New York State Agriculture Department Dismisses Its Kosher Law Enforcement Inspectors

By Devra Ferst

Published January 05, 2011, issue of January 14, 2011.
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New York state, which represents the largest kosher market outside of Israel, announced in a January 3 statement that its 85 food safety inspectors will assume the responsibilities of the Division of Kosher Law Enforcement.

The statement came two days after the 11-employee kosher law enforcement division was whittled down to just its director, Rabbi Luzer Weiss. The Department of Agriculture and Markets, which oversees the division, says that the layoffs will save the state nearly $1 million this year.

The division’s “main purpose was to make sure that any product or institution that represented itself as kosher was kosher,” said Menachem Lubinsky, who runs a kosher-focused consulting firm. “If it wasn’t, [the agency] had the ability to issue fines. Sometimes just by virtue of the publicity of such a fine, it caused establishments to correct the problem.”

The state argues that the kosher inspectors and the division are irrelevant since a 2004 court case ruled unconstitutional a law that required the agency to perform religious kosher inspections. Since then the division has continued to ensure that kosher businesses register with the state and adhere to the kashrut standards that they report upholding.

“There was no need to have an entire staff of inspectors, and in these budget times, we need to find a way to cut costs while still doing the job,” state spokesperson Jessica Ziehm said. “Why not use the food safety staff we have?” The shift in responsibility will “add one more box to their checklist” for food safety inspectors to mark when visiting a business, she said.

But Lubinsky worried that even with training, the food safety inspectors may struggle to execute the job fully. “The key question is, will these [new inspectors] understand the nuance of kosher? Will they give it the same type of attention? Will they be able to read the Hebrew?… I have seen certificates written in Hebrew.”

Weiss, who will be responsible for training the state’s food safety inspectors to take on the tasks previously handled by his division’s employees, expressed confidence in the new arrangement’s ability to meet the challenges cited by Lubinsky.

“If that should come up — I will be able to handle that,” Weiss said. “We are not making any type of religious decisions. This is strictly consumer protection. We check [a business’s] representation. I feel very comfortable that this could work as well and maybe even be better.”

Experts pointed to the role of the consumer in making sure that those who wish to follow the laws of kashrut do so. The Orthodox Union and other large certifying agencies maintain online lists of businesses and products they certify. The state will continue to make its registry public, though a quick search showed that several well-known kosher restaurants were missing from the database on the agriculture department’s website.

Contact Devra Ferst at ferst@forward.com


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