Ingredient Panels: A Reliable Kashrut Authority?

Dear Rabbi,

I’d like to know what you think of this following response I found on the web, regarding kosher food.

Thanks, Daniel

“Dear Rabbi M, Is everyone qualified to read ingredient panels? What about equipment issues? Eliyahu

Dear Eliyahu, Most ingredients are self-explanatory. If you don’t immediately recognize one of the items listed on an ingredient panel, further information is readily available from numerous sources, including the FDA website, encyclopaedias, etc. If necessary, one may directly contact the manufacturer of the product in question to inquire about its contents. You correctly observe that, generally speaking, non-kosher food has an impact on the pots and pans in which it is prepared – i.e., the cookware absorbs the flavour of the food and becomes non-kosher itself. Shouldn’t we then be worried that the companies that process packaged foods have used the same vessels to prepare both kosher and non-kosher items, thereby disqualifying even the “kosher” items that they produce? Your question is a reasonable one. However, when it comes to commercial food processing, “equipment issues” do not pose a serious concern, for the following reasons: 1. We are not halachically obliged to assume that a non-kosher product was prepared on the same equipment as the kosher food we wish to purchase. From a legal standpoint, the vessels used to process the food are “innocent until proven guilty”. In Talmudic parlance, this principle is known as “ahazukeh issura lo mahazakinan”. 2. Even if non-kosher food was in fact prepared on the same machinery as the kosher food, we need not assume that the non-kosher food was prepared within 24 hours of the kosher food “run.” This would mean, from a halachic perspective, that whatever flavour the equipment absorbed from the non-kosher food has already become insignificant by the time the kosher food even enters the picture. 3. Even if the two “runs” actually took place within 24 hours of one another, it is possible that the flavour of the specific non-kosher food in question is not compatible with that of the kosher food. For example, if we were to mix pork rinds with chocolate cake, the pork flavour would detract from the quality of the cake rather than enhance it. Thus, halachically speaking, the pork taste would automatically be nullified (provided it is less than a majority of the total mixture). This phenomenon is called “noten taam lifgam” in Hebrew. 4. Finally, as a matter of fact, it is well known that nobody ever tastes the flavour of one product in another product that has been processed on the same line. Indeed, companies will do everything in their power to ensure this, in order to maintain their reputations with consumers. This establishes a clear presumption that we need not worry about discovering non-kosher taste in an otherwise acceptable food item. In summary, then, there is a more than sufficient halachic basis for relying upon the ingredient panel of an item to determine its kashrut. Best Regards, Rabbi M.”

Dear Daniel

I cannot so readily agree with the author’s blithe acceptance of relying on the ingredient panel of a product.

For one thing, the identity and derivation of many products is unclear to the layman. This includes some emulsifiers, stabilizers, release agents, “e-numbers”, etc. Also, in many countries companies are allowed to substitute quantities of shortening derived from various sources as necessary, even if the panel reads “vegetable shortening”.

The author’s comments re pork in chocolate cake are also not definitive. First, counter-intuitive ingredients are by no means unknown in the world of food manufacturing. His comment about “ahazukeh issura lo mahazakinan” is also not compelling, in a case where the matter can be verified.

In some cases, there may also be an issue of bishul nochri (the item is cooked by gentiles, rendering it non-kosher) – for which the ingredient panel will provide no relief.

In addition to the above, the following comments were written by a kashrut expert at the OU:

…One cannot tell if a product is Kosher or not Kosher just by reading the ingredients list. Allow us to explain why:

For example: Our huge data base of products and ingredients has dozens of companies in the business of selling hundreds of various types of flavorings – flavors of such innocence that never in the world would you think that they were Treifa.

Suppose you see in the ingredient panel something like ‘strawberry flavouring’ – the first image one has is of someone dunking a bag of strawberries in the brew for five minutes or longer (something like a tea bag – right?)

The truth is that ‘strawberry flavouring’ can be as far removed from a strawberry as pastrami is from milk. Any particular flavour may be made up out of a combination of chemical and so called ‘natural’ ingredients.

[Did you know that if one were to take an enzyme from a swine or from any animal – you would be allowed to label the enzyme as an ‘All Natural Enzyme’?]

Well, many flavorings, stabilizers, and colourings use ingredients that are animal derivatives.

Unless you know the source of each ingredient, you would never know for sure if the ingredient is Kosher or not.

Another reason why one can’t rely on what is listed is: The FDA only requires that if the ingredient is at least 2% of the product (the percentage varies depending on the food category) then it must be mentioned in the ingredient panel. Anything less than the specific percentage point doesn’t have to be listed. In Halacha – It isn’t the same. 1.99% of lard will render the product Treifa.

Additionally, some type of flavorings, of the type which would be considered ‘mainstays’ of the product [Davar Hamamid], even less than 1% would make the product Treifa.

Please bear in mind: when it comes to Kashruth – it’s what you don’t know that may be the problem.

Finally: There is another reason why the ingredient panel won’t tell you everything about the Kashruth of the product. (A reason so simple that it is amazing that people don’t think of it.) Namely: On what equipment was the product made? What other products are made on the very same equipment? Etc….

Best wishes and kind regards

Rabbi Rashi Simon