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Hecksher havoc: Should roast pork-flavored potato chips be certified kosher?

‘It’s not coming into my shul,’ said Rabbi Howard Buechler of the Dix Hills Jewish Center, when he saw a picture of the bag

The package shouts “PORK,” in red letters, all caps, and a cartoonish pig sits atop a sandwich labeled “roast pork.”

Yet the product within, roast pork-flavored potato chips, is 100% kosher. Check out the ingredients: no meat or meat byproducts. And if you still have any doubts, the hecksher from the Orthodox Union, certifying the chips as kosher dairy, is stamped toward the bottom.

After the Pennsylvania-based Herr’s snack food company released the chips in June, many kosher-keeping Jews wondered how they could possibly have merited the OU’s approval.

“It’s not coming into my shul,” said Rabbi Howard Buechler of the Dix Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation on Long Island, when he saw a picture of the bag.

He, and others who objected, know the product is technically kosher. But there is also marat-ayin in Jewish law, the idea that something that isn’t a violation, but may appear so to others, is not permissible.

Anyone who sees that pig on the package “might think that pigs are now kosher,” said Buechler. “It leads to a lot of confusion.”

The blowback hit the OU as soon as the chips hit the shelves, said Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the OU’s Kosher Division. It was intense, and the OU decided to ask Herr Foods to take the certification off the bag.

Even though the OU certified the chips, “the OU should not be on this product,” Rabbi Moshe Elefant, COO of OU Kosher, says in a video the Orthodox umbrella group made on the chips after the criticism began to pour in.

He also explains in the video that while the OU stamp always assures that a product is kosher, sometimes the organization is overly cautious and sometimes not cautious enough when it considers certifying food that is actually kosher but may seem otherwise.

Herr’s didn’t remove the OU hecksher. But the chips were not long for the stores anyway. Herr’s Roast Pork Sandwich Flavored Potato Chips, a limited-run snack, were slated from their inception to be discontinued this Tuesday, according to Bob Clark, its vice president for marketing.

Clark also told the Forward in an email that the OU had relayed “some feedback from the community” about the special chips and that Herr’s is “committed to maintaining open communication with our consumer and to respecting the values and preferences of the communities we serve.”

The potato chip contest

Herr’s roast pork sandwich potato chips exist because of a competition sponsored by Herr’s called “Flavored by Philly.” The company, which is based in southeastern Pennsylvania and distributes mostly in the mid-Atlantic states, asked local small businesses to compete. More than 1,500 entered. “The person who nominated the winning flavor will receive a $5,000 prize and the small business behind the flavor will win $10,000,” Herr’s promised.

John’s Roast Pork, a Philadelphia eatery founded in 1930, won with a recipe which traces back to the family’s roots in Abruzze, Italy.

“The flavor of those savory top-secret spices combined with our hearty potato chips will leave your mouth watering just like the real thing,” reads Herr’s website.

Two other Philadelphia-area businesses — a barbecue joint and an Italian bakery and deli — also won. So Herr’s also made Korean barbecue wings- and tomato pie-flavored chips.

Debate

Though the Herr’s plant in which the pork roast sandwich chips are made is all kosher, Genack said the product, even before it was available for purchase, prompted debate within the OU’s Kosher Division.

As Rabbi Elefant explains in the video to a colleague, there is often no clear answer as to whether the OU should put its symbol on a kosher product that has some sort of connection to an unkosher one.

“Some people say if it’s kosher, it’s kosher, it’s kosher. That’s all we should be concerned about,” he said. Others, he continued, feel that kosher certification, as a symbol of a commitment to the observance of Jewish dietary laws, should not be stamped on packaging that shows nonkosher foods.

The OU has in the past certified products such as Trader Joe’s “spicy porkless plant-based snack rinds” and a fish sauce in a bottle that displays a non-kosher fish. But it drew the line in 2021 at “Impossible Pork,” a pork substitute without a smidgen of pork in it.

A product actually called “pork,” Genack said at the time, did not pass the OU sensibility test.

Asked about Herr’s pork sandwich-flavored potato chips, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said the OU was right to revisit its original decision.

The certification, he said, may make people not familiar with Jewish dietary laws “think that non-kosher food is now somehow kosher.”

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