Is Vegan Always Kosher?
Veganism is sweeping the nation. Does this trend provide a benefit for the kosher consumer? Can one eat just about anything in a vegan restaurant? On this episode of Let’s Talk Kashrus, Rabbi Yitzchok Hisiger is joined by Rabbi Avrohom Weinrib, Rov of Congregation Zichron Eliezer of Cincinnati, Ohio, and Rabbinic Administrator of Cincinnati Kosher, to discuss this fascinating and very relevant contemporary topic.
Rabbi Yitzchok Hisiger: Thank you, Rabbi Weinrib, for Talking Kosher with us.
Rabbi Avrohom Weinrib: What a pleasure!
Rabbi Hisiger: We would like to discuss the following fascinating topic: Vegan food is very popular today. May a kosher consumer eat in a vegan restaurant?
Rabbi Weinrib: Vegan food is very much in vogue today. Especially in out-of-town places, where there are less kosher-certified restaurants, people may believe that vegan restaurants are a great option. After all, what could be the problem? They don’t have any meat or dairy, so what could be an issue?
The truth, however, is that there are many potential kashrus problems. The most obvious problem is infestation in the vegetables. Everyone knows that some vegetables must be checked for insects but many people do not realize how many different vegetables could be problematic. In vegan restaurants, the bulk of the food contains vegetables and many have infestation issues.
Rabbi Hisiger: Aren’t there laws on the books that mandate the restaurants to clean the vegetables before serving them?
Rabbi Weinrib: Yes, there are. But the laws of the country and the halacha are a million miles apart. They might legally have to wash the vegetables to some extent, and you probably won’t see any bugs crawling around on your plate, but the laws won’t take care of the halachic problems.
A thrip, for example, is very small. According to the FDA, a certain number of thrips are permitted. But according to halacha, if someone eats one thrip he has transgressed six lavim d’oraysa. There also can be multiple aphids in the food that are permitted by the law but forbidden by halacha. People need to realize this but, unfortunately, even people in the kashrus industry do not.
I recently had an experience that really highlighted this issue. There was a vegan restaurant that was under a certain hashgacha that will remain unnamed. Someone asked me to do a review of this restaurant to see if he could eat there. I went down and saw that there were horrific infestation issues that were not being dealt with. I asked the Mashgiach if anything was done about bugs and he told me, “I make sure that they wash the vegetables.” Obviously, just washing with water will not remove thrips. At best, it might take off some flies.
This story illustrates the unfortunate situation that some hashgachos do not understand the infestations issues and are not up to date with the facts. Infestation issues are constantly evolving and changing and we always have to stay on top of it.
People claim that it isn’t a big deal because “in the old days people ate everything.” That may be partially because they didn’t know about some of the problems and partially because they used more pesticides in those times that aren’t used today for health reasons. Today, some vegetables are infested much more than in the past.
Rabbi Hisiger: So vegan restaurants need a reputable hechsher, just like any other restaurant?
Rabbi Weinrib: 100%.
Rabbi Hisiger: Are there any other issues besides for vegetable infestation?
Rabbi Weinrib: Yes. The second biggest issue is bishul akum. Anything that is prepared and cooked by a non-Jew and is worthy of being served on a king’s table could present a problem of bishul akum. Some foods can be eaten raw and, therefore, are not a problem, but many other dishes cannot be eaten raw. People may not realize that even if all the ingredients are technically kosher, if something is bishul akum it may not be eaten.
Rabbi Hisiger: Many people may also not realize that bishul akum could be a problem in their own home if they have domestic help preparing food for them.
Rabbi Weinrib: Correct. I once had a very unfortunate story where a fellow called me and said that his cleaning lady had been making the soup for Shabbos in his home for 10 years and he had never been aware that this was a problem of bishul akum. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he had eaten forbidden soup for a decade. I had to go through all the utensils in his house and determine what needed to be kashered. This was a very frum family but they transgressed a prohibition for 10 years because of a lack of knowledge. People have to be aware that even asking a cleaning lady to cook an egg for a child could be a big problem and, according to some dayos, could render the keilim treif. It could create a disaster in the kitchen.
Rabbi Hisiger: Returning to the vegan restaurant, would it be a bigger problem if the owner is Jewish than if he is a non-Jew?
Rabbi Weinrib: If the owner is a Jew there could be additional problems if the keilim were not toveled, if challah was not taken or if chometz was not sold over Pesach.
Rabbi Hisiger: So is there anything a Jew can buy in a vegan restaurant?
Rabbi Weinrib: Even if a product is not a kashrus problem, there is a general issue of maras ayin in entering a restaurant that has no hechsher. The worst kind of maras ayin is when someone enters a “kosher style” restaurant that is actually not kosher. If someone sees a frum Jew who looks like a “rabbi” going into such a place, they may assume it is okay to eat there. A vegan restaurant presents the same problem. If someone who is not so knowledgeable sees a frum Jew going into such a place, they might think it’s okay to eat anything there. For this reason, it is more of a serious maras ayin issue to enter a vegan restaurant than an obviously treif restaurant.
Rabbi Hisiger: Do you have any final takeaways for our Let’s Talk Kashrus readers?
Rabbi Weinrib: People sometimes get invited to meetings at non-kosher restaurants. Assuming there is no maras ayin problem, they want to know if they can eat plain, cut-up fruit. While this may not seem like a problem, there is an issue of the knife that was used to cut the fruit. In a commercial setting, such as a supermarket, this is less of an issue because the cutting of the fruit is done in a mass production, which the Shulchan Aruch rules is not a problem because any residue on the knife will be batul.
One other topic that I’d like to mention briefly is that of party planners. We all have heard stories of party planners operating without a hashgacha. Until recently, I thought this was only relevant for large and fancy events. However, it became relevant to me three months ago when my daughter got engaged. The vort was held in Lakewood and, being from Cincinnati, we needed some help with the planning. One of my siblings told me about a woman who could help put the event together, so we gave her a call. I didn’t think of her as a party planner but, essentially, that’s what she was. I didn’t think anything of it until afterwards when I realized that there had been salads at the vort and I didn’t know where they came from. I hope it was okay but this story conveys why there is a need for awareness to make sure everything is done properly and only the most kadosh things go into our mouths.
Rabbi Hisiger: Thank you, Rabbi Weinrib, for your insights and for your contributions to the field of kashrus.