Currently, according to Rabbi Yosef Wikler, editor of the Kashrus Magazine, 1,033 kosher symbols and agencies are in service worldwide. The structure and functions of present kosher certifying agencies were initially established in the 1920s. The background dynamics that brought about their establishment can be traced back more than 250 years earlier.
The history of food being made kosher for Jews in America began in 1654. In that year, the first 23 Jews found refuge in New Amsterdam (later known as New York City). Following the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, Jews fled to many different countries. Those that made their way to Recife, Brazil, found safe haven there until 1654, when Spain gained control. The Jews in Recife immediately left and were captured by pirates who brought them to New Amsterdam for ransom. Their landing and acceptance represented the establishment of today’s Congregation Shearith Israel, the first and oldest congregation in what is today the United States.
The need for kosher supervision in the United States dates back to Colonial times. In 1660, in then New Amsterdam, a Portuguese Jew, applied for a license to deal in kosher meat. The first recorded complaint that is still extant occurred in 1771. In 1774, Hetty Hays, then described as a widow, complained that her shochet (ritual slaughterer) was selling non-kosher meat. The first recorded legal license revocation against a kosher butcher took place in 1796.
As the Jewish community developed in America, it originally followed the kehillah system of Eastern-European Jewry in the congregation appointing shochtim. If the shochet did not follow the strict guidelines set by the kehillah rav and community leaders, the shochet would be summarily and immediately dismissed. This changed drastically in 1813 in America when Avraham Jacobs, a respected shochet, established himself as the first freelance shochet. He was followed by many more. Unfortunately, shochtim not being accountable to a congregation’srav led to a rapid decline in the standard of kosher meat.
In 1863, a group of laymen and shochtim combined into a kashrus organization that hoped to control this situation. Unfortunately the effort was unsuccessful. In 1897, shochtim themselves banded together to form a union called “Meleches Hakodesh” (holy work). Their goal was to dramatically improve kashrus standards, thus raising public respect for their profession as well as to substantially increase their own wages.
Increasingly, kosher products were being mass manufactured as well as imported into the American market. In 1918, Abraham Goldstein, a chemist, was highly instrumental in both importing many products as well as in convincing domestic companies (such as Sunshine Biscuit Co.) to become certified kosher. In 1924, the Union of Orthodox Congregations (OU), established in 1892, entered the field of kosher certification as a service to its member congregations. Chemist Goldstein was appointed as its first kosher director. During the “food revolution,” when more and more products were being prepared in company plants and not in private kitchens, the “OU” increasingly became active as a non-profit organization in the kosher certification of these food products.
Abraham Goldstein, a visionary, continued to head the OU until 1935. Feeling a need for another certifying agency, he then started the OK Laboratories. Today, the OU’s kosher certification arm, headed by Rabbi Menachem Genack; and the OK, headed by Rabbi Don Yoel Levy, reliably certify thousands of products, including base ingredients used in production of foods products certified by other kosher certification agencies. As the complexity of manufacturing foods and the need for kosher certification has increased, so has the number of kosher certification entities in serving this need. This has led to the rise of newer certifying agencies, such as the Chof K, Star K, and many others. Individual rabbis have also entered this field, often using their own kosher symbol to designate a product as kosher.
The huge number of different kosher certification enterprises has caused a great deal of confusion. With only two or three certifying agencies, consumers were easily able to judge their reliability. But today a great deal of detective work may be necessary to ascertain the standard that a particular certification or rabbi is using. Consequently, many people prefer to rely on only the well-known certifying agencies, rather than risk the chance that a product may not meet their personal kosher standard.
Legal Highlights in Kosher Certification
1915: The first law pertaining to kosher food in the United States was enacted by the Legislature of the State of New York. The New York statutes served as the model for all subsequent kosher food legislation in the United States and elsewhere. The statute prohibits misrepresenting non-kosher food as kosher and requires stores selling kosher and non-kosher food to post signs acknowledging that non-kosher items are also being sold in the same premises.
1918: The 1915 New York Kosher Law was challenged and upheld as Constitutional by the New York State’s Supreme Court. Many such challenges followed, in New York as well as in other states. The 1918 challenge to render the law as unconstitutional was unsuccessful.
1935: During the Great Depression, the United States Supreme Court strikes down the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) of 1933, ruling on the Schechter Poultry Corp., a case about a kosher slaughterhouse that was processing “sick chickens.” The act, which set maximum hours and minimum wages, was found to be in clear violation of the Constitution.
That same year, the OU certified Heinz’s vegetarian beans, a popular food staple throughout the United States, as kosher. The late Frank Butler was Heinz’s first full-time mashgiach (rabbinic supervisor) and Abraham Goldstein established the Organized Kashrut Laboratories (OK). The OK quickly became the nation’s second largest kosher certification agency.
1972: An effort to enforce kosher food laws in Miami was fought in court, the first such battle in almost 50 years. Many states had by then established consumer protection laws to protect kosher consumers, mostly modeled after New York State’s extensive statutes to protect kosher consumers.
1992: The New Jersey Supreme Court declares its Kosher Laws as unconstitutional. But when the United States Supreme Court declines to hear the case, the challenge is limited within New Jersey’s borders. The state continued its active enforcement against consumer kosher fraud, which the Supreme Court ruled was the state’s obligation.
2000: A federal judge in Brooklyn ruled that New York State’s Kosher Law components were entanglements that “are not only excessive in themselves, but they have the unconstitutional effect of endorsing and advancing religion.”
2002: A Federal Appeals Court upheld the 2000 decision.
2004: New York’s Kosher Law Protection Act of 2004 was signed into law by Governor George E. Pataki, requiring producers, processors, packers, distributors or retailers of kosher food products, as a certifier of kosher food products, or as operators of a food establishment who prepare kosher food, to file product and certifying information with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, regulated by the division of Kosher Law Enforcement.