Friday, November 10, 2006

Are Two Hashgachot Better Than One? Here Is Why Not

Important Note: Let me clarify at the outset that I know nothing of what is going on behind the scenes here, so do not take any hypotheticals here as statements of actual fact.

One of the recent kashrut "scandals" involves a store that attempted to obtain a second hechsher for the store. The Vaad, which gives all the hechshers in the area, found fault with this, and told the owners that this was a breach of their contract and policies with the Vaad. This, they stated, in addition to other breaches of the standards of kashrut, caused them to revoke their hechsher. The also apparently gave the owners X amount of time before they would revoke the hechsher, in which they could sell the store.

What gives? As the owners declared, aren't two hechshers better than one? Aren't they giving their customers the benefit of two hechsherim? And if there was a file of halachic breaches (rather than just personality/politics issues), how come they did not retract the hechsher before then? And why give them some time -- if there were halachic issues, how could they continue to grant the hechsher?

Some possible answers:
Well, why should somebody take more than one hechsher for their store? There are three possible reasons.

1) It is a franchise and they have an existing hashgacha nationwide, but local standards of the community is that there is hashgacha from the local Vaad, to provide a uniform minimum standard of kashrut for the food stores and restaurants in the area. This appears to be the case for some of the multiple hashgachot places there.

2) People are idiots or people are frummies, and so they think that two hashgachot are even better than one. This gives them an edge in the business.

3) Here is where the problem comes in. They get another hashgacha as a power play against the existing hashgacha.

Let me elaborate. Note that I am not saying that this is what happened in this case, but that I think that it is quite plausible.

Let us say that there are some kashrut issues with a store. Let us say that the kashrut agency is on top of it, and catches these problems, and as a result some food must be discarded as not kosher. But it was lucky they caught it.

Let us say there were various kashrut issues that according to the majority of opinions is OK lechatchila, but according to a minority that people are machmir like, there would be a problem.

Or let us say there were various kashrut issues that even according to the majority of opinions it is not good lechatchila, but bedieved -- after the fact, it is OK.

Or let us say that there are problems that according to many there would be problems even bedieved, but this is a case of hefsed meruba, so in a pinch it is OK.

Or let us say that the owners are uncooperative about various aspects of the business operation that makes the kashrut agency wary, and they try to enact protective procedures to make sure that everything is on the up-and-up kashrut-wise, but they see the owners are uncooperative.

Not that I am involved in kashrut, but I would imagine that many things can enter a violation file, but they would still not necessarily declare that the meat may not be purchased. However, in case of such uncooperative actions, they might declare that they are unwilling to continue confirming the kashrut long term, give the owners a chance to sell while nobody knows, so that they can get a good price, and in the meantime keep an extremely watchful eye over the goings on.

Now, what happens when there is one, or two, or fifty kashrut violations? What options does the kashrut agency have? Basically one: they can continue to provide certification, or else they can revoke their certification.

Alas, it is an all-or-nothing deal. It is a boolean value, true or false, kosher or not kosher (or rather, not certified as kosher). There is no score. There is no mechanism of posting the number of kashrut issues for the store in question, or grading them on a scale. (Though this might not be such a bad idea...) People trust the kashrut agency that the food is kosher or not, so that is all the information made public.

So what should a kashrut agency do if they want the store owner to adopt some practice or procedure? They have only one threat if the owner is non-compliant - revocation of kashrut certification.

This might, in some instances, give the kashrut agency an unfair upper hand in matters not pertaining to kashrut. They could suggest that the owner place in a prominent location a poster on shemirat hallashon, and if he does not comply, threaten to revoke his kashrut certification.

Some issues might appear to be not kashrut related to the owner, but just a matter of politics. Or it might be kashrut related, but the owner thinks that what they are demanding is unreasonable, or too expensive. As the owner in this particular case has categorized it, there were just personality conflicts, while the Vaad said there were numerous kashrut problems on file.

And since this is an all or nothing thing, the kashrut agency can do nothing but threaten revocation -- the nuclear option, if you will -- while for every such issue, the owner is over a barrel.

However, the owner can do something. The threat of revocation of kashrut certification is real only because the kashrut agency is the only game in town. But, if they get multiple certifications, then loss of any one certification is no big deal. If the Vaad pulls out at any point, they can still point to their other certification. Furthermore, they can play one certification against the other. The nuclear option is no longer such an option for either of their two certifications, for the owner can always rely on the other. Thus, a second kashrut certification may well be a power play, and if there are multiple prior violations as well as personality conflicts and power struggles between the kashrut agency and the owner, then this is more likely the case.

In such a situation, two certifications are in fact worse than one, and a breach of contract and policy.

Once again, just my perspective of the situation. None of this is necessarily true.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good point. One way for hechsherim to counter this would be to have a policy of openly reporting violations. "Sure you can have two hechsherim - and they'll *both* be advertising your errors and what you had to do to get things right."


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