Kosher Labeling and Food Allergies

Introduction by Rabbi Yitzchok Lerman

The first time we noticed that our daughter was allergic to milk was when she was six weeks old. My wife was heading back to work, and we added some milk-based formula that we received from the hospital to a bottle of breast milk. Within a half-hour, our daughter had hives all over her chest.

Now four years later, my daughter and her sister are allergic to a combined six foods: eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and sesame.

Food allergies are a big struggle for religious Jews, because most of our culture and religious practices are structured around food. We have large meals with family and friends on Saturday (Shabbat), holidays, and at almost all special ceremonies there is food served. We were recently at a baby naming ceremony, and there was a large spread of cakes containing milk and various nuts! Of course my children wanted it, and it’s not always easy to bring our own cookies from home that can compete with the fancy cakes and cookies that are being served.

Before we go to an event, we sit our older daughter down (she’s three years old) and tell her that before she eats anything she should ask us, because nuts and milk give her a big boo boo. We are constantly on alert, and my wife and I each take one child that we will keep an eye on. As I’m sure many of you have experienced, and can imagine, it can be a bit difficult to socialize and enjoy yourself.

We ALWAYS carry an epinephrine auto-injector and anti-histamine with us wherever we go, because even the minutest cross-contact can cause a reaction (as we have unfortunately experienced).

As Orthodox Jews we keep a special diet called “kosher.” My wife and I were surprised to realize that our kosher diet actually HELPS us keep our daughters safe. But you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy these benefits. Knowing how kosher certification works can change the way you shop for food.

FARE, in consultation with the International Kosher Council, has compiled some tips for how to decipher kosher labels:

While kosher labeling can be a helpful first indicator that a food may contain your allergens, it is important to note that kosher regulations are different than the labeling regulations enforced by the FDA and USDA. By kosher standards, if a product contains less than 1/60th of the ingredient that is not kosher, it still meets the criteria for the kosher label. Kosher labeling was created as a way for people of the Jewish faith to stick to a kosher diet, not for those with food allergies. So, while kosher products must adhere to strict standards, it is always important to read every label thoroughly and call manufacturers to ask questions if you are unsure whether a product is safe for you.

In the early 1920s, the Orthodox Union of Jewish Congregations in America formed an organization that would monitor products to ensure that they were kosher and this organization is now the largest certifying agent for kosher products. Ever wonder what that “U” in a circle symbol is on your products? It is the organization’s primary kosher symbol (pictured above).

There are hundreds of kosher certifying organizations and symbols, the vast majority are reliable and operate on the same standards. The way these organizations work is that they have access to a list of all the ingredients used to ensure that they are Kosher. Then throughout the year they have thousands of supervisors who make unannounced checks at many companies and factories around the world to ensure that the kosher standards are upheld.

One of the many laws of keeping kosher is that it is forbidden to eat milk and meat products together. They cannot be manufactured together, cooked together, served together or eaten together. Kosher symbols are designed to help consumers find products that abide by this law, and can be helpful to understand if you have a milk or meat allergy.

The OU symbols work as follows:

  • If there is only a “U” inside of a circle (”OU”), then the product meets kosher standards for being considered milk free and meat free. By kosher standards, you must have a 24 hour wait-period as well as adhere to certain cleaning protocols before you can be certified as being milk-free and meat-free and earn this certification. In kosher language, products labeled “OU” are called “Pareve” or “Parve.”
  •           An important note on “OU” labeling is that in order for equipment to be considered “contaminated” with milk or meat, the product needs to have been heated to a certain temperature. This can lead to products being labeled “OU” even if they have been produced on equipment that was previously used with milk or meat ingredients, if they were produced at a cold temperature. For example, if warm chocolate that contains milk was poured into a mold but did not get heated to a high enough temperature, then a product with no milk could be used afterward in the same mold and still be given the “OU” label. For this reason, it is important to always check the advisory label and call the manufacturer with any questions.
  • If a product has a “OUD,”  label that means that it contains milk ingredients or is processed on equipment with milk, and is also kosher. This classification can be confusing, since this symbol can be found on products that one would assume are free of milk. For example, soy milk may be processed on the same lines as a product containing milk after the lines are thoroughly cleaned. While the soy milk may be safe for those with milk allergies to drink, unless the manufacturer waits for 24 hours before producing the soy milk, they cannot use the OU symbol and must use OUD instead.
  • The “OUM” symbol means that it contains meat ingredients or is processed on equipment with meat, but it is also kosher. Although allergies to meat are rare, this symbol may help those who are meat allergic identify which products to avoid.
  • For those with fish allergies, the “OUF” symbol indicates that the product has fish ingredients. However, just because the product is labeled “OU” does not mean that it is completely free of fish. As mentioned above, as long as the product contains less than 1/60th of fish, it may be labeled as “OU”.
  • For those with shellfish allergies, Kosher products may not contain any shellfish. So any product that has a kosher label on it is most likely safe.

Now that we have a better understanding of kosher labels, where do food allergies come in? Well, think of it this way; if a product is meat, or if you walk into a kosher meat restaurant, you can be fairly confident that the products are free of milk. If a “kosher meal” is offered it is very unlikely that there are traces of milk in your meat dinner (and vice versa). However, you should always do your due diligence to ensure that your meal or a product you are consuming is free of milk by checking with the restaurant or manufacturer.

Today, one-third to one-half of the foods for sale in the typical American supermarket are kosher. I’m sure if you look into your pantry, you will find that at least 60% of your products at home are kosher certified. So next time you go shopping or traveling, keep an eye out for those kosher symbols to help you quickly identify products that may be safe for you or your family.

Rabbi Yitzchok Lerman is a Rabbi and Dayan, and currently teaches at YTTL High school in Queens, NY. Rabbi Lerman lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife Bina and their two daughters. This information was published under the consultation of the International Kosher Council.