copyright © 2006 Rabbi Zuche Blech
Reprinted with permission of the author
In Shir ha’Shirim (2:9), Shlomo ha’Melech relates that Hashem was משגיח מן החלונות מציץ מן החרכים – “watching through the windows and peering through the cracks”. Rashi explains that this oversight is referring to the period of slavery in Egypt, where Hashem noted every assault on his people, as it says (Sh’mos 3:7) ראה ראיתי את עני עמי אשר במצרים, and thereby hastened the redemption of B’nei Yisroel . When B’nei Yisroel carry out Mitzvos , they must also exercise keen oversight and vigilance, and the need for such scrutiny is no more apparent than in the requirement to inspect foods for “insect” infestation. Just as Hashem was מציץ מן החרכים – “peered through cracks” – we must, pardon the e(n)tymology, be מציץ מן החרקים – “watch for insects” – in our scrupulous observance of this prohibition of eating bugs. The recent “lettuce crisis” relating to בדיקת תולעים – checking for insects – indeed provides us with a new window into understanding a variety of Halachic issues.
The Torah prohibits the consumption of many types of sh’ratzim , such as insects, worms, and other “creepy crawlies”. Specific prohibitions govern those that live in rivers and lakes, those that creep on the ground, and those that fly in the air. The prohibition against eating forbidden insects is so expansive that the Talmud (Makos 16b) notes that eating even one whole insect may occasion multiple transgressions. According to the P’ri Chodosh , the reason for this extraordinary compounding of prohibitions is the ubiquity of insects and the resultant ease by which one may easily transgress this prohibition. One must, therefore, exercise great care to avoid eating foods that contain insects and thereby transgress these prohibitions. As we shall see, however, not all “insects” are created equal.
The term “She’retz ” refers to small, slithering creatures. In the case of terrestrial Sh’ratzim , these include small animals, such as mice. The short legs of such animals are not readily noticeable as they move, rendering their movement akin to slithering. Even small mammals, such as mice, fall into this category. Fortunately, we are not often faced with the problem of mice in our food supply. Other creatures that are considered Sh’ratzim , notably insects, worms, and crustaceans, however, do infest food. As we shall see, in many cases the Torah prohibits us from eating foods that may contain prohibited Sh’ratzim .
(It is also important to note that while the technical term “insect” is a precise scientific term referring to a specific class of arthropods, in discussing the prohibition of sh’ratzim when we use the term “insect” it is in its non-technical sense. For the purposes of our discussion, the word “insect” connotes any type of small, prohibited organisms – insects, crustaceans, and worms.)
While the prohibition of insects is severe, not all insects are prohibited. To further understand the Halachic issues involved, it would be helpful to note certain circumstances where insects are indeed permitted.
Grasshoppers. Certain species of grasshoppers known as “Chagavim ,” are specifically permitted in the Torah . This point has limited practical application, however, since Poskim (e.g., Ta”Z 65:1) have ruled that, in most communities, the M’sorah (tradition) by which we may identify Kosher species of grasshoppers has been lost. Grasshoppers may thus be eaten only where the M’sorah has been maintained, which is generally limited to Yemenite communities.
Worms in Fish. A more practical example of permitted sh’ratzim involves those found in the flesh of fish. The Talmud (Chullin 67b) teaches us that worms that originate in the flesh of a fish have the same Halachah as the fish itself. As such, most authorities in the United States consider worms commonly found embedded in fish fillets Halachically acceptable. Many Poskim in Eretz Yisroel , however, argue that although these worms are found in the flesh, they are actually whole, visible worms that are swallowed by the fish that then migrate through its intestines into the flesh. Since Halacha dictates that sh’ratzim found in the intestines of fish are prohibited – and remain so even if they migrate into the flesh – they require an inspection of such fish fillets to identify and remove worms. All agree, however, that extreme care must be taken when removing the viscera from fish to ensure that the prohibited insects commonly found in them do not escape into the flesh of the fish.
