Question: May a kashrus organization rely on a chemist to determine whether there are non-kosher ingredients in a certain food or drink?
Short Answer: Unless the chemist is a y’rei Shamayim, it is preferable not to rely on him to determine whether a certain food contains non-kosher ingredients.
I. The Aramean Baker
The Gemara (Chulin 97a) suggests a way to determine whether there is isur or non-kosher products mixed into a food. The Gemara says that you may give it to an Aramean (i.e., an akum) baker to taste and to determine the ingredients. Rashi explains that this leniency only applies where the baker is unaware that he is being used to determine the halachic status of the food.
The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Dei’ah 98:1) codifies this Gemara, ruling that one may rely on an akum baker, but only if he does not know that he is being relied upon. The Rama, on the other hand, rules strictly, that nowadays we do not rely on such a baker but instead base our leniency upon percentages (i.e., rov, or bateil b’shishim).
II. The Modern-Day Chemist
Rav Moshe Sternbuch shlita, in T’shuvos V’Hanhagos (1:423), suggests that both the Shulchan Aruch and the Rama agree that one may rely on a modern-day chemist to determine whether there are non-kosher ingredients in a food. If the chemist would lie, it would be easily detected. The chemist would thus not do so, so as not to jeopardize his business and reputation. Indeed, this test is better than tasting, as it is actually clarifying the ingredients and not just relaying what it tastes like.
Rav Sternbuch notes, however, that the expert chemist may not always tell the truth, as he assumes that he is the only one being asked. Accordingly, Rav Sternbuch rules that you must inform the chemist that you are also asking another expert chemist about the very same piece of food (even if you don’t actually ask that other chemist!).
Rav Sternbuch supports his ruling based on the Noda BiYehudah (Tinyana, Orach Chayim 72), who permitted purchasing sugar from an experienced akum salesman, even though there were rumors circulating that the salesmen were adding flour into the barrels to replace some of the sugar. Part of the basis for this leniency was that the salesman would not risk ruining his reputation by cheating his customers.
Despite the above reasoning, Rav Sternbuch concludes that a kashrus organization should not rely on such leniencies. In particular, food companies often switch ingredients, and thus the facts often change. Nevertheless, he writes that he heard that “in America,” some kashrus organizations rely upon these leniencies, as the government imposes a strict financial penalty on any company that does not report the full ingredients in a product. These kashrus organizations continuously run spot searches to ensure proper compliance.
Further, Rav Sternbuch writes that it is especially difficult even for an expert chemist to determine whether there was a small mixture of isur in a food. This is important, because it is forbidden for a Jew to purchase an item that has a mixture of isur (even if the isur is nullified), where the selling Jew mixed it intentionally. Thus, it is certainly preferable not to rely on a chemist for kashrus and instead to oversee the production/cooking process.
The Ohel Yaakov (Maachalei Akum, p. 583) likewise follows this ruling of Rav Sternbuch, but clarifies that one only needs to be wary of relying on a chemist when the chemist is not a y’rei Shamayim. If the chemist is an expert in kashrus and a y’rei Shamayim, certainly he is trustworthy.
Next Week’s Topic: May a kashrus organization hire (and rely upon) a trustworthy and knowledgeable non-frum individual to oversee kashrus at a restaurant or company?