January 17, 2011

Can Health Food Inspectors Become Kosher Inspectors: Just Maybe

 New York…The protest over the dismissal of 11 New York State kosher food inspectors in the waning days of the administration of Governor David Patterson quickly gave way to a huge question mark about the move by the incoming administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo to turn the State’s food safety inspectors into kosher food inspectors. Three major Orthodox organizations gave Governor Cuomo the benefit of the doubt: In a statement signed by Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Alliance of America the Orthodox groups wrote: “We welcome the recent announcement of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets of its intent to continue to provide protection to consumers of kosher food in New York. But we must at the same time voice concern about the effectiveness of some of the new measures announced by the Department.” In conversations with many leading figures in the kosher food community, there was doubt whether the training of the state’s 85 health food inspectors would protect kosher consumers. The State’s Kosher Food Law which replaced the 100-year old kosher food laws on the books until 2004 due to a successful court challenge, only called for kosher foods to be registered with the State’s Department of Agriculture and Markets and for kosher establishments to post information ob their kosher certification.

Despite what appears to be a significant increase in the number of inspectors empowered to look for kosher disclosure violations, many in the kashrus world were not so sure. They argue that the inspectors already have a major function and may not be attentive to the kosher nuances. It was also not clear how consumers could complain about violations, although the Department’s Director of Kosher Law Enforcement, Rabbi Luzer Weiss remains in place and will be responsible for the training of the inspectors. Kashrus officials say that opponents of any state enforcement are missing the point that kosher is a major contributor to the social and economic wellbeing of the state, which has the largest number of kosher consumers outside of Israel. It is estimated that nearly 40% of the nation’s $13 billion industry takes place in New York State. Many of the state’s elected officials say that they will be advocating stronger enforcement of the kosher food laws in the state. It appears that the issue will continue to linger, at least until the question of whether the state’s food safety inspectors can also be kosher food inspectors is resolved.