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Thursday, July 31, 2014

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The politics of kashrut

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Part way through an interview, Rabbi Moshe Bensalmon becomes particularly animated. He’s been talking about his interpretation of Jewish law as it pertains to insects that can be found in vegetables and fruits, but when the discussion turns to his reputation he becomes angry.

A letter had been put up at a midtown Toronto yeshiva in 2011 questioning his ability to determine what is kosher and what is not. The letter, he said in a raised voice, embarrassed him in his role as kashrut administrator of the Badatz Toronto kosher certification agency, which he, along with Rabbi Amram Assayag of the Sephardic Kehila Centre, founded in 2008.

The document questioned Badatz’s certification of lettuce that may contain bugs and suggested the produce should not be considered kosher enough for the retail trade.

“That embarrassed me, as I’m the head mashgiach [kashrut supervisor],” said Rabbi Bensalmon. “My reputation is at stake.”

The incident is one of several since Badatz began to challenge the market domination over kashrut supervision in Toronto that has been held for years by the Kashruth Council of Canada, which administers the COR hechsher and is also known by that name.

Several suppliers and caterers contacted by The CJN had their own complaints about COR. Among them were allegations that its rules appeared arbitrary and are subject to inexplicable change, costs are uncertain, as if subject to whim, and that COR’s practices have led to unnecessarily high fees.

There are also concerns that COR’s practices have limited the availability of Badatz-supervised products to the kosher market.

To date, Badatz has attracted around 25 clients. Rabbi Bensalmon believes it could be more but for questions being asked about the company’s kashrut credentials. More egregious, he said, is that COR has let its clients know that if they switch to Badatz, their products won’t be permitted in COR-sanctioned premises.

“We did lose many clients, caterers, manufacturers,” he said.

For more than 20 years, Rabbi Bensalmon worked for COR, supervising the kosher food operations at Sobeys Clark Avenue supermarket for much of that time. His departure from COR did not end amicably. Issues pertaining to his termination ended up in arbitration before a rabbinical court, or beit din. The court’s 2008 decision called on COR to pay Rabbi Bensalmon $100,000, including $10,000 for injury to reputation. The beit din also called on COR to provide a favourable letter of reference – which Rabbi Bensalmon says he never received – and on the parties to “obligate themselves not to disparage or speak negatively regarding the other.”

While Badatz is a relative newcomer to the kosher certification scene, COR has been around for more than 60 years.

It started life as the Kashruth Committee of Canadian Jewish Congress, but after rapid growth, “which made the job of effective management by Congress difficult… it was decided that COR should become its own legal entity,” COR stated in an ad that is running in today’s paper. It was incorporated as a non-profit entity in July 2000 and began to operate independently in 2004.

Critics say COR charges too much for its services. Caterers and manufacturers who have moved to Badatz say the rival agency’s fees are lower and the supervision just as extensive as under COR.

One company, Hubberts, which produces cooking oil, ended a longstanding contract with COR when it forecast its annual bill would reach $45,000. Instead, it found alternative supervision under Triangle-K, an American kashrut agency, and Badatz for about half that price. Prior to Hubberts’ decision to let its contract with COR lapse, it was involved in several disputes with the agency over practices at its Brampton plant that COR felt jeopardized the kashrut of its product and that required a full review. COR suggested several changes to Hubberts’ practices and proposed raising its supervision fees from $67 a visit to $90.

Craig Simpkins, systems manager at Hubberts felt the disagreements with COR were a pretext for raising the fees.

Raphy Amar and his wife, Joelle Edery, operate Beverly Hills Catering. From 2004 to 2008, they ran Gladstone’s, a kosher restaurant. That business folded because of high operating costs, including a $2,000 monthly fee to COR, said Amar.

According to Morley Rand, a former COR mashgiach who has been involved in litigation with his ex-employer on several fronts, COR faced competition last year for its kashrut supervision at Sobeys store in Thornhill. The Montreal Vaad Ha’ir, which administers the MK hechsher, offered to do the job for $100,000, about half of COR’s annual fee. COR dropped its fee by $60,000 to retain the contract, Rand said.

