Israeli Watchdog Assails State Kashrut Supervision

A state comptroller report finds featherbedding, arbitrary standards and excessive fees

A kashrut certificate on display.
A kashrut certificate on display. Emil Salman

The state comptroller has uncovered a system characterized by corruption, nepotism, excessive fees, inflated work hours and conflicts of interest in the government’s kashrut-supervision system – and on top of that many businesses are not being properly checked.

“[Municipal] Religious Councils allow kashrut inspectors to be employed under inappropriate terms, including work hours that would be impossible for anyone to perform in practice. That stirs suspicions about the quality of the inspectors’ work,” State Comptroller Joseph Shapira said in a report released Tuesday.

“The councils have flagrantly ignored what is happening and in doing so are harming the level of kashrut and the public’s confidence in the system the government is supposed to ensure,” he said, blaming the Chief Rabbinate and the Religious Services Ministry.

Among the most egregious practices was kashrut inspectors (mashgichim) billing for 20 or more hours of work a day. Investigators found that in many cases no inspector was present at a business when he was supposed to be monitoring for conformity to Jewish religious laws of food sourcing and preparation.

The comptroller said the heart of the system was a conflict of interest in which business owners wanted to minimize the costs and bother of kashrut, and mashgichim sought to maximize their pay.

“A comfortable situation has been created for both parties in which the businesses pay for supervision that is only partially performed, giving the business more flexibility and easier standards,” the report said. “The supervisors cooperate and in return get extra income. For instance we found that 69 of the 412 mashgichim in the Jerusalem Religious Council received money for work of 12 to 24 hours every day.”

The report cited the case of one mashgiach, identified only as A., who was responsible for kashrut at 18 establishments across Jerusalem. The number of hours he was reporting to be working at each added up to 27 hours daily. In addition, he would work Sabbaths as a mashgiach at a hotel that wasn’t included in the hours.

In his defense, the mashgiach told investigators that he only served 17 businesses – but that still worked out to 24 hours a day.

The damning report on the supervision provided by Israel’s 3,900 inspectors – only 12 of them women who were hired after a court order – comes amid heightened criticism over how the government’s kashrut system works and calls for an overhaul.

Responding to the pressure and a court order, the Chief Rabbinate two weeks ago issued a draft proposal by a committee that aims to cut costs and eliminate conflicts of interest by giving businesses the option of installing cameras in their kitchens to enable remote inspections and by ending the practice of businesses paying their mashgichim.

For its part, the Rabbinate noted that the comptroller’s report was completed before the proposals were released. “The Chief Rabbinate sees great importance in implementing the committee’s reforms,” the Rabbinate said. “Putting them into practice will offer a complete solution to the problems the comptroller cited in his report.”

The comptroller cited a host of other problems beyond featherbedding. Among them, local religious councils set their own and often seemingly arbitrary standards for kashrut and sometimes block products that have a recognized certificate. In Jerusalem, for instance, the council bars fresh produce that has already met tithing requirements at the Tzrifin wholesale market until it has gone through the process a second time in the Jerusalem market.

The report also found that inspectors would impose strict or less strict standards on businesses as a reward or punishment, and that fees for supervision varied considerably. In the northern town of Nahariya, for instance, eight pizzerias paid 500 to 1,750 shekels ($139 to $486) an hour for supervision costs.

It also found many instances of nepotism, citing a case in the town of Even Yehdua where the local chief rabbi employed his son as an inspector and as his own supervisor.