What Could Be Wrong With the "K?"

A number of years ago, an OU-certified company requested authorization to use “Charlie’s Bread Crumbs” in their product. Since a “K” was prominently displayed on the bread crumb label, I called the Charlie company to inquire which rabbi provided their kosher supervision. Mr. Johnson politely advised me that they were under the strict supervision of Rabbi Shlomo Greenberg (I have changed the name) from Brooklyn, New York. I then proceeded to check with a colleague in Brooklyn.

“Do you know Rabbi Shlomo Greenberg, and how reliable his supervision is?” I asked.

“Why, Rabbi Greenberg was very reliable, when he was alive. He died five years ago,” came the reply. Somewhat perturbed that a deceased rabbi was still certifying a product, I called back Mr. Johnson.

“How can Rabbi Shlomo Greenberg supervise your bread crumbs if he died five years ago?” I queried. A long pregnant pause followed.

“No wonder I haven’t seen him around for so long!” The moral of the story is that the first step in evaluating the integrity of supervision reflected by the “K” symbol is to determine that a bona fide, living rabbi provides the certification. In some states, there are laws which restrict the use of a “K” if the rabbi is deceased, but in many states it is legal to print a “K” on the label without any rabbinic supervision at all. You can generally establish who is behind the “K” by calling or writing to the manufacturer and asking for a copy of the letter of certification.

There is another inherent weakness of the “K” symbol. Why would a company use a generic “K” on their label rather than one of the 1269 kosher logos (printed in the 2015 issue of Kashrus Magazine) which clearly identifies the certifying rabbi or agency? One answer is that companies print labels in large quantities. If, for some reason, the certifying body terminates their supervision (this may be for financial considerations, or as a result of kashruth violations) the manufacturer cannot legally continue using a copyrighted kosher logo on their label. In fact, the OU and many kashruth agencies specifically include clauses in their contracts requiring the destruction of labels in the event that supervision is terminated. It is not uncommon for a company to have tens of thousands of dollars worth of labels in stock, and destroying the entire inventory of labels can be a costly ordeal.

In contrast, the “K” symbol provides great flexibility. If the supervision of one rabbi doesn’t work out, a new rabbi can be immediately contracted to continue the “K” coverage, or if the state agencies aren’t looking closely, the “K” labels can be used without any supervision at all. Thus, even if you know who the “K” represents today, there is no guarantee that the supervision will remain in place tomorrow. Some “K” products have had the same supervision for years, but in general, a “K” symbol is not a reliable guarantee of an enduring hechsher.