The “New” Insect Obsession
Rabbi Sholom Kesselman, OK Kosher West Coast
This new kashrus feature series is brought to you by the OK Kosher – West Coast Division. In it, we will explore relevant and interesting topics that are important to every kosher kitchen. We invite our readers to submit their kashrus-related questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will do our best to respond in an upcoming article.
Question: What’s with this seemingly new fuss people are making over insects in our produce? Is it really an issue? If previous generations didn’t make such an issue out of it, why are we? What practically should be done to make common everyday produce kosher and insect-free?
Answer: As this topic requires an extensive answer, more than what this article can offer, I will keep the points brief and focus on the most essential parts.
The prohibition against eating insects is min haTorah (biblical). If one eats an entire insect, even if it is less than a kezayis, he is punished with malkus (lashes). This applies to any insect that is visible to the naked eye. Insects that can only be seen under a microscope are not included in this prohibition.
The need to check fruits, vegetables, fish, and even water for insects is actually nothing new. The Gemara raises the issue in Maseches Chulin (67b) and the Shulchan Aruch devotes an entire siman (chapter) in Yoreh Dea’h (Si. 84) to it. The Pri Chadash there actually writes: “I cannot contain myself from mentioning and making it known to the nation of Hashem regarding the severity of the prohibition of tola’im (insects). It has become light in the eyes of people and once a person becomes accustomed to a certain transgression it becomes ‘permissible’ in their eyes. Even the chachamim are not careful enough in this matter.”
Halachah requires us to check all fruits and vegetables where it would be normal to find insects. This is not only when a majority of a given item is known to contain insects, but even when a decent minority (mi’ut ha’motzui) are known to have them. The basic rule of thumb is: If you wouldn’t be surprised to find an insect in it, it requires checking. There are different opinions as to what exactly the percentage is on this. The OK Kosher has adopted the opinion that if 10% of any given item contains insects, this would be a mi’ut ha’motzui and would require checking.
There are a number of factors which contribute to insect infestation. The two biggest are climate and use of pesticides. For this reason, not all produce is alike. Levels of infestation may vary country by country or even state by state, depending on the climate and amounts of pesticides used. It is for this reason that we are seeing a recent renewed emphasis on this matter. The use of pesticides is on the decline due to new awareness of health concerns resulting from them. Where more and stronger chemicals were used, now weaker and less are being used and for this reason we are seeing a bigger increase in the amount of insect infestation. This may account for a big part of the reason why perhaps our parents’ and grandparents’ generations didn’t treat this issue as seriously as we do today because then it was in fact less of an issue.
A common misconception is that insects are not an issue because even if there are a few inside the produce they would be bottul b’shishim (nullified by a ratio of 1:60). This is not true, as bittul does not apply to an entire creature (a berya’h). If, however, one is making a smoothie or pureeing the fruits and vegetables in such a way that any insects would certainly be pulverized, there would be no need to check for insects since after being crushed they would be bottul b’shishim. A standard rinse would be sufficient.
Bagged fresh salads (without a reliable hechsher) are also problematic even when the bag states “washed and ready for use.” Many consumers assume that the vegetables are washed satisfactorily and are free of insects, based on the quality control standards of the company. However, experience has proven that these often contain insects, as well. The standard of washing which the company requires is not the same as what halachah demands. What is considered “clean” for them is halachically insufficient. For this reason, bagged lettuce, etc. still requires checking for insects.
So where does this leave us? What things need to be checked and how?
Firstly, I would suggest downloading the OK Kosher vegetable checking guide; it can be found at the following we address: http://www.ok.org/consumers/your-kosher-kitchen/ok-vegetable-food-checking-guide/ or you can download the OK vegetable checking app from the app store. There you will find a detailed list of what needs checking and how.
In short, here are some examples of everyday fruits and vegetables that require halachic checking for insects: artichokes, asparagus, basil, mint, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, dill, kale, lettuce, parsley, cilantro, scallions, spinach, and strawberries.
The wash and check system that the OK Kosher has adopted (after consulting with the top rabbinic authorities on this subject), that can be used for almost all fruits and vegetables, is called the “The Mesh Cloth System.” This will allow you to check greater quantities of produce and in a more time efficient manner. This is the system used in OK Kosher certified facilities and it is one they recommend for home use, as well.
Here’s how it works: First, soak the vegetables in a basin filled with room temperature water mixed with liquid soap for 5-15 minutes depending on the produce (broccoli and cauliflower must be soaked in hot tap water because hot water opens the florets), and rub and clean both sides of each leaf with your fingers. Then, remove the vegetables, drain the basin, and refill with a fresh mixture of water without soap and soak the vegetables for an additional 3-10 minutes depending on the produce. Rub the surfaces of every vegetable with your fingers. The second batch of water should then be poured through a closely-knit white mesh cloth that is dense enough for the water to flow through while the insects remain on the cloth’s surface. Finally, check the cloth against a light bulb or light box and inspect for insects. If you find insects, repeat the entire process until no insects are found on the cloth. If after the third wash, insects are found the produce should not be used. This system has been proven highly effective.
The following items are known to be extremely difficult to clean and for this reason are not used in any OK Kosher certified facility: blackberries, raspberries, mulberries, artichoke leaves, asparagus heads, brussels sprouts (unless, of course, they have been pureed).
In conclusion, as with all matters of halachah, one should always consult their rav regarding what they should do. The purpose of this article is to bring awareness and provide information relating to this topic.
In the merit of our added care and attention to matters of kashrus, may we be zocheh to the geulah shleimah now.
OK Kosher is an international kashrus agency based in New York and under the leadership of Rabbi Don Yoel Levy. Recently they concluded a successful merger with the local Kehila Kosher (of Rabbi Avrohom Teichman) and now have a strong and established presence in the Los Angeles community. The local office is headed by Rabbis Klein and Kesselman, they can be reached at (323) 935-8383.