Waterborne Insects. Aquatic sh’ratzim is another category that has been dealt with extensively in Halacha – both historically and in current events. Chaza”l teach us that waterborne insects are only prohibited if they meet one of the following two criteria. The first involves the water in which they grow. Sh’ratzim that grow in the sea, rivers and lakes are prohibited, whereas those that grow in containers and cisterns are permitted. The second stipulates that even sh’ratzim permitted by the first rule become prohibited if they became separated from their original breeding environment. These rules were very significant in the days before modern plumbing, for they allowed a person to drink unfiltered water directly from a well, container or a pit (although not from a river) even if insects were present. If such water were placed in a different container such as a bucket, or even in one’s hands, while the insects were alive, however, this dispensation would no longer apply. In such cases, we would be concerned that such insects may have traveled from the water to the surface of the container, which would qualify them as terrestrial insects not subject to this leniency.
Vinegar Eels. A corollary to the issue of aquatic insects involves a type of nematode (a parasitic worm) called Turbatrix aceti , more commonly known as “vinegar eels.” While bugs in water may be of only passing concern, virtually all vinegar produced by classic fermentation is home to these parasites (the sediment in vinegar tanks serves as an excellent food for them). These worms can easily be seen swimming freely in unpasteurized vinegar, and have been the source of much Halachic controversy. The Poskim have concluded, however, that such worms fall into the category of sh’ratzim in containers and are thus permitted. From a practical perspective, however, this issue is essentially moot in modern vinegar production, since vinegar is generally pasteurized and filtered in the factory prior to use.
Microscopic Insects. Concerns over sh’ratzim in vinegar, however, do afford us another important Halachic insight. With the development of the microscope, people realized that vinegar eels were but a miniscule part of the broad microscopic flora found in vinegar – and virtually all other liquids. The Halachic ramifications were obvious. If, indeed, magnifying optics revealed “bugs” in virtually all foods and liquid – or, for that matter, the air – how is one Halachically permitted to consume them? The answer to this question was unequivocal. All Poskim have concurred that Halachic requirements relate only to what can be seen by the unaided human eye. This approach has countless Halachic applications, from cracks in letters of a Sefer Torah to miniature scales on fish to minor blemished on an Esrog . From a Halachic standpoint, what cannot be seen by someone with average eyesight has no Halachic standing.
Dried Insects. Halacha also teaches us that dead insects that have been left open to the air and thoroughly desiccated are considered afra b’alma – “merely dirt” – and are permitted. Although not particularly appetizing, this rule has practical applications in cases such as beans that have been dried and stored for twelve months. As long as one can be sure that no fresh insects have contaminated the beans during this period, they may be eaten without any further inspection. Canned or frozen vegetables, as well as sugary preserves, are not subject to this leniency since these forms of processing tend to preserve the insects without dehydration.
The Copepod Controvery. While issues of aquatic sh’ratzim might seem archaic given our advanced state of hygiene and modern municipal water systems, recent discoveries regarding the New York City water system have given us reason to appreciate the relevance of this Halacha . The municipal water authority in New York City considers its product so pristine that it does not require filtration. Unfortunately, a variety of small crustaceans, known as copepods , finds a home in the New York City reservoir system and, since the water is not filtered, into city taps. Halachic authorities have grappled with the potential that drinking the water in one of the greatest cities in the world may involve an Issur d’Oryssa (Biblical prohibition)! While copepods have been in New York City water for years, their recent exposure to public scrutiny has created a virtual “water crisis” in the city.
Various approaches have been taken to address this new “Watergate” crisis. Some authorities have ruled that one may not drink the water in New York City (in the New York area, only water in New York City itself is in question) without filtering it to remove the offending copepods. Indeed, most Hashgachos in the city – restaurants, factories, and caterers – have installed such filters. Other authorities, however, have advanced several rationales to be lenient. Some reasons are based upon an analysis of the points already discussed. First, the copepods grow and die in the reservoirs that do not have “free-flowing” water which, they argue, have the Halacha of a cistern. As such, the copepods would be permitted entities per se . Others, however, point out those large reservoirs may nevertheless be considered “Shichin ” – “flowing pools”, and thus results in a disagreement amongst the Poskim . Additionally, as noted before, taking water from a well and placing it in a container poses other concerns – and most of us do not drink directly from the tap! A second point involves the size of the copepod itself. While we have noted that microscopic insects are permitted and those visible to the naked eye forbidden, copepods fall somewhere in the middle. In many cases, an observer may notice “something” in the water, but would be hard-pressed to actually discern that it was a living creature. Even when looking very carefully, without using a magnifying glass a copepod may be virtually indistinguishable from other eminently Kosher impurities commonly found in water. If we consider such insects Halachically unrecognizable, they may also be permitted. Others, on the other hand, argue that such insects nonetheless constitute a “recognizable” bug. A third argument involves the question of the level of infestation. If the frequency of finding copepods in tap water is very low, one may by able to rely on the Halachic concept known as “Rov ” – the majority – to drink such water without checking for such infestation. The question then becomes how frequently one can expect to find a bug in a glass of water. As we shall see, some of these points will figure prominently in the most recent “Lettucegate” crisis.
