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Lettuce Double Check

Where Did All The Bugs Come From?

In this installment of Let’s Talk Kashrus, Rabbi Yitzchok Hisiger is joined by Rabbi Lipa Klein, Head of the Vaad Hakashrus of Hisachdus Harabanim and Rabbi Shmuel Levi Weinberger, Head of Bedikas Tolaim at Hisachdus Harabanim, to discuss the issue of insect infestation in fruits and vegetables.

Rabbi Yitzchok Hisiger: Thank you, Rabbi Klein and Rabbi Weinberger, for joining us to discuss the very relevant area of kashrus of bedikas tolaim. A common question that we get at Let’s Talk Kashrus is why insect infestation is such a big issue today, when it didn’t seem to be such a major problem in the past. Can you please address that question?

Rabbi Lipa Klein: First of all, I’d like to thank you for giving me this opportunity. Before I answer your question, I’d like to start with a short introduction.

When it comes to bedikas tolaim, many people feel the Rabbanim are out to get them and to tell them, “You can’t eat this and you can’t eat that.” People ask: Why are you forbidding so many fruits and vegetables?

Usually when I speak about this issue, I tell a story about one of our Mashgichim, who was certifying a run of a product at a certain company. He wasn’t there for anything related to bedikas tolaim, but he had some time on his hands and he decided to check some strawberries he had with him. As he was doing that, the owner of the company, who happened to be a completely non-religious Jew, entered the room and asked him what he was doing. He told him that he was checking strawberries, and he showed him the bugs he had found. The owner was very surprised and said, “I’m not giving up my ham sandwich but I won’t eat strawberries anymore.”

The point is that if people would see what we find in fruits and vegetables, they would realize that this is a real issue. We aren’t just trying to find ways to make new restrictions. The bugs are there. We have a laboratory in our office, and we often invite people in who want to understand the issues so that they can see for themselves what we find. When they see it with their own eyes, they understand that we aren’t just making a tumult over nothing.

Rabbi Hisiger: You’re saying that if people would see the bugs, they would be repulsed and wouldn’t want to eat the fruits and vegetables.

Rabbi Shmuel Levi Weinberger: When we send Mashgichim to places to check vegetables, we tell them to show the non-Jewish owners whatever they find. Seeing is believing. At first, they often laugh at us when they see us checking for bugs. But once we show them the insects we found, they give in. It often happens that when we leave at night, we offer to leave them the leftover stuff – but nobody ever wants to take it after seeing the insects we found!

Rabbi Klein: Getting back to your original question of why there seems to be more of an infestation issue today than there was years ago: In general things have changed very much in the way fruits and vegetables grow and how they are shipped to us. Today, the entire world is like one small town. Fruits and vegetables from all over the world are sent here for sale. This led to the famous shailoh of whether one can ever make a Shehechiyanu on a new fruit because you can always find avocados and grapes and everything else on the shelves all year round. If they aren’t coming from California, they’re coming from Chile or from somewhere else. That’s a big part of the problem. Fruits and vegetables today are shipped in from all over the globe, and they bring in infestation and insects that previously weren’t found in the areas they are shipped to, and the infestation spreads all over. Additionally, the natural predators these insects have in their home countries are not found in the places they are shipped to, so that makes the infestation that much worse.

Second of all, the government keeps banning pesticides for environmental and health reasons. They used to be used on a very large scale and now they can’t be used. That’s one more reason that infestation is much more common.

Rabbi Hisiger: You mean that today they use a lower level of pesticides?

Rabbi Klein: They use different kinds of pesticides that are not as harsh as they used to be.

Also, the bugs have built up a resistance to the pesticides. Just like when humans build up a resistance to antibiotics they don’t work as well, so too bugs build up a resistance and the antibiotics don’t work as well.

Rabbi Hisiger: Would you suggest that our readers should only buy prechecked vegetables with a hechser?

Rabbi Weinberger: Whoever is not a mumchah in bedikas tolaim should definitely buy prechecked vegetables, rather than checking it on their own.

Rabbi Klein: There are different organizations that give out rules and guidelines for how to wash vegetables. At the Hisachdus Harabanim, from our experience we wouldn’t advise someone who doesn’t know what to check for to do it himself.

I know that there are different methods out there and everyone should ask his Rov what he can do himself, but, in general, it’s very hard to check and you need to know what you are looking for. Doing it yourself can lead to people getting fooled.

Rabbi Hisiger: What would you say is the biggest misconception you have seen in regards to bedikas tolaim?

Rabbi Weinberger: I would say there are two big misconceptions regarding bedikas tolaim. One is called “greenhouse”, and the other is called “triple-washed”. People see packaging that says “greenhouse” or “hydroponic” or “triple-washed” and take that as a kashrus seal. That is not the case.

For a greenhouse to be good, we need to put in a lot of money and effort and we need to have a lot of siyata d’shmaya. Just being grown in a greenhouse does not mean that vegetables are free of bugs. And vegetables being “triple-washed” without a hashgacha means nothing.

Rabbi Klein: I couldn't agree more. I would add that a greenhouse by itself is nothing and could be even worse than an open field. If the effort is not put in to get it cleaned properly, the insects will be very comfortable there and will multiply by the hundreds and thousands and there’s no way for them to get out.

Rabbi Weinberger: For insects to get in it is very easy, but they won’t go out so easily. That’s why a greenhouse could easily be more infested than an open field.

Rabbi Hisiger: I want to thank both of you on behalf of the viewers for bringing light to this issue and making sure Yidden avoid the lavim of tolaim. I wish you much hatzlacha.

Rabbi Klein: Our sechar will be if people know what they are eating and know what to watch out for.

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