MK would not comment on the amount of its bid. Sobeys did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

COR refused to answer questions posed to it by The CJN. In an emailed statement, the kashrut agency wrote, “COR is not afraid of competition and indeed, we work closely with all of the major kosher certifiers.”

Zuchter Berk, one of the city’s biggest kosher caterers and a longstanding client of COR, has had a positive relationship with the kashrut agency.

“The relationship with COR is the same as we have with the health department,” says Zuchter Berk’s co-owner, Isaac Drookman. “At the end of the day, you have rules and regulations, and you have to follow the rules and regulations.”

COR, he added, “is flexible, there’s always give and take. I think they proved to me that they showed flexibility in many areas. There’s give and take and [the relationship with COR] is collegial.”

Edmund Duarte, founder of Uptown Gourmet, which has had the catering contract at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue for 5-1/2 years, says COR initially refused to grant him kosher certification because he is not Jewish, but said he could overcome that by taking in a 25 per cent partner who is Jewish.

After 18 months with his partner, Duarte bought him out. “It cost me [a lot of money] to get back what belonged to me,” he said. “It appears the religion is very elastic and the rules change.”

A few years ago, Applause Catering, was approached by Beth Tzedec Congregation to bid on its catering contract. With Badatz providing its hechscher, Applause won the contract in 2011. When COR found out, it sent an email to board members of COR. The email, sent by Rabbi Tuvia Basser, CEO of COR, on Sept. 14, 2011, noted that the Beth Tzedec had solicited bids for its catering service, including from a “high-end treif caterer who also operates a rarely used kosher division under Badatz Toronto, who gives certification even to caterers who run treif catering as well.”

Later that day, Badatz responded with an email of its own. Addressed to COR board members, Badatz alleged the earlier COR email was meant “to protect COR’s financial interests at Beth Tzedec” and “misrepresent[ed] the facts.”

The Badatz letter noted that Applause Catering is not a treif business, that one of its partners is shomer Shabbat, and that “Badatz only certified premises that are completely separate where only a kitchen under lock is operated with a full-time mashgiach.” The Badatz letter also pointed out that two COR-certified establishments prepare both kosher and non-kosher foods and operate on Shabbat and Passover.

Beth Tzedec also responded angrily to the COR email.

In a letter dated Sept. 27, 2011, sent to Rabbi Yacov Felder, vice-chair of COR and to Rabbi Basser, Carolyn Kolers, president of the synagogue, called the suggestion that the shul was considering hiring a “treif caterer… untrue and defamatory.” She asked that COR send a retraction notice to all recipients of the previous email.

On Oct. 6, 2011, Rabbi Basser wrote COR board members saying his “lack of precision in the wording of that email… led to a misunderstanding of his position.”

As a “clarification,” Rabbi Basser wrote that “Beth Tzedec Congregation has always provided, and intends to continue providing, a high standard of kashrut and would only hire a caterer that upholds those values. I retract any implication otherwise.”

Only a few months before the Beth Tzedec incident, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto had looked into its kashrut policy and agreed to sanction events supervised by Badatz Toronto.

In a May 19, 2011, letter to Badatz representative Moti Bensalmon, UJA Federation stated that the organization’s executive committee “voted to approve using venues and caterers under Badatz Toronto supervision. We have confidence in the high level of kashrut supervision provided by your agency and look forward to working with Badatz approved caterers and venues.”

Despite the approval of an important community agency, Badatz has found it difficult to attract clients.

“Once COR heard we were getting into the catering business, they spoke to those people to persuade them not to go with us,” said Rabbi Bensalmon.

“They claim sovereignty on an entire city that belongs to them, and nobody else is allowed to open up another kosher organization,” he said.

 

 

To what extent does COR’s dominant market position in kashrut certification affect the prices paid by consumers? Next week The CJN looks at this issue and whether, as a $5-million charitable organization, COR is giving enough back to the community.

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