Ma Bell and the Hechsher Wars

Shalom, Chevrah.
It’s been a while but I’ve thought of something that might interest you.

For the 30 or so years that I’ve lived in Toronto, the dominant–indeed, the only agency certifying the kosher status of food purveyors was COR — the Council of Orthodox Rabbis. (Their website is here: Of course, prepared food coming in from other parts of the planet would have other hechshers/kosher certifying marks — the OU or Kof-K from the US, the MK from Montreal. And those other marks were perfectly reliable and everything in the garden was lovely for the consumer.

By way of contrast, I think of my years living in New York, where any restaurant that wanted a hechsher could get one…from somebody! Restaurants that used foods from doubtful sources, restaurants that were open on Saturday, posing deep problems to the kosher consumer–there was always some rabbi who would certify every establishment as “kosher”. As a result, it was impossible to get a simple answer to the question: is it kosher? Being told that the place had a hechsher was just the beginning of the inquiry. Who gives it? What are his standards? Is he affiliated to any rabbinical organization? Where was he ordained? What other facilities does he certify? Tedious, infuriating, time-consuming, and often unproductive.

Well, to mix a metaphor, the quiet waters of Toronto’s kosher Eden are being roiled. It started a few years ago with the attempt by KSA, an American certifying agency, to supervise and certify a Krispy Kreme donut outlet. This elicited a mixed response of doubts about their standards and the assertion (with a genuine halachic basis) that “local is better” when it comes to hechshers. Things died down pretty quickly but now big waves are rolling in.

First was the establishment of a new local hechsher–Badatz Toronto. (The first word, used by many kosher agencies around the world, is an acronym from “beit din tzedeq”–“a righteous tribunal”.) Suddenly, a number of restaurants are switching hechshers to Badatz.

And then this spring came news that the other major Canadian hechsher–MK–was stepping on COR’s toes. See this article:

“Parties quiet on change in Sobeys hechsher”

Of course, at the bottom of all this is money. COR charges a fee to certify the kashrut of a product or premises–understandably, as it is a tremendous amount of work. Badatz and MK aren’t in business out of pure good-heartedness either. All of these certifying agencies, while engaged in a great service for the kosher consumer, are also businesses that have to pay the rent and buy supplies for the coffee machine. So what we have here is capitalism at work; a successful monopoly–COR–is being attacked by competitors, both local and distant.

And what this reminds me of is the phone wars that followed the break-up of Ma Bell. Gather round, kiddies, and I’ll tell you a tale. Once upon a time, telephone service used to be a monopoly. Each province had one service provider and that was where you got your phone. They were all regulated by the federal telecommunications authority, which ensured that basic home service was affordable.

The downside was that there was no price or service competition; they charged what they charged and they did what they did, and your only choice was to buy or not. Doing without a phone was not practical politics for most of us, and so everyone knuckled under and bought their phones and their phone service. The service I grew up with was very good but the price of unregulated services such as long distance was breathtaking. When I lived away from home, the cost of airfare began to seem competitive with our phone bills.

The upside was simplicity. (sigh)

Now, of course, buying a phone and subscribing to a phone plan requires days, if not weeks, of investigation. Assessing what your needs are, gathering information about various plans and providers, balancing cost with reliability and convenience–you can probably get a PhD in phone buying these days. The actual monetary cost is much cheaper, but when you factor in the time and aggravation involved in choosing, the gain can seem illusory.

You can see where I’m going now, I’m sure. If COR breaks up, we’ll be living in New York North as far as hechshers are concerned. We’ll all have to get our doctorates in the minutiae of which hechshers impose which standards and which are less reliable. We may see a drop in kosher food costs — wouldn’t that be a miracle! — but we’ll pay a price in other ways. Changes a-coming! Get ready.

Yours in troglodyte mode,


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