Why Does Some Produce Require Special Cleaning to be Fit for Kosher Consumption?

Fruits and vegetables by their nature are kosher. Insects on the other hand, are not. Unfortunately, in the last couple of decades insect infestation in fruits and vegetables has become more prevalent. Small insects that are visible to the naked eye such as aphids, thrips and leaf miners are often found in even the most common produce. As a result, in order to be rendered kosher, they often require special cleaning and inspection prior to consumption.

The prohibition against consuming insects is found in the Torah where it states, “All the swarming things that swarm on the ground you shall not eat”… (Leviticus 11:42). In fact, eating an insect could lead to transgressing up to six negative Torah prohibitions.
As a result, kosher consumers have become more conscious about the need to check produce for insects. And if it seems that this issue has received more attention in recent years that’s because it has. Here are a few reasons why:
  1. Pesticides/insecticides: Baby boomers may still remember the DDT scandal of the early 1970s. DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), the first and perhapsbest known modern pesticide, was a powerful agent that was able to clean farms of all insect infestation. In 1972, because of evidence that DDT caused cancer and harmed bird reproduction, the USDA issued a ban on DDT, prohibiting its use for agricultural purposes. Since that time, many other harmful pesticides have likewise been deemed unacceptable or illegal. With little or no pesticides, insects have returned aggressively.
  2. Organic Generation: Today, organic produce and food has become exceedingly popular due to its health benefits. Organic produce is grown in a natural environment, free from all artificial agro-chemicals.
  3. Tolerance Levels: The USDA has proposed infestation tolerance levels for various frozen or processed vegetables. For example, in a 3.6 oz bag of frozen broccoli, regulators will allow up to 60 thrips, aphids and other insects. Canadian cabbage farmers are not required to spray the field at all if they deem infestation level to be below five thrips per ten heads.
  4. Global Economy: Today’s global economy incorporates billions of dollars of yearly agricultural trade from countries across the globe including the Far East, the Middle East and South America, where infestation levels are extremely high. The quantity and selection of infested vegetables that come from these parts of the world has increased greatly with the growing global economy.
In the 1990s, the US News and World Report exclaimed, “The level of insect infestation in leafy vegetables has increased dramatically since the FDA banned several pesticides.” At that time, North Americans began to realize that the diminishing use of pesticides and increasing trends toward organic agricultural climates were bringing the bugs back – and the problem has only worsened since then.
So what is a kosher consumer to do? Fortunately, COR, together with our colleagues in the kosher industry have committed significant time and energy researching what types of produce are particularly susceptible to insect infestation and what are the best methods of cleaning and checking them so that they can be consumed without any kosher concerns.
Please visit the COR Produce Inspection Guide here for more specific information.
Here are some Frequently Asked Questions we receive about checking produce for insects:
Q. I have heard that you can take a problematic fruit or vegetable and puree it to make it kosher. Are dead bugs kosher?
A. Dead bugs are not kosher. A bug that is disintegrated and is mixed into 60 or more parts is batul (nullified)and is permitted. In general, one would not be permitted to perform this act by oneself. But for fruits and vegetables that may be infested, such as broccoli, once an item has been washed and rinsed as best as possible (in vegetable wash etc.) one may puree (to a liquid substance) the vegetable so as to disintegrate the bug. The mixture is then permitted.
Q. If strawberries, raspberries and other berries are so difficult to check and clean, how could COR and other prominent kosher agencies certify fruit jams and yogurts?
A. One may rely on a halachic principle called sfek sfeyka “double (or triple) doubt”. It is possible that there are no bugs on a berry. Even if there was a bug, it is possible that it has been washed off during pre-washing. Finally, these items are always pre-cooked. It is, therefore, possible that the insect has disintegrated and is batul.
Q. Do flour, pasta, or rice have to be checked?
A. Flour, pasta and rice may develop worms when stored in warm areas such as next to ovens or oven vents. Infestation is more prevalent in summer months. These items should be stored in cool places. When properly stored, it is unusual to find worms in Canada and the US. Many have the custom of checking or sifting these items due to the possible infestation of insects. One should follow one’s own custom or refer to COR’s guidelines.
Q. I have heard that mashgichim are using microscopes to check produce. I thought that anything that is not visible to the naked eye is allowed?
A. Mashgichim do not check with microscopes. Some carry a 10X microscope for inspection of dots or spots that they are unsure about.
Q. Is a light-box really required?
A. When checking potentially infested produce, one must provide a direct light source in order to achieve a proper check. One must place or hold the leaf in between the light source and one’s eye. By doing this, one will be able to identify the opaque insect on the translucent leaf. A light box will help to accomplish this goal. An alternative method would be to hold the leaf up against a window on a bright, sunny day.
Q. If herbs are infested produce, then why are dried herbs certified?
A. Dried herbs do not have to be checked for bugs. Halacha assumes that the bug disintegrates during the drying process.