In all of the above cases, however, it is important to note that even where these insects may be technically permitted, their consumption might still be proscribed under the concept of Bal T’shaktzu – engaging in disgusting behavior.
Derivatives of Insects. While insects may be considered a delicacy in some cultures, Western cuisine does not feature them. Indeed, Chaza”l (Avodah Zarah 68b) considered them disgusting. As such, most people might think that they would never knowingly eat an insect. In truth, however, many insect products may be permitted and, indeed, are part of everyday fare. Honey, an ancient and common sweetener, is the quintessential product of the prohibited bee yet is clearly permitted, as explained in the Talmud (B’choros 7b). Other bee products also find their way into the food chain. Most Poskim concur that beeswax is Kosher, and many permit a product called royal jelly. Shellac, a wax produced by the lac insect, is commonly used to provide a shinny coat to candies. It is often listed under the euphemisms “lac resin”, “resinous glaze” or “confectioners glaze” and many, though not all, Poskim permit its use. [See Kosher Food Production, pp. 376-382 for a full discussion of these insect derivatives.] Carmine (also called cochineal) is a red color produced from the dead bodies of the cochineal insect, and is prized for its deep color and stable qualities. The Halachic status of this material is subject to much debate (according to some it was the Tola’as Shani – literally, “the red worm” – mentioned in the Mishkan , Sh’mos 25:4), but most Kashrus authorities do not permit its use. [See Kosher Food Production (p. 308) for a full discussion of the Kosher status of carmine.]
Whole Insects. Other than those exceptions noted above, virtually all other insects are subject to a Biblical prohibition. A corollary of this prohibition enjoins us from eating a food that contains a prohibited Sheretz . Since fruits and vegetables (with the notable exception of vegetables grown in special hot houses, see below) grow in open areas and may contain prohibited insects, their consumption poses significant Halachic concerns. As such, it is important to understand how this prohibition affects our ability to eat many types of fruits and vegetables.
Three factors usually govern the Halacha – Rov (the majority), Nir’eh l’Ay’nayim (visible to the normal eye), and Bitul (nullification). By analyzing the Halachic application of these concepts, we can understand which and how fruits and vegetables may be eaten. [The term “produce” refers to both fruits and vegetables, and for purposes of this discussion these terms may be used interchangeably.]
When dealing with the concept of Rov as regards insect infestation, produce can be divided into three groups. Vegetables in which insects are not commonly found are referred to as Miyut she’Ayno Matzuy – an uncommon minority. A vegetable that falls into this category is not subject to a concern that an insect may be secreted in it, and such a vegetable may be eaten without any inspection. On the other hand, vegetables that are commonly infested are called Muchzak b’Tola’im – meaning that a majority of samples would be expected to contain an insect. Such vegetables are subject to a Biblical requirement to inspect each piece to verify that it is insect-free. Many vegetables, however, fall into a third category called Miyut ha’Matzuy – meaning that although only a minority of such vegetables would be expected to exhibit insect infestation, such infestation is nevertheless considered relatively common. Before eating such vegetables, there is a Rabbinic requirement to check for infestation.
The determination of which vegetables fall into each category depends on the type of vegetable, as well as its locale, and season of growth. For example, people who lived in Europe may remember checking each cherry before eating it, while in the United States we eat cherries without any checking whatsoever. The reason for this difference is that modern pesticides were unknown until recently. As such, Old World fruit was often infested, and had the status of either Muchzak b’Tola’im or Miyut ha’Matzuy . Modern orchard management, however, uses chemicals and procedures that allow such fruit to reach the market reasonably insect-free, allowing such fruit to fall into the category of Miyut she’Ayno Matzuy . This dichotomy between the Old and New World, however, remains in dealing with many other types of produce. Please also note that all assumptions relating to agricultural practices are subject to change, and must be reviewed on a regular basis. In addition, organic produce, which eschews the use of synthetic pesticides, often has a greater propensity to insect infestation.
