Michael Feldstein
Michael Feldstein

Asking for the Impossible

It’s interesting to note that with all of the critical issues facing the Orthodox Jewish community (and there are many), the two issues that have sparked the most discussion and controversy in the past few months have both been related to food.

What are these important issues that are trending high on social media, and that everyone seems to be commenting about?

I’m speaking of the OU’s recent announcement that it will not be giving a hechsher to Impossible Pork (even though all the product’s ingredients are plant-based and certainly kosher), and the brouhaha surrounding Ben and Jerry’s decision to stop selling its ice cream in Judea and Samaria.

I certainly don’t want to be accused of minimizing these critical culinary concerns of the Orthodox consumer, so I now offer my own “food for thought” on these important matters.

The Impossible Burger has been hugely popular in the kosher marketplace.  After all, which kosher consumer has never craved a good cheeseburger … or a milkshake to go along with a burger.   So when the company announced that it would follow its initial success with another imitation product – Impossible Pork – those who keep kosher were eager to try the new product.

However, kosher consumers were soon disappointed to learn that the OU refused to grant a hechsher to the imitation pork product, even though there is nothing in its ingredients or in its preparation that conflicts with Jewish dietary laws.

Many kosher consumers were outraged, as they felt that the OU had an obligation to its constituents to certify this product as kosher if the ingredients were kosher.  A product should not be deemed unkosher for reasons unrelated to the food itself, they claimed.

However, what these critics failed to realize is that the OU was not making its decision because the food wasn’t kosher; it was a business decision in which they were taking into consideration the sensitivities of its consumers.  And that’s a perfectly legitimate reason for the OU to hold back on granting a hechsher.

This was not the first time a kashrut agency had made a decision about certification that was unrelated to food.   In 2013, for example, the OU required a Manhattan restaurant to change its name from Jezebel, the name of a biblical figure associated with immorality, in order to retain its certification.  And before that, in 1990, there was the famous Glatt Yacht affair, in which a certifying kashrut agency refused to grant a hechsher to an establishment that allowed mixed dancing.

One might agree or disagree with the OU’s refusal to give its seal of approval to Impossible Pork. However, it’s disingenuous to claim that they don’t have a right to make a business decision about which products they choose to certify.

But there’s still a problem.  Where the OU fell short was that they have been inconsistent.  Ever since I was a youngster, I remember the OU granting a hechsher to imitation bacon bits.  And if you visit Trader Joe’s, you’ll see a product called “Spicy Porkless Plant-Based Snacks” emblazoned with the OU symbol.  Mock crab also has a hechsher.  Boar’s Head Glaze, with the word “ham” on the label, has an OU.  Why are these products allowed to be certified, while “Impossible Pork” is denied a hechsher?    I have not yet heard a good reason from any of the administrators at the OU.

It’s also important to note that historically, it is not only whether the ingredients of a particular product are kosher that factors into a decision by our rabbis on the kashrut of a product..  For example, eating chicken together with milk is technically not treif, but our rabbis do not allow it because it looks like we are eating milk and meat.  Halacha has always considered secondary communal or sociological factors when determining the “kashrut” of an item. To think otherwise is simply not correct.

Finally, because Impossible Pork is a plant based product that is environmentally friendly and healthier than a meat product, one could argue that kashrut agencies should be encouraged to offer such a product its seal of approval.

As to the Ben and Jerry’s case, there is no doubt in my mind that there are many at the Kof-K (the agency that currently certifies the product) who would love to take away its hechsher from the ice cream company after its anti-Israel stance.  However, the Kof-K has a contract in place right now with Ben and Jerry’s that cannot arbitrarily be broken.

Even if they could break its contract, there are those in the Orthodox community who feel that a kashrut authority should only determine whether food is kosher to eat, and shouldn’t involve itself with politics (although it’s interesting to note that many of the people who feel this way also believe that the OU was correct to not certify Impossible Pork, which on the surface seems contradictory).

Kosher consumers likely have nothing to fear, though.  If the Kof-K decides to pull its hechsher from Ben and Jerry’s, there are plenty of great kosher ice cream products in a myriad of flavors.  And I’m also fairly certain that if there is a strong demand for Impossible Pork from kosher consumers, another reputable kashrut agency will be glad to step in and give its stamp of approval to the product.

Meanwhile, perhaps we can shift our attention to some more important issues facing the Orthodox Jewish community – like when our shuls will be able to revert back to normal pre-pandemic kiddushim!

About the Author
Michael Feldstein, who lives in Stamford, CT, is the founder and owner of MGF Marketing, a direct marketing consulting firm. His articles and letters have appeared in The Jewish Link, The Jewish Week, The Forward, and The Jewish Press. He can be reached at michaelgfeldstein@gmail.com
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments