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Mashgiach of the Year: Shabsy Merrill, London, England
|Plus: 2 Airline Concerns, “OV” - Kosher or Vegan?, Cheese Making, Ricola, Glenfiddich 12 yr., Heinz, Unger’s, Mr. Egg, Sushi Nori, Lucky Leaf|
Kashrus Magazine interviews Shabsy Merrill of London, England
For the first time in the eight years of selecting a “Mashgiach of the Year,” a mashgiach was chosen from outside North America. This year’s winner of KASHRUS Magazine’s “Mashgiach of the Year” award is Shabsy (Scott) Merrill, who, for the past 18 years, has been serving as a mashgiach for the London Beth Din (“KLBD”) in England, one of the largest kosher certifying agencies in Europe.
KASHRUS: What do you think are the main responsibilities of a mashgiach today?
Shabsy Merrill: The job of a mashgiach is a terrifying responsibility. It has to be viewed 100% as a religious duty. You must know that you cannot fully “trust” anyone. If you see something, you must act.
Still, the workers need to feel that the mashgiach is functioning from yiras shomayim (fear of Heaven), that he is sincere. If he is asking for something to be done, it is not because he is a control freak, not out of haughtiness. He must be sincere and diplomatic, always using his people skills.
His job is to be mekadesh shem shomayim (sanctify Hashem’s name), a tall order. I am always concerned that maybe I didn’t do enough.
The mashgiach must set the tone in the kitchen by showing that he can get along with the workers and that they can have a good time in the kitchen. Still, he must show them that he will not be walked over. You have to always be aware of the domino theory - if the head chef gets along with you, the rest of the staff will follow along.
KASHRUS: You have training in two other areas, as an electrician and as a jewelry manufacturer. What made you choose kashrus as your profession?
Shabsy Merrill: What attracted me to kashrus is that I really wanted to be doing a mitzvah all day.
Being a mashgiach is surreal. You actually feel Hashem’s presence. There is a tremendous hashgacha pratis that you experience while working as a mashgiach. Hashem helps you; it could not happen any other way.
The best part of being a mashgiach for me is that when you go home, you know that you took part in a mitzvah. I know that I’ve done my best. It has meaning.
KASHRUS:You’ve worked as a mashgiach for 18 years. What gives you the strength to go on all these years?
Shabsy Merrill: My rule is to treat each job as brand new and every day as a new day. If you know that you are doing a mitzvah, and if the job you are doing today is to you a “new” job, you will have the impetus to go on.
KASHRUS: What are the functions you perform for the London Beth Din?
Shabsy Merrill: There are four parts to my job. I work as the mashgiach at catered affairs, fill in for mashgichim in establishments, research methods of checking for insects in the various foods, and train new mashgichim one-on-one while on the job. A great deal of my work includes vegetable inspection and training people how to do those inspections.
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Until the late 1940s, kashrus in the U.S. was a disaster. In 1931, Jimmy Walker, New York City’s mayor, met with a large delegation of rabbis to work on improving the kosher situation because the rabbis told him that “a great percentage of the meat and poultry sold in New York City as kosher is not kosher” [New York Times, May 25, 1931].
Since the tide turned and kashrus began to get straightened out, until very recently, all movement in the field of kashrus had been upwards. Today, however, we are seeing an increase in establishments and kashrus agencies that are lowering kosher standards.
In Israel, this phenomenon is taking the form of restaurants dropping their kosher supervision from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in exchange for “self-certification” or for choosing a kosher certification of a lower standard, one that relies mostly on trust of the owner to maintain the kosher standards that are taught to him.
Here, in the U.S., we are witnessing a new brand of kosher certifier - a man (or a woman) who relies on volunteer kosher supervision or who accepts the theory that vegan restaurants need only minimal supervision, even those that are owned by non-Jews. Often, this is being done for the sake of people who would otherwise compromise on the kosher laws. Instead, they would now have at least a kosher-certified establishment despite the standards employed.
Here is a description of what is happening today in Europe.
Eyal Shani, an Israeli culinary celebrity, launched Miznon, a no-frills chain, in Tel Aviv, in 2011. He now has a dozen locations worldwide in (Vienna, Melbourne, Paris, and New York). Some are kosher and others are not.
Miznon Paris is a very successful restaurant. David Moyal, the co-owner, takes care to use kosher meat and wine, serves no dairy or shellfish, and closes for Shabbos, but the restaurant does not carry kosher supervision, not from the Paris Beit Din, Chabad, Rabbi Mordechai Rottenberg, Chief Orthodox Rabbi of Paris, nor from any other kashrus agency. Miznon posts no kashrus certificate, nor does the restaurant employ a mashgiach. Instead they prefer to go rogue and self-certify themselves as kosher. And, they are finding customers.
For some restaurateurs, self certification is seen as a way to cut costs. Others see it as freeing themselves from restrictions on which sources they may use to purchase their food products and as a a way not to turn away their non-kosher customers.
And, if the owners themselves are kosher observant, they are convinced that people should and will trust them. Indeed, that was the way it was in the 1950s—1970s. But we’ve learned the hard way that not all those who wear a yarmulke know kashrus and will tow the line, especially when kosher rules prove pricier, as with vegetables that need to be insect-free. That alone is what separates the real kosher observant from the many who still are clueless.
Miznon openly admits that it does not adhere to the laws of bishul akum nor do they check their produce for insects, what they term “halachic stringencies.” These are issues that many unsophisticated borderline kosher consumers are not always cognizant of and so will not realize that it is not just the money for the mashgiach (the “kosher tax”) that this is about, it is about basic halacha that separates the rogue restaurant (basicly just a “kosher style” one) from a truly kosher one.
Chef Yariv Berreby of Salatim, also in Paris, calls his restaurant “kosher friendly.” “I decided to make a new hashgacha. It’s ‘social kosher.’ The message is trust and telling friends that the restaurant is kosher. ‘You trust the chef, so you can come eat.’”
We all know that people involved in food production have all the human frailties and are capable of making errors.
A friend’s father had been a rav, a rebbe and a caterer (all at the same time). One time, he told me, “I am a rav and a rebbe, but when I am working as a caterer, I need a tough mashgiach over me.”
If he could say that, how much more do those who don’t want a mashgiach over them actually need one.
Outside, independent kosher certification is our only guarantee of commitment to all the kosher laws.
Kosher or Vegan? -What’s 95 years old and has to run away from a loose bull?
The Vaad of St. Louis.
Founded in 1923, the Vaad of St Louis has used the two symbols (above: bottom left and upperright) for their kosher certification. And over the years they built up a significant following among many varied and far flung companies. One of their companies is a major producer of breakfast cereals that is very popular across the country. It produces cereals for many of the large supermarket chains, prominently sporting the “OV.”
However, many kosher consumers were not familiar with the Vaad of St. Louis, and they confused the “OV” symbol for an “OU”, especially if the company used a tiny size for the symbol. Once the product was in the house they would call around searching for “who is the ‘OV’”.
All went well until a few years ago when the vegans starting using a “V” within a circle to show that a particular food was vegan. Some of those symbols appear above, and, as you can see, they look a lot like the “OV” of the Vaad of St. Louis.
This development caused the most confusion possible. A product with an “OV” symbol, is it Vaad of St. Louis –certified or not? Products from around the world popped up bearing the Vaad’s lookalike symbol, and so, for years now, the Vaad has had to field a tremendous volume of inquiries, by phone, fax, email, etc.
Products bearing the “OV” Vegan symbol are quite often non-kosher, or, at least, not kosher-certified. Something had to be done.
The Vaad did not sit back idly. They made every effort legally to defend their trademarked kosher symbol. However, as you can see from the letter above, nothing worked.
Readers should note that many kashrus agencies have a similar problem with regard to unauthorized use of their kosher symbol overseas by companies who use their symbol to indicate that a product is kosher, not realizing that the symbol is trademarked.
Due to the laws in other lands, not always is a U.S. Trademark accepted as valid to protect the holder when the product or establishment is in another country with its own laws and trademarks. One of the worst abuse is in France, where many establishments use common displays of a “K” sign that are lookalikes of kosher symbols trademarked in this country.
The Vaad of St. Louis spent serious time designing their new symbol, the “OVK”. They wanted to avoid looking like any of the 1,427 kashrus agencies worldwide. They also wanted a symbol that incorporated an “O” and a “V”.
It will take some time until companies switch over their packaging to the new symbol. During that time, the staff remains prepared to help consumers identify which products with an “OV” are Vaad-certified and which are not. Soon much of that information will be on line at the Vaad’s website: www.ovkosher.org.
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