The designations of Miyut she’Ayno Matzuy and Muchzak b’Tola’im , as well as the appropriate Halachic approach to them, are fairly straightforward. Fruits and vegetables that rarely exhibit infestation, such as apples and cucumbers, are clearly in the category of Miyut she’Ayno Matzuy . They may be eaten without any special inspection, and one is not required to look for bugs in such situations. Indeed, even if one or two insects are found they are no Halachic consequence, although the bug should certainly not be eaten. Finding three or more bugs, however, may change the food’s status to Muchzak b’Tola’im , creating a requirement to check the entire lot. Fruits and vegetables that are generally infested over 50% of the time are considered Muchzak b’Tola’im , and each individual piece must be inspected prior to consumption.
The category of Miyut ha’Matzuy , however, is less clear. Some authorities rule that an infestation rate of less than 10% allows one to consider the fruit or vegetable to be considered a Miyut she’Ayno Matzuy and thus free from concern. Any frequency above this confers a status of Miyut ha’Matzuy , and the fruit or vegetable must be inspected. Others feel that the cut off point is 7%. In addition, there is a disagreement as to whether one computes the percentage based upon individual “servings” or produce “bundles” representing the normal unit of the produce. Produce bundles typically contain more than one serving, thus potentially yielding a higher computed incidence of infestation. Still others reject the use of an arbitrary percentage, but rather look at the broad expectation of commonly finding an insect. One should therefore conduct himself according to the instruction of his Posek .
Basing himself on a ruling of the RaShB”A , the Ramo (Y.D. 84:8) rules that once a fruit is considered in the category of Miyut ha’Matzuy one is required to inspect each fruit or vegetable individually (he specifically states that one cannot rely on the checking of the majority). As such, many common fruits and vegetables should not be eaten unless thoroughly inspected. [A definitive listing of the status of specific fruits and vegetables at any one time or place is beyond the scope of this article.] However, three additional factors may serve to mitigate this requirement.
The first involves the concept of Nireh l’Ayin – the requirement that a prohibited insect be visible to the unaided eye. Should the insect be so tiny as to be imperceptible to a person with normal eyesight, it would pose no Halachic concern. If it can be seen and identified by a person with normal eyesight, albeit only under careful inspection, it would be prohibited. One situation, however, poses an interesting question – if the presence of an insect can be noticed but cannot be identified as an insect without further magnification. Some authorities posit that although it may look like a spec of dirt, it nevertheless qualifies as a “visible” – and prohibited – entity. Others, however, argue that it cannot be considered a “visible” insect unless it can be so identified. Again, one should follow his Posek in this matter.
A second mitigating factor involves the concept of Bitul (nullification). Under normal circumstances, mixtures containing forbidden components are permitted if the offending material is less than one part to sixty (about 1.6%) of the whole mixture and not intentionally added. One could therefore argue that since levels of infestation are generally below that level, most produce should be permitted without any further concern. There are two problems with applying the concept of Bitul to vegetables, however. Most authorities rule that since an inspection can identify an insect mixed with vegetables, they are not considered a true “mixture” – a Ta’aroves – subject to the rules of Bitul . In addition, even if it were considered a Ta’aroves , insects generally have the Halacha of a Beryah – a “complete” item, and a Beryah is not considered Batel regardless of its ratio in the mixture.
It should be noted that some authorities are lenient on both points. First, the Aruch ha’Shulchan (Y.D. 100:13-18) reasons that insects mixed in vegetables qualify as a legitimate Ta’aroves , since most small insects are not readily visible or removable. Second, he quotes a number of authorities that allow a Beryah to be considered Batel at a ratio of 960 (by volume), which is generally the case with infested vegetables such as lettuce. Further, he quotes authorities that the rule of Beryah may not apply to disgusting creatures, such as Sh’ratzim . The Aruch ha’Shulchan , while not minimizing the need to check for insects, nonetheless argues that a basis for leniency does indeed exist. [Some contemporary Poskim have ruled that one may rely on Bitul when dealing with frozen broccoli, since these products are washed very well and any remaining insects are so enmeshed in the florets that they would be considered Ta’aroves . As regards the issue of Beryah not being subject to Bitul , these authorities note that this rule is only d’Rabbonon (Rabbinic), and since there is only a Safek (doubt) that an insect is present, a Safek Beryah would be considered Batul. Most authorities, however, disagree with this approach].
