In his book titled “Kosher,” Georgia State University law professor Timothy Lytton wrote that the Star-K, based in Baltimore, is one of the “big five” kosher agencies that certify 80 percent of kosher food worldwide. The others are Organized Kashrut Laboratories (OK), Orthodox Union (OU), Chof-K, and Chicago Rabbinical Council (CRC). The Star-K has a substantial international presence, including in the Far East and India where it certifies 1,000 food facilities.
Yet on the Jan. 26 episode of the “Headlines” Jewish news podcast, host David Lichtenstein discussed allegations from an anonymous source that the OU and Vaad Harabonim of Queens, New York, are reluctant to rely on the Star-K’s certification for certain products.
The Star-K, also known as Vaad Hakashrut of Baltimore, started in 1949 as a regional operation. Under the leadership of Rabbi Moshe Heinemann, a world-renowned expert on Jewish law and rabbi of Agudath Israel of Baltimore since 1981, it has become one of the largest worldwide kosher certifying agencies.
According to Lichtenstein’s anonymous source, the OU and Vaad Harabonim of Queens are particularly wary of Star-K-certified products originating from India.
Generally, kosher certifying agencies review every ingredient in a product before certifying the final product, and kosher-sensitive ingredients such as wine or fish must be from a source they trust. According to Rabbi Zvi Holland, director of special projects for the Star-K, the Star-K has 100 full-time employees and 500 part-time employees certifying 131,000 products from 3,000 facilities in 50 countries. The Star-K also provides a free kosher information hotline (410-484-4110) that answers over 150,000 kosher questions from consumers, companies, and smaller certifying agencies each year.
Dr. Avrom Pollak, president of the Star-K, told Lichtenstein the allegations regarding the Star-K were “absolutely not true.” Rabbi Holland said the allegations ultimately originated from a disgruntled former employee who worked in their India division. Rabbi Holland told Kol HaBirah the employee in question was fired for “failing to execute their job responsibilities and for unbecoming religious comportment.”
Rabbi Moshe Elefant, chief operating officer for Orthodox Union’s kosher division, said they accept Star-K-certified, kosher-sensitive ingredients from India after closely reviewing each one. “We take a risk-based approach to each ingredient,” he said. “The OU holds [the Star-K’s Rabbinic Administrator] Rabbi Moshe Heinemann in the highest regard.”
Rabbi Pollak said that in response to these allegations, the Star-K invited all the major kosher certifiers to review their mashgiach (kosher supervisor) and inspection databases. A senior administrator from the OU accepted this offer. “STAR-K is proud that even after exhaustive reviews of Indian companies, only one ingredient approval — which was personally approved by Rav Moshe Heinemann — was questioned by the OU staff,” Rabbi Holland said. Rabbi Elefant said the review is still ongoing.
“We understand that the incredible success and growth of our Indian certification portfolio has led to questions by other agencies,” said Rabbi Holland. “We have always welcomed outside review and we are quite pleased with the reactions of our colleagues at the OU after reviewing our Indian companies.”
He added that the Star-K’s own policy is to closely review products — both from the Far East and domestic sources — certified by other agencies as well. “For example, STAR-K accepts no meat, poultry, or matza from any agency without a physical audit at the facility in question and Rav Heinemann’s approval,” he said.
Regarding the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, Rabbi Holland said there had been a disagreement between the Star-K and Vaad about an issue unrelated to kashrut, but as of Feb. 8, that issue has been resolved. Rabbi Chaim Schwartz, executive vice president for the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, did not respond to multiple inquiries from Kol HaBirah.
By Gabe Aaronson