Bugging Out Over Caesar Salads

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Halachic Musings

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

In kosher restaurants they cost, on average, about $13. They are the now-ubiquitous Caesar salads—named after the Italian restaurant owner Caesar Cardini who invented the recipe in 1924, when he had to improvise a salad on account of a lack of ingredients. The rest is history. Caesar salads are now available everywhere.

Generally, the Caesar salad is made of romaine lettuce, croutons, dressing, and at times some Parmesan cheese. The kosher Caesar salads are more expensive than those in non-kosher stores because, ostensibly, the romaine lettuce is rigorously checked to make sure that there are no bugs in the salad. The stores are certified kosher by various hechsherim and each store has a mashgiach who supervises the lettuce washing and insect removal.

Many of the supervising agencies do not have the managerial processes in place to make sure that the restaurant has adequately trained mashgichim who are doing their job properly. This translates into the consumer eating bugs—a lot of them.

Last Thursday, this author filmed no less than 11 bugs in one Caesar salad. There were one fly, two aphids, and eight thrips (four larvae and four adults) in just one salad. The author videotaped the entire procedure—showing the sealed salad, the hashgachos that the salad had, and the process of finding the 11 offending insects.

Anyone who sees the video will be completely repulsed. The level of infestation is such that there are serious Choshen Mishpat questions of how the sale of such salad can be taking place.

Retraining Is A Must

What needs to happen is some serious retraining. Thankfully, many supervising agencies are now in the process of doing just that. The heads of three major supervising agencies have informed the Five Towns Jewish Times that they are in the process of retraining their mashgichim with the best bug people out there. Two more agencies are seriously considering it as well. In the meantime, the odds are pretty high that the mere consumption of one Caesar salad will, on average, yield a violation of 12 to 24 Torah prohibitions—about equal to consuming a case of neveilah Slim Jims.

Why do the mashgichim need to be retrained? They do not know how to spot the offending organisms at first glance. They also do not know how to distinguish between aphids and mites and thrips. For aphids, it is best to check leaf by leaf. For mites and thrips, it is best to check with a mesh cloth.

Once a mashgiach is retrained, for example, he will know how to use a standard sheitel spritzer to turn a possible aphid body upside down, placing the feet and tentacles face up rather than face down. Believe it or not, the top trainers also teach the mashgichim how to become aphid obstetricians. A mashgiach who is adequately trained can show a consumer the pregnant aphid and deliver six of her babies before his or her eyes. All this can be seen by the observer just with the naked eye.

The Counterarguments

There are two main counterarguments that are generally given justifying the lax methods of cleaning and inspections.

These aphids, mites, and thrips are too small to be seen.

There is no miyut hamatzui (significant minority) of infested leaves—which is the halachic threshold for what needs to be examined. Both of these arguments, however, are, at best, highly questionable or very wrong.

Here is why:

Firstly, when examining restaurant salads, it is the exact opposite that is the case; it is a miyut of salads that are not infested. Secondly, while it is true that some of these aphids might be too small for the average person to see with the naked eye, many, if not most of them, are large enough to be seen. It is also a statistical impossibility for the half-dozen or more thrips and mites that are found in the average salad to all be so small to fit into this leniency.

Yet, some of the people who argue that these bugs may be consumed point to various teshuvos that ostensibly permit the bugs. This is a huge error, as whenever there is a salad that contains small mites or thrips, statistically, it also has the larger mites and thrips and certainly aphids as well.

One such responsum that is often pointed to is one that was authored by Rav Shmuel haLevi Vosner, zt’l (Volume VII #122) in his Shevet HaLevi. Rav Vosner takes up the case of a black dot that is visible to the naked eye but not identifiable as a bug to the naked eye. If, however, one sees it under magnification, the dot is revealed as a bug. Rav Vosner concludes that such bugs are not forbidden.

