Thursday, January 12, 2006

A Bug Story II

I've received a good number of comments on my earlier post about the pre-washed romaine lettuce controversy, including many factual corrections. Additionally, I've seen an article in Kashrus Kurrents by the editor and an excellent article emanating from the OU (that I think might have been published in Hamodia). What follows is an attempt to accurately describe the situation.

I. Presumptions and Removing Them

It seems that there are three issues of contention regarding the Star-K's kosher supervision of pre-washed romaine lettuce. Everyone agrees that heads of romaine lettuce are infested with bugs and, because of this presumption of infestation, must be carefully checked before being eaten. However, a system was devised to wash the lettuce with a high-powered flood washer using a mixture of water and chlorine to remove the bugs. If this washing works, then the lettuce loses it presumption of infestation and can be eaten without any checking (a mashgi'ah supervisor checks three handfuls after the washing to ensure that they are bug-free and can establish the entire batch as bug-free). Just about all supervision agencies in the US had accepted the new washing system. However, questions have been raised about its effectiveness. The Star-K remains confident in the system, relying on its effectiveness in the past as attested by a few years' worth of records to that effect. Others -- particularly the OU -- contend that the washing system has been demonstrated to not be as effective as previously thought (or at least not consistently, depending on the level of infestation of the original batch). Therefore, according to this latter group, the romaine lettuce never loses its presumption of infestation and must be entirely checked before being eaten.

II. Non-Jewish Checking

The Star-K states that it relies on Non-Jewish checkers to find bugs or declare the vegetables bug-free. This has come under question since the Non-Jewish checkers generally do not have standing in testifying regarding ritual matters. While professionals may testify about their business practices if they will suffer from incorrect testimony, some supervision agencies do not apply this to our case because there is no question that the Non-Jewish checkers are satisfying the government's standards. Therefore, some agencies question whether Non-Jews may testify about standards above and beyond their regulatory requirements and industry standards. However, my information is that the Star-K uses this only as an additional, and halakhically unnecessary, layer of checking. Therefore, the Non-Jewish checkers' lack of legal standing in ritual matters is irrelevant. Nevertheless, R. Moshe Heinemann spent a good deal of time on this aspect of the supervision when he spoke at a recent conference about pre-washed vegetables.

III. The Meeting

Someone, I'm not sure who, convened a meeting in Brooklyn of rabbis about Star-K's lettuce supervision and showed them many bugs found in Fresh Express pre-washed romaine lettuce. Based on this, the rabbis signed a condemnation of all pre-washed romaine lettuce. This was repeated another two times (and videotaped), and one rabbi there who was certifying pre-washed romaine lettuce removed his supervision on the spot. After investigating this, the Star-K removed and retroactively revoked its supervision of Fresh Express pre-washed romaine lettuce. Additionally, due to the controversy, the Star-K dropped its supervision of pre-washed romaine lettuce from other producers despite its confidence in the washing process.

IV. Organizational Consensus

I have very sketchy information on this, but it seems that there was some sort of agreement about four years ago among the major kosher supervision organizations on standards of vegetable checking that are stricter than R. Heinemann's and R. Schachter's views. The consensus of posekim seemed to be strict, so the organizations agreed to proceed with strict standards. It is not clear why, but the Star-K did not follow the consensus agreed upon but, after the most recent scandal, has decided to conform to this agreement. Hence its decision to drop supervision of Dole and other pre-washed romaine lettuce.

This is what I've gathered so far. If you have any comments about this, please e-mail them to me with your name. Your confidentiality will be maintained. Thank you.

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