Bitul , however, may nevertheless be applicable where it can be assumed that the insect has been dismembered and is no longer a complete entity. Ground or pureed fruits and vegetables may therefore be permitted even where the infestation level is Miyut ha’Matzuy . [This is the basis for permitting raspberry puree.] It should be noted that while grinding a fruit may indeed render the offending insects Batel , it may raise a new issue of Ayn M’vatlin Issur l’Chatchila – one may not intentional cause the Bitul of a prohibited item. Many Poskim have ruled, however, than where the existence of insects is only a Safek (a doubt) and the grinding is done to make the desired product and not for purposes of Bitul , it is not subject to this concern.
In addition, the RaShB”A rules that cooked produce may also be permitted in such circumstances, based upon the concept of S’fek S’feka (double doubt). Since we do not know that there are insects in the food, (one doubt), and even if there were insects inside, they might have disintegrated during cooking (second doubt), the cooked item would be permitted for consumption. [This is the basis for permitting raspberry preserves.]
A third mitigating factor involves establishing a Chazakah – a Halachic presumption – that a given batch of produce is not infested. Some Poskim are of the opinion that if three or more samples of a specific lot are found to be insect free, one may assume that the entire lot has a Chezkas Kashrus and is no longer a Miyut ha’Matzuy . Although this theory had been proposed by Rav Shlomo Kluger zt”l (Tuv Ta’am v’Da’as O.C. 123), he is less than sanguine with the concept since it does not seem to comport with the RaShB”A as quoted by the Rama that was noted earlier that requires that the entire lot be checked. He concludes that perhaps this approach may be appropriate where it is virtually impossible to inspect the entire lot, but does not sanction it unequivocally. On the other hand, some of Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l ’s students have quoted him as having endorsed this approach.
With this rather detailed presentation of the Halachic background of the prohibition of Sh’ratzim , we can now address the most recent “Lettuce Crisis.”
Although the issues involved in dealing with this vegetable are Halachic , a bit of history should serve to explain some of the enigmas relating to the controversy. Lettuce is an ancient vegetable, enjoying a royal pedigree from the times of the Romans, for whom romaine lettuce is named. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 11a) relates that Rebbe and the Roman Emperor Antoninus demonstrated their royalty as the scions of the families of Yaakov and Esav by enjoying lettuce regardless of the season. [“Romaine” lettuce indeed derives its cognomen from its popularity in Rome. Its traditional name was “cos ” – “Chasa ” in the language of the Mishnah .] Such regal recognition, however, has not always been the lot of this lowly member of the sunflower family.
Not long ago, America was known as the “meat and potatoes” country. Green, leafy plants were not food – they were what “food” ate! To be sure, people ate salads, but these were invariably made from “simple” greens and, given the perishable nature of such vegetables, were limited to locally grown produce. With the advent of refrigerated transport, however, the Salinas Valley in California became the “Great Salad Bowl of America” – shipping millions of pounds of “crisphead” lettuce under ice – hence the name “iceberg” – throughout the United States. Iceberg lettuce grows in a compact head that allows for easy and safe shipping, and this ease of distribution helped to make it the standard lettuce in the American diet. Ironically, these traits had a Kashrus advantage, too. Of all leafy vegetables, iceberg lettuce is the least susceptible to infestation. In contrast to open leaf lettuce, insects find it difficult to nestle in the iceberg’s tightly packed leaves and, even when present, the absence of intricate folds provides little place for them to secret their special glues that enable them to become attached to the lettuce. As such, insects that may be found in iceberg lettuce are more readily noticeable and easier to wash away.
