kosher symbols (idea)
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|Kosher symbols are markings found on kosher food labels which indicate that the product contained within adheres to the strict laws of dietary observance found in the [Torah]. In order to obtain this marking, the manufacturer must apply to a certification organization which will inspect the entire food preparation process and ensure that it is kosher. These symbols are known as hechshers.
Can't you tell whether something is kosher from its ingredients?
In older times, this was most certainly the case. Decades ago, before pre-prepared, processed food became the norm, it was very easy to control what kind of food came into your kitchen. Meat came from a [butcher], and food [ingredients] were purchased fresh and individually, making it much easier to to know exactly where your food came from and what was put in it. It was obvious which foods were kosher and which weren't.
The situation is much more difficult now -- food comes pre-prepared, and most often the consumer has absolutely no knowledge of the source of the ingredients. The real reason is a simple one. The [label] just does not contain enough information to make a judgement about a product's kosher status. This is because the requirements of the [FDA] differ from the requirements of kashrut. Here are some examples of what you cannot tell just by looking at the label. Take the ingredients listed in [chicken noodle soup] for example.
Origin of ingredientsFrom the point of view of kashrus, the amount of information that you don't know is staggering. Take the manufacturing process, for example. The situation listed above is rather clear -- if you're making a non-kosher product one day, you can't just use the same [machinery] the next to make something that is kosher. But what if the machinery was used to make something kosher -- say noodles that contain milk as an ingredient. Now let's say they wish to make noodles for the [chicken noodle soup]. The problem comes from the fact that you are not allowed to mix meat and [dairy] products. Because the machinery made noodles with milk, all subsequent noodles that it made would be considered dairy, even if they don't contain [milk]. If we were to make noodles for the chicken noodle soup, the machinery would have to be throughly cleaned and kashered, otherwise the noodles would be dairy and would conflict with the chicken. It is impossible to tell if a certain situation such as this exists in the manufacturing plant, and so we cannot tell if the food is strictly kosher.
There is another issue regarding ingredient labels, and this one affects [vegetarian|vegetarians] and people with [allergies] as well as Jews. The issue is that the FDA does not require an ingredient to be listed if it is not used in large enough quantities. If, say, a flavoring is used in very very small amounts, there is a good chance that it won't be listed. This is a problem because according to the laws of kashrus, every ingredient, no matter the amount, must be kosher. An example of this uncertainty can be found in [apple juice]. On the face of things, there should be nothing unkosher about apple juice -- apples are kosher, and if it is "[pure]", it won't contain any preservatives or anything that might be problematic. Kosher through and through, right?
"Pure apple juice" generally has [gelatin] made from the ([skin] [cartilage], [bones] and [meat] of non kosher animals) added to remove the [pectin] from the juice and to give it a clear appearance. The pectin attaches itself to the gelatin and both are filtered out. Kashrut problems can arise in the filtering method or if the juice is heated before filtering. Even a "[cloudy]" juice which would seem to indicate that no clarifying agent has been added, sometimes indicates the opposite: the gelatin has been added but not totally removed, in order to give it a "[natural]" appearance
The gelatin is the same reason why it is important to make sure that you are buying [kosher cheese] -- [rennet] which is used to curdle the milk is derived from cow stomachs. In order to be kosher, cheese must be made from [vegetarian rennet].
In order to solve this uncertainty, organizations have arisen to supervise the process and certify that a particular food product is kosher. If it passes inspection, the [manufacturer] earns the right to affix the organization's certiying mark to a particular product. Each product must be considered individually as the manufacturing process and ingredients differ from product to product, even if it is made by the same manufacturer.
In order to receive kosher certification, the manufacturer applies to an official organization. At this point a complete and thorough [audit|examinination] of the process is performed. Every single thing added to the food must be certified kosher. If [ingredients] come from other manufacturers, they too must be certified. [Machinery] is inspected and the food handling procedures are examined, especially when other food is made using the same equipment. If everything checks out, the food is certified kosher for a specific period of time, after which the entire process must be reviewed again.
Partial List of Kosher Symbols
What follows is a small listing of the symbols that you are most likely to find in United States supermarkets. I have tried my best to describe the appearance of the symbols, but I strongly advise you to visit http://www.kashrus.org/kosher/symbol.html just to be sure. It also lists symbols that are used in other countries.
In addition to these symbols which tend to found more or less nationwide, there are a whole host of symbols which are found only in certain regions; [Texas], [Baltimore], and [NYC] being prime examples of this. As a simple rule of thumb, any symbol that has [Hebrew] on it is most likely a kosher symbol. Things being the way they are in the [United States] and [Europe], manufacturers won't try to mislead you about this sort of thing. If you are uncertain, however, you best check the website listed above to make sure.
In addition to the certifying symbol, many organizations provide supplemental information about the manufacturing process.
Note: The Dairy designation can be espescially important, owing to the FDA labelling protocols mentioned above. Oftentimes you can find creamer which contains enough milk product to be considered dairy by kosher standards, but not by the FDA, so is labelled "non-dairy". See http://www.ou.org/kosher/dairy.htm for more information.
What about just a 'K' by itself?
A product that contains only a K on its label is a tricky situation because it is not clear exactly what the kosher status of the food is. The K is not a symbol of any certification organization, so it means that it has been placed there by the manufacturer and has not been reviewed by a reliable supervising authority. People who wish to keep [strictly kosher] should not eat food labeled thusly because there is no guarantee that it is 100% kosher. People who are more lenient probably can eat the food, however remember that you are trusting the manufacturer and not an official [authority].**
*Be careful not to mistake this and the OK symbol with the [registered trademark] ®. Every product will contain a registered trademark -- don't go thinking everything is kosher!
**It would be interesting to see whether this falls under [truth in advertising] laws.
Thanks to [herbman] for setting me straight about [Pareve].
Yay [nodeshell rescue]!