered as if one has intentionally added bugs to the food.

This author advises his readers and students not to purchase a salad in Brooklyn (and many other communities as well) unless one knows with absolute certainty that the salad used was either from Bodek, Positiv, or Kosher Gardens. It is possible to implement a system called a mesh-filtering washing process, but sometimes this claim is made, and it was actually done.

A few years ago, in the Brooklyn community, this author filmed no less than 11 bugs in one Caesar salad. There were: one fly, two aphids, and eight thrips (four baby and four adults) in just one salad. The author videotaped the entire procedure, showing the sealed salad, the hashgachos that the salad had, and the process of finding the 11 offending insects. (It can be seen at YouTube.com/watch?v=SdB4xAs8oEk&t=7s)

Anyone watching the video will be completely repulsed. The level of infestation is such that there are serious Choshen Mishpat questions of how the sale of such salad can be taking place. The odds are pretty high that the mere consumption of one Caesar salad will yield, on average, a violation of 12 to 24 Torah prohibitions—about equal to consuming a case of Slim Jims.

Rigorous Oversight And Training Is Necessary

There are a number of experts who know how to train mashgichim well. The reason that rigorous oversight and training is crucial is because most people do not know how to spot the offending organisms at first glance. They also do not know how to distinguish between aphids and mites and thrips. For aphids, it is best to check leaf by leaf. For mites and thrips, it is best to check with a mesh cloth.

Originally, mashgichim were hired to keep proper kashrus control in the kitchen, and the protocols for vegetable inspection were usually added later. When that happens, the training was simply not there.

Once a mashgiach is retrained, he will know, for example, how to use a standard sheitel shpritzer to turn a possible aphid body upside-down, placing the feet and tentacles face-up rather than face-down. Believe it or not, the top trainers also teach the mashgichim how to become aphid obstetricians. A mashgiach who is adequately trained can show a consumer the pregnant aphid and deliver six of her babies before his or her eyes. All this can be seen by the observer just with the naked eye.

The Counter-Arguments

There are two main counter-arguments that are generally given to justify the lax methods of cleaning and inspections. The first argument is that these aphids, mites, and thrips are too small to be seen. The second argument is that there is no miyut ha’matzui (significant minority) of infested leaves, which is the halachic threshold for what needs to be examined. Both of these arguments, however, are, at best, highly questionable.

Why They Are Problematic

Firstly, when examining restaurant salads, the exact opposite is the case: it is a miyut of salads that are, in fact, not infested. Secondly, while it is true that some of these aphids might be too small for the average person to see with the naked eye, many, if not most, of them are large enough to be seen. It is also a statistical impossibility for the half-dozen or more thrips and mites that are found in the average salad to all be so small to fit into this leniency.

Some of the people who argue that these bugs may be consumed point to various teshuvos that ostensibly permit the bugs. This is a huge error, as whenever there is a salad that contains small mites or thrips, it also has the larger mites and thrips and certainly aphids as well.

One such responsum that is often pointed to is one that was authored by Rav Shmuel HaLevi Vosner, zt’l (Volume VII #122), in his Shevet HaLevi. Rav Vosner takes up the case of a black dot that is visible to the naked eye but not identifiable as a bug to the naked eye; however, if one sees it under magnification the dot is revealed as a bug. Rav Vosner concludes that such bugs are not forbidden.

The problem is that while this may be true regarding a whole class of bugs on fruit per se, it is only a theoretical issue regarding salads. Aphids, mites, and/or thrips that are very large in size and scope are statistically present, too. In other words, there will always be a significantly-sized thrip or mites along for the ride whenever there are smaller ones.

So the quote of “Lo nitnah Torah l’malachei ha’shareis—the Torah was not given to the ministering angels” (see Berachos 25b) that is often invoked to justify the bugs is erroneously applied. The average person can see a significant percentage of these insects with no need for extraordinary measures. Magnification is generally thought to be an extraordinary method (see Aruch HaShulchan Y.D. 84:36 and Darchei Teshuvah 84:94), but these can be seen without aids.

How The Miyut She’eino Matzui Is Determined

A second issue lies in how the statistics are determined. But first let’s go back to the basic aspects of the halachos of tola’im, insects.

If a food is generally infested more than fifty percent of the time, then it is considered “muchzak b’tola’im” and it must be checked and cleaned according to Torah law. If a food is consistently infested but not to such a degree that it is a majority of the time, the need to check and clean it is of rabbinic origin, according to the Shach (84:28; see also Sifsei Da’as). The statistic of 10 percent or more (first presented by the Mishkenos Yaakov Y.D. 17 based upon Bava Basra 93b) is often the line of demarcation of what is considered miyut ha’matzui or not. If it is less than ten percent, many poskim are of the opinion that there is no rabbinic obligation to check. Others consider it meritorious to check even at less than ten percent and some consider it obligatory under certain circumstances. (It should be noted that the Beis Ephraim in Yoreh De’ah 6 has a smaller number than the ten percent figure.)

Now back to the problem of how the miyut she’eino matzui is determined. Do we look at ten leaves of lettuce, and if we do not see a bug in at least one of those leaves do we assume that this romaine is OK? Or perhaps we should examine each container of salad? It may be unclear as to what order of magnitude of the sample size is, in fact, required, but it is also clear that we should not be serving customers insects in their salads.

The best way to avoid that is to realize what kinds of insects are infesting the produce in the first place. Some infestations are so profound that it is almost impossible to clean them even with three general washes; this is particularly true with aphids, which attach themselves deeply into the leaves. The top hashgachah agencies are now recommending a pre-check: if the number of thrips is above three per head of lettuce, then the batch should be rejected in the first place. The restaurant owner should be shown the level of the infestation in the pre-check so that he will realize that the mashgiach is not crazy.

It is also something of which the end consumer should be made aware, in order to ensure that Klal Yisrael keeps to the highest standards of kashrus. 

The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com. Read more of Rabbi Hoffman’s articles at 5TJT.com.

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