This erstwhile convergence of Kashrus and cuisine, however, has recently come under assault. Iceberg lettuce has a rather pale green color, while varieties of open leaf lettuce – romaine, big, and Boston, for example – have a much darker hue. As a rule, the darker green the leaves, the more nutritious the vegetable. In addition, the greener varieties of lettuce generally have a more pronounced flavors and differing textures, all conspiring to topple the iceberg from its once commanding preeminence at the salad bar. This culinary succulence, however, does not come without a price – at least from a Kashrus perspective. Research indicates that the reason for the greener color and greater nutritional value of such lettuce is precisely because they are open to the sun. Unfortunately, being open to the sun’s providence also means it is open to hosting insects, which is precisely what they do and, once the insects do take up residence in the nooks and crannies of the leaf, they are much harder to find and dislodge. Ensuring the Kashrus of such varieties of lettuce, therefore, requires much greater diligence in verifying the absence or removal of prohibited insects. Indeed, Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l is reputed to have fulfilled the Mitzvah of Maror by eating iceberg lettuce to avoid the possibility of eating an insect, reasoning that the Halachic characteristics of iceberg and romaine are identical – they both exude a bitter sap. [The term “lettuce” actually derives from the Latin lactuca – which referred to the milky, bitter juice that one sees in older lettuce stalks (“lac ” is Latin for “milk”) that exudes from both iceberg and romaine lettuce.] He felt that it was more important to be stringent regarding the Biblical prohibition of insects and less stringent regarding what today is the Rabbinic requirement of eating Maror !
The problem of insect infestation of lettuce was further exacerbated by restrictions on the use of pesticides that began in the 1970’s due to recognition of the harmful affects of many common insecticides, such as DDT. Growers now develop Integrated Pest Management (I.P.M.) programs, balancing the need to keep insects at an “acceptable” level against the costs of such control and its ecological impact. The resulting resurgence of insects, coupled with both government and industry policies that accept a “tolerable” level of insects in produce, have conspired to create a significant Kosher problem since such “acceptable” levels may not be Halachically acceptable.
Historically, Kosher consumers were able to deal with this problem by washing and inspecting their own lettuce. Although requiring time and effort, checking whole leaves of lettuce was considered part of keeping a Kosher household. The current lettuce “crisis” can be partially blamed on the general trend in the food industry for “ready-to-eat” foods. Consumers have embraced “instant” foods as quickly as technology has made them available. We make instant soup, bake instant cookie dough, and microwave instant dinners – complete with desert. All that was missing for an “instant and balanced” meal was an “instant” fresh salad.
One might think it a simple matter to wash salad and put it into a plastic bag. Alas, anyone who has tried to save a fresh salad by placing it in a plastic bag in the refrigerator knows that it is not long for this world. Plain plastic bags suffocate the lettuce and render it inedible after just a few days, making such a product unfeasible for mass marketing and distribution. This problem was resolved in the 1990’s by the development of selective barrier film materials. These special plastic film materials allow the lettuce to “breathe,” providing for the transfer of oxygen, carbon dioxide and moisture in a controlled manner. This development, along with modifying the atmosphere within the bag, allows for a relatively long shelf life for fresh, bagged lettuce. Today, merely opening a bag of mixed greens to make an instant salad completes the meal, and packages of croutons and dressing are often included in the bag, creating another set of Kashrus concerns.
The problem, of course, is ensuring that this type of lettuce is insect-free. It is one thing to inspect whole leaves of lettuce, but quite another to check a chopped salad. If we accept the fact that lettuce falls into the category of Miyut ha’Matzuy , then we should be required to check every piece of lettuce in the bag, obviating the benefits the product was designed to confer. The consumer would, therefore, much prefer having someone else check the lettuce, certify it as Kosher, and then buying the bagged lettuce with a Hechsher . It is to meet this need that Kashrus organizations have attempted to devise Halachically acceptable certification programs for bagged lettuce.
Kosher certification programs for such products rely ultimately on creating a situation where we may Halachically assume the bagged lettuce is a Miyut she’Ayno Matzu y, in which case there would no requirement for any further checking. Indeed, if such a status could be appropriately attained, one would be permitted to eat such lettuce on a regular basis – sans checking – even though there may be a distinct probability that he will eventually eat a bug! The creation of Miyut she’Ayno Matzuy is based upon three considerations, and it is the approach to each consideration that distinguishes the various Hashgacha programs for certifying these products.
