Let us suppose that Tzippor Tohor is an OU-certified brand of chickens. The chickens are nicely wrapped in cellophane, and the label states "Tzippor Tohor Brand Chickens." May a kosher consumer eat this product? Surprisingly, these chickens may in fact be treif (not kosher). But how can that be if they are an OU-certified kosher brand?
Consider another scenario. Before Chanukah, you purchase a bottle of olive oil at your favorite Jewish book store or at your local synagogue. The label proudly displays an OU symbol. After Chanukah, you wish to use the leftover oil to prepare a salad dressing. Is the oil kosher? Maybe not. How is that possible?
Both of these cases reflect a situation which is becoming more and more prevalent, and kosher consumers need to be better educated to avoid dangerous pitfalls. The Tzippor Tohor chickens and the olive oil may be repackaged items, and as such, they are no longer certified.
The fundamental principle which must be understood is that kosher-certified materials are only endorsed as long as they remain sealed in the original factory packaging material. Once the seal is broken, the supervisory agency no longer guarantees the integrity of the product for the following reasons: a) There is no way to know with certainty that the product came out of the original box on which the kosher seal appeared. b) The product may have been processed on or with non-kosher utensils. For example, the Tzippor Tohor chickens actually may have been kosher when they were delivered to the supermarket, but if they were cut on a non-kosher table with knives from the meat department, the kosher status would be totally compromised.
The reader may wonder how one can tell if an item has been opened or repackaged. This is an extremely important question and requires some sophistication. Here are some rules to follow:
1) Unless the store is under supervision, or the item doesn't require hashgachah, never buy a product without the kosher symbol on the label. Don't pay attention to the advertising claims. If the OU does not appear on the chicken, the Orthodox Union does not certify that bird.
2) If the store is not supervised, never purchase an item that is processed in the store, even if you originally saw the OU on the label. One cannot purchase kosher turkey roll or salami sliced in the deli department of a supermarket, even if the deli man took a sealed package and sliced it in the presence of the customer.
3) If the OU appears on a computer-generated supermarket or grocery store label, you know something is not kosher. This is a particularly confusing area and some clarification about labels is necessary. There are two types of supermarket labels. One is a printed supermarket brand label, and these are affixed in the factory. The other is a computer-generated supermarket brand label, and is placed on the wrapping of the product in the supermarket. A legitimate OU will only appear on a printed label which is used in a factory that is under supervision. If the OU is displayed on a supermarket brand computer-generated label, you can assume that the product was packed in the supermarket and the OU is unauthorized.
We have had a rash of problems with groceries, butcher shops and even seforim stores that have taken the liberty of placing the OU on computer-generated labels of candies, nuts, appetizers, meat and poultry, olive oil and the like. When questioned, the proprietors generally claimed that they purchased OU-certified products in bulk containers and then repackaged the items in their own packaging material. (One such butcher recently gave himself away. He printed a kosher brand name on a computer-generated label, but the brand name on the plumba did not match.) Although there is generally no malicious intent to deceive and defraud the public, nonetheless, such use of the OU is illegal and unauthorized, and the proprietor should have put his own name and endorsement on the label instead of the OU.
4) Be wary of labels that don't indicate the name, city and state address of the manufacturer or distributor. Legitimate labels that are affixed in the factory generally have this information.
Consumers are an important source of information. If you see repackaged products with an OU on the label, please call our office immediately at (212) 613-8241 and notify us. If you are not certain about the integrity of the logo, we recommend following the advice of the fire department. When in doubt, make sure to call. Better to be certain than sorry. We will be happy to talk to you.
Rabbi Luban is a Senior Rabbinic Coordinator in the Orthodox Union's Kashruth Department.