The self-supervision, or self-supe, system was born out of my experience working in Kosher supervision.
There seems to be a tension between those that sell Kosher products, and the organizations they hire to certify their products. On one side is stores, caterers, food manufacturers, etc. On the other side are Hashgachas.
The priority of the owner of a food business is to generate profit through sales of food. The priority of a Hashgacha over that food business is to to maintain the Kashrus of the food being sold.
That power struggle of Owner VS Outsider can exist regardless of whether the owner is not Jewish or is Jewish; and if they are Jewish, regardless of whether they themselves keep Kosher or not.
The tension is good. Were the priorities of the business and Hashgacha to line up, that could be disastrous. Overfocusing on Kashrus could lead to the business losing money and going out of business. Overfocusing on profitability could mean Kashrus suffers.
Nevertheless, this balancing of competing priorities can end up wreaking havoc and creating cracks in the relationship between the business and the Hashgacha. This can lead to Kashrus violations.
Examples of this are varied. Ask anyone who works in Hashgacha and they’ll give you concrete illustrations of this principle. Or review the podcasts of the Orthodox Union. This stuff is not hidden, although I only realized what was going on once I got inside the Hashgacha world.
It’s been going on at least hundreds of years. Historical examples abound. Most famous cases are that of a Rabbi or Masghiach in charge of Kashrus, or considering being in charge of a Kashrus operation, who either discovers a violation or is rebuffed in his effort to investigate a potential violation. Some ruses were quite complex, however, like the fake wall case that required police disguised as sanitation workers to uncover.
At one point I was going to write an exposé based on my experiences. But then I started talking to other Mashgichim. They all had horror stories, some topping mine. I realized my book would be redundant. Anyone scratching the surface of the subject matter could find examples aplenty on their own. They would also likely get told the repetitive saw, “The other Hashgachos don’t do a good job. But ours does.”
In other words, what I’m saying is well known in the Kashrus industry. But it seems to me that the attitude found there is that no one admits they are part of the problem, only that they are part of the solution.
I worked in a store under Hashgacha. I was part of a team of Mashgichim who worked there on various shifts. The store had an in-house bakery that made products like their signature Challah. Some products the store sold were brought in from some of the legendary bakeries in New York.
A patron contacted the store. The man had bought a baked good from the store. He was not Jewish. He shopped at the store because his daughter was allergic to milk, and he knew that Pareve products have no milk.
The Pareve baked good he bought had chocolate. I think it was an éclair. Let’s talk a little about chocolate making. Apparently washing down chocolate machinery is tricky. So it’s challenging to make Pareve chocolate because it can’t be produced on the same machinery as milk chocolate and may need dedicated machinery. Hold on to that.
The man gave the baked good he bought at the store to his daughter. She ended up in the hospital. Or something like that. She had a bad reaction. The man called the store to tell them about it. The implication was clear: that baked good labeled Pareve wasn’t.
A likely culprit was the chocolate on it. Maybe it had some residue of milk. Maybe it was made with milk chocolate.
In my capacity as a store Mashgiach, I started investigating. The store argued that they weren’t responsible for the harm to the girl because the product had come from a reputable New York bakery and was clearly marked Pareve. It just went on from there. No one was interested in dealing with this. Not the store, not the delivery company, not the manufacturer, not the New York based Hashgacha, etc. Whether or not I contacted all of them, the bottom line was that there was no system set up to address breakdowns in the application of Halacha to real-world situations.
Here is a similar case where the girl died.
I eventually quit that job over an incident where a worker took it on himself to wash down some meat, without my permission, that I was letting sit after salting.
A central mission of this market is to ensure these kinds of incidents will not happen on my watch. At B. Street Farmers Market we work hard to be upfront with, and transparent to, our customers. And hopefully that will forestall major foul ups. Major foul ups often occur because the early warning signs were ignored.
I don’t think we’re going to sell food that is “more” Kosher than what anyone else is selling. The men and women who work in the Hashgacha industry are learned about Kashrus, and are experts in the technical aspects of food manufacturing, even on a highly engineered industrial scale.
But also be assured that stuff comes up all the time, and it’s rarely on purpose and with malevolent intent that things go wrong. It’s mostly inadvertent things like an ingredient substitution, or people just being lazy, taking a shortcut, trying to make a buck, trying to save a buck, poorly trained, poorly prepared, or just under pressure from the heat of the moment desperately trying to produce in order to save their job or make good on a promise. Sometimes a large company just experiments with a new process or makes adjustments to an old one. Some companies are huge. Changes in machinery and manufacturing are done without notifying everyone in the company. Unless a Mashgiach is there all the time, has access everywhere within the company including their computers, and is constantly on alert, he can easily miss something awry that can go unchecked for years. Mistakes then propagate, as one bad ingredient or process is incorporated into other food. An example of this is chemicals used in plastic packaging or in tankers. To get an idea of what it takes to Kasher a tanker, check out this link.
What we do at the market is prepare food in a simple, straightforward manner. Because the ingredients are simpler and the process has only a few steps, it’s easy to monitor with vigilance, awareness, alertness, constant questioning, zeal, honesty, Fear of G-d, love of self, love of others.
Again: I am not saying anyone else who makes food and claims it is Kosher is selling unkosher food. I am not saying the market food is “more” Kosher. I am saying that there is less opportunity for the food we produce to be unkosher because we stick with simple ingredients and simple processes for preparing food with those ingredients.
The nature of keeping the Torah is that mistakes happen. At the market, I can assure you that we will make Kashrus mistakes. I can say that with certainty even now as I write this months before our official opening. [Edit: this prediction was fulfilled.]
We also recognize that mistakes lead to other mistakes. Mistakes are wake up calls. Finding a violation does not mean we throw up our hands and call it quits.
But — and this is the key point — if we find a mistake, fix it, and just move on without making a thorough reckoning of how that mistake happened in the first place and how we will introduce new methods to try and ensure we never get close to it happening again, then we can almost guarantee worse mistakes will happen in the future.
And the best technique we have in our toolbox to implement from the get-go is to track every ingredient and every process from beginning to end and to keep records and to be as open as possible. That’s the essence of self-supe.
The alternative method, to just keep a steady hand on the operation, and make sure violators get a severe warning not to repeat their violation, is what works in much of the Kosher food industry. But it doesn’t work for me, which is why we are here.
I couldn’t have gotten to this point without the opportunity to work in Hashgacha that my Rabbis gave me. I also acknowledge the many Mashgichim who have shared their experiences with me, as well as friends who told me of stories they personally heard from, or of, their Rabbeim, or stories they’ve reliably received of incidents from the past. I am grateful for the websites which have stories of current Kashrus violations and give a historical context to Kashrus violation. The story of the fake wall from about a hundred years ago is told by Rabbi Yistoel Belsky A”H on an OU podcast.
Special mention to my aunt who told me her father almost never let the family eat out because of what he knew about the Kashrus industry. I never met him, but he officiated at my parents’ wedding, and maybe in some way that I don’t understand that influenced me to become so adamant on this subject.