The first consideration involves the cleanliness of the raw product as it arrives from the field. Cleaning systems (as discussed below) are more successful in removing bugs from lightly infested produce. In situations of heavy infestation, there is a much higher probability of bugs remaining. As such, some Hashgachos refuse to certify leafy greens (e.g. , romaine, Boston, and bib lettuce) that are especially prone to significant infestation. To address this infestation issue, some Hashgachos require that a Mashgiach inspect the field prior to harvesting to determine its cleanliness. Others may rely on a Mashgiach at the factory inspecting the incoming product, while others rely on the company’s quality control systems to ensure that only relatively clean product is processed. The problem with the latter approach is that most companies are quite content with accepting a Halachically significant – and unacceptable – level of initial infestation.
The second consideration is the washing system itself. The key to a “Kosher” washing system is to develop a method by which the water is sprayed with sufficient force to dislodge the insects but without pulverizing the lettuce. The size into which the leaf is cut is also a factor. Larger leaves provide a greater haven for the bug than chopped product, but are also more desirable in a salad. Some Hashgachos will only certify thinly chopped lettuce, while others allow much larger pieces. Some Hashgachos decline certification to certain curly vegetables due to a concern that they cannot be properly cleaned. It is important to note, however, that while no washing system has yet been devised that is proven to remove all bugs, they may reduce the level of infestation to Halachically acceptable levels (i.e. , Miyut she’Ayno Matzuy ).
The third consideration involves post-processing inspections, which can take place either in the factory or after the product has been packaged and delivered. Some Hashgachos allow a company to ink-jet a Kosher symbol on the bag and rely on spot sampling of product off site. In the event that a significant infestation is noted, the company is advised to stop printing the Hashgacha on the bags until the issue has been resolved. The problem with this approach is that the inspection does not take place in “real time” – it may be days or even weeks before a problem is detected and corrective action taken. A better approach is for the Kosher symbol to be affixed after it has passed the requisite inspections. In such systems, cases of packaged product are delivered to a distribution center where sufficient random samples are analyzed to establish a Miyut she’Ayno Matzuy status. At that point, special labels indicating the name of the product and the Hashgacha are placed on the bags of that shipment.
In reality, a synthesis of all three approaches is required for us to consider the product a Miyut she’Ayno Matzuy . Checking a field alone is insufficient, as we are required to look at the general conditions of the vegetable as it grows in that area, not just a specific field. Washing alone is insufficient, since no cleaning system has proven Halachically reliable for this purpose. Post-packaging inspection alone is not reliable, because the Halacha requires that each vegetable be checked if it has the status of a Miyut ha’Matzuy . Many Poskim have concluded, however, that a combination of all three does indeed create a status of Miyut she’Ayno Matzuy .
The recent withdrawal of certification of bagged romaine, Boston, and bib lettuce – and their subsequent re-certification – was based upon these considerations. Since insect infestation in these types of lettuce is considered a Miyut ha’Matzuy , they could only be permitted if the cleaning and monitoring system was deemed sufficient to address this level of infestation. Some certifications had assumed that lettuce washing systems were sufficiently thorough to remove virtually all insects, and when this assumption was found to be faulty, the certification was withdrawn until appropriate systems could be developed. Iceberg lettuce, on the other hand, does not exhibit such a level of infestation and thus was never decertified.
Another approach to dealing with insects in lettuce is to grow them insect-free. This has indeed been accomplished by some companies in Israel, where lettuce and other vegetables are grown in special hot houses designed to keep the unwanted critters out. However, while they have been successful in protecting the crop from most insidious pests, they could not prevent certain flying insects from landing on the crop after it was harvested. Fortunately, however, these flies are easily noticeable and wash off readily with a simple water rinse, and customers are therefore admonished to rinse these products before use. To ensure that this directive is heeded, the lettuce is sprayed with “clean” sand prior to packaging – making then virtually inedible without compliance! Customers can take solace in the fact, however, that they are free of the need to check them.
Ultimately, there should be no shortcuts in Kashrus . Salads, as nutritious as they may be, must be approached with the same attention to Kashrus that we apply to all other foods. We may be tempted to take the easy way out, but Shlomo ha’Melech has already, and poignantly, admonished us (Mishlei 6:6), לך אל נמלה עצל, וראה דרכיה וחכם – “Go to the ant, lazy one – see its ways and learn!”
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