By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Last week three area establishments announced they would give up their supervision by Vaad HaKashrus of the Five Towns and join a new hashgacha, Mehadrin of the Five Towns. This article is intended to analyze the issues of introducing a new hashgacha both practically and halachically.
One of the more prevalent issues with hashgacha today is the issue of bugs in vegetables. The Vaad HaKashrus of the Five Towns has reached an extraordinarily high degree of quality; it is rare to find bugs in a salad from a Five Towns kosher restaurant.
This author decided to test some salads from a few of the more populous boroughs in New York City and also in some restaurants under the Vaad.
The results were shocking. By and large, in those salads purchased in New York City almost every salad that was not Positiv or Bodek brand had a few bugs per salad. It was so prevalent that this author informed his students not to eat salads from stores in that borough. On the other hand, pretty much every salad ordered from a Vaad HaKashrus of the Five Towns restaurant was clean. All the salads in this experiment were ordered surreptitiously and without dressing. They were examined by highly trained kollel yungeleit and paid for by the Five Towns Jewish Times.
This discrepancy is because the Five Towns has one strong Vaad. In the borough under discussion, there are numerous kashrus organizations, and if one of them gets too tough, there is always another hechsher.
It would be a bad thing if vegetable and salad preparation standards went down in the Five Towns. Although the erlichkeit of the new Mehadrin of the Five Towns Vaad is without question, sometimes one needs to be a bit of a toughie to ensure compliance with the difficult task of overseeing insect inspection. At times, entire cases of fruits or vegetables need to be refused and a manager or owner will not be happy when that means he will be left with no product. As far as meat issues, in this case, there is no reason to doubt one organization over another, in this author’s opinion. Both are ehrlich.
Benefits of Competition
Competition can be a good thing because it generally brings prices down and quality up. Rav Yosef Karo in Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 156:7) discusses the ability of in-town businesses to limit out-of-town vendors from going door-to-door. They may only sell to customers on market day and only in the market itself. The Rema, however, rules that a new competitor may not be restricted if either his prices or the quality of his merchandise or services are preferable for the residents. This opinion is cited in the Tur and is attributed to the Ri Migash (1077–1141), a student of the Rif. We see that the Rema supports the benefits of competition.
The experiences of other communities have shown a multiplicity of benefits of competition in a community as it pertains to kashrus.
- It can improve kashrus standards (but it can reduce standards, too)
- It can reduce the price of a hechsher. This directly affects the bottom line of a business and can be the reason why an eatery will remain open or close. Generally speaking, there are two costs in a hechsher — the price that the mashgiach is paid and the monthly payment to the kashrus agency. The monthly payment can range from $250 a month to $1,500 per month for a restaurant or store.
- It can improve transparency and integrity in kashrus.
- It can reduce heavy-handedness and bullying in interactions between a heschsher and a subscriber that can be a source of great chillul Hashem.
On the other hand, competition could be a bad thing if it reduces the infrastructures that are invested in the public benefit. The Vaad of the Five Towns has a local office and a secretary people can call and usually get a response within 24 hours. A local organization can utilize other local resources. For example, when some consumers were complaining that there was no oversight regarding tevilas keilim at a local Jewish-owned facility, a local yeshiva high school was recruited to ensure that the thousands of glasses were properly immersed.
Hasagas g’vul means improperly encroaching upon the area of the other. It once referred to moving a property line, but in business it refers to encroaching upon another’s livelihood. Poskim have ruled, in general, that there is hasagas g’vul in the area of kashrus. Some have questioned whether it applies in this case, as the Vaad of Five Towns is its own institution, not an individual business. There are employees of the Vaad who do make their parnassah there and competition might affect their parnassah adversely.
There is a fascinating answer from Aruch HaShulchan as well (Choshen Mishpat 156:11). He writes that this Rema is limited to a case where the new competitor is just more reasonably priced. If, however, the older business was not price gouging and now the newer businessman will cause the older business to go out of business, then it is a problem of hasagas g’vul.
What Is Likely to Happen Here?
How this situation will be resolved is unknown. The last time such a thing occurred was when Gourmet Glatt was sold to its new owners and managers. An attempt was made to bring in a hechsher from outside our area and the community did not shop there. Ultimately, the owner sold, and the community has benefited enormously from the three stores that provide high quality food and high quality kashrus, with the highest type of service.
The current situation is different. The Mehadrin of the Five Towns is composed of locally known talmidei chachamim with integrity and high reputations. The two business owners who signed up are local businessmen with excellent reputations.
A meeting between the two agencies is necessary so they can agree on standards for insect inspection. This author was told by one of the rabbis of the new hechsher that the insect inspection standards at both restaurants are being kept at the same level. This is welcome information.
The problem is that a second hechsher does open the door for a possible third hechsher that will not necessarily adhere to the very high standards this community has established. The matter is not inconsequential. Kashrus is a value that we must hold dear, and even though some will trivialize this point, I do not think anyone would willingly eat insects if they knew they were present.
This author videoed salads from New York City showing some 3.5 bugs in each salad — many of them living. What is necessary is to figure out some way to ensure that a third hechsher with lower standards does not come in and bring down the standards.
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.