A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Are kosher pickles really kosher?

August 18, 1978

Dear Cecil:

What does it mean to say that a pickle is "kosher?" Is it just the way they taste, or are kosher pickles really kosher?

Cecil replies:

They'd better be, kiddo, or they'll incur the wrath not only of Jewish kosher-certifying organizations but also of various state and federal agencies. "Kosher" has a very specific meaning, and to put it on a product that doesn't conform to the Jewish dietary laws constitutes a serious violation of food labeling regulations. So don't try it.

Some of the confusion about pickles, I suppose, arises from the assumption that the Torah doesn't have much to say about them-- pickles are, after all, basically vegetables, which the dietary laws don't cover. But modern science has stepped in to cloud the issue. Polysorbates, derived from animal fat, are sometimes added to the pickle brine as an emulsifier. Anything derived from animals, no matter how remotely, is covered by the laws.

The procedures for having a product certified as kosher are fairly standardized. The manufacturer writes a letter describing the product to whatever Jewish organization in his area has the appropriate authority. Specific potential problems with the product are identified, an inspection of the plant is conducted, and an agreement is reached as to how the quality of agreements is to be controlled and how often the plant is to be reinspected. Once all that has been worked out, the authority issues a letter of permission, whereupon, I need hardly add, everything's kosher.

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