While this may be true regarding a whole class of bugs on fruit per se, it is only a theoretical issue regarding salads, as aphids, mites, or thrips large in size and scope are statistically present too. In other words, there will always be significant-sized thrips or mites along for the ride whenever there are smaller ones.

So the quote of “Lo nitna Torah l’malachei haShareis—the Torah was not given to the ministering angels” (see Berachos 25b) that is often invoked to justify the bugs is erroneously applied. Regular people can see a significant percentage of these insects with no need for extraordinary measures. Magnification is generally thought to be an extraordinary method (See Aruch haShulchan YD 84:36 and Darchei Teshuva 84:94)—but these can be seen without aids.

Determining The Miyut She’eino Matzui

A second issue lies in how the statistics are determined. But first let’s go back to the basic aspects of the halachos of insects, tolaim.

If a food is generally infested more than 50 percent of the time, then it is considered “muchzak b’tolaim” and it must be checked and cleaned by Torah law. If a food is consistently infested but not to such a degree that it is a majority of the time, the need to check and clean it is of rabbinic origin according to the Shach (84:28, see also Sifsei Daas). The statistic of 10 percent or more (first presented by the Mishkenos Yaakov YD 17 based upon Bava Basra 93b) is often the line of demarcation of what is considered miut hamatzui or not. If it is less than ten percent, many poskim are of the opinion that there is no rabbinic obligation to check. Others consider it meritorious to check even at less than ten percent, and some consider it obligatory under certain circumstances. (It should be noted that the Beis Ephraim in Yoreh Deah 6 has a smaller number than the ten percent figure.)

Now back to the problem of how the miyut sh’eino matzui is determined. Do we look at ten leaves of lettuce, and if we do not see a bug in at least one of those leaves do we assume that this romaine is okay? Or perhaps we should examine each container of salad? It may be unclear as to what order of magnitude of the sample size is required, but it is also clear that we should not be serving customers insects in their salads.

The best way to avoid that is to realize what kinds of insects are infesting the produce in the first place. Some infestations are so profound that it is almost impossible to clean them even with three general washes; this is particularly true with aphids who attach themselves deeply into the leaves. The top hashgachos are now recommending a pre-check where if the number of thrips is above three per head then the batch should be rejected in the first place. The restaurant owner should be shown the level of the infestation in the pre-check so that he will realize that the mashgiach is not crazy.

It is also something that the end consumer should be made aware of, in order to ensure that Klal Yisrael keeps to the highest standards of kashrus. If any kashrus organization requires assistance in arranging for retraining, please contact the author.

The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.

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2 thoughts on “Bugging Out Over Caesar Salads

  • August 7, 2016 at 2:03 pm
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    Rabbi Yair Hoffman’s article “Bugging Out Over Caesar Salads” is right on the mark. The issue of increased insect infestation reaching the consumers is a serious one. This problem is not in an isolated store or community. it is widespread.
    Retraining is necessary for those establishments that do not have the matter under control.
    Rabbi Hoffman speaks of agencies undergoing retraining. That is all good, but who is going to guarantee to the consumer that the agencies have finally got everything under control? We have no independent kosher laboratory to spot check the various vegetables in the many establishments using them.
    We advise community rabbis who do not give kosher certification to arrange periodically for sampling and testing in their communities of the establishments that their constituents frequent. For a few thousand dollars per year each community can protect itself from many many thousands of prohibitions (5 for each bug).
    Rabbi Yosef Wikler, Kashrus Magazine,…

  • August 8, 2016 at 7:17 am
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    It is disheartening to pay a premium for checked vegetables, which weren’t properly checked. There shouldn’t only be bug checking classes,shiurim for mashgichim. The frum community needs to have communal training in this area. There is a great need for this. When I mention to friends that sometimes the cleaning and bug checking for produce takes me longer than the rest of a meal preparation, they look at me like I have 3 heads. There seem to be many uninformed in our community regarding the need for thorough halachic bug checking for produce.

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