Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Buying Kosher Ice Cream - Not as Simple as It Seems

With the new Va’ad supervision over the Dunkin Donuts/Baskin Robbins in Oak Park, kosher consumers can now enjoy the doughnuts and ice cream at home that they’ve been savoring on vacation in Chicago and New York. While consumers readily understand the need for rabbinic supervision over doughnut production, when they come to buy ice cream – and especially Baskin Robbins, the need for hashgachah causes some confusion.

Generally, it’s pretty hard to make something treif when dealing with cold items. According to halachah, if you accidentally took your fleishig spoon and ate a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream, that spoon would still be fleishig. (Don’t do it! First of all, that’s a ton of ice cream, and you’ll get sick. Also, one should never intentionally use a milchig item for a fleishig food, and visa-versa, as you might mix the spoon with your other fleishig items before cleaning it, or rinse the item with hot water, etc.)

Rabbi Yosef Caro writes in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 105) that when a cold prohibited item comes into contact with a cold permissible item, one only needs to rinse off that permissible item to go ahead and use it. So, in our case, if you accidentally ate your Chunky Monkey with a fleishig spoon, as long as you didn’t wash it in hot water, rinse it thoroughly in cold water (and soap), and you can return it to the flieshig drawer without kashering. When we introduce heat into the equation, that heat has the power to transfer taste and render items non-kosher. So, if you accidentally ate some hot leftover cream of mushroom bisque soup from Milk and Honey with your fleishig spoon, the heat of the soup infuses the taste of the soup into the spoon, and you have to kasher that spoon.

So, when we come to eating ice cream at Baskin Robbins, people have a difficult time seeing a problem. After all, it’s only ice cream! Even if they have some non-kosher flavors (and they do), it’s all cold, and they rinse off the scoops between different flavors anyway. So what could be wrong with ice cream?

The simple answer is: plenty.

While the Vaad Harabonim of New England (KVH) does certify most Baskin Robbins flavors, it does not supervise them all. Additionally, the KVH only supervises the ice cream. When you walk into Baskin Robbins and see that KVH sticker, that tells you that when it left the factory, the ice cream was kosher, and nothing more. It tells us nothing about the kashrus in the specific shop itself.

We’d like to believe that the local servers take special care not to mix flavors, but even a casual observer can easily notice chocolate in the vanilla and strawberry sorbet in the mint chip. Which flavors sit next to the Rocky Road or Cherries Jubilee in the display case? Furthermore, who ensures that the ice cream in the case actually is Baskin Robbins ice cream? If they ran out of chocolate and for some reason a new shipment was delayed, any good store operator would run out and buy chocolate ice cream from the closest store. Who checks to make sure that doesn’t happen? No one. Moreover, the KVH certifies only the ice cream, and not many of the condiments. Do the condiments – the hot fudge, the caramel, the cones, the sprinkles, the whipped cream – also fall under reliable hashgachah? Sometimes they do, but often they do not.

Ice cream cake, a staple at many birthday parties, isn’t only ice cream. They place the layers of ice cream on a layer of cake. Who baked that cake? Under what supervision? Moreover, every good birthday cake must say “Happy Birthday” or it’s not a real birthday cake. What brand of food coloring does the establishment use to color the icing it uses to letter the cakes? From our experience at the store under supervision, the standard colors issued by Allied Domecq (the Baskin Robbins parent company) were not kosher.

We live in a time of industrialized, complicated and integrated food manufacturing. While we might have been content at one time to look at the ingredients or simply assume that “if the ice cream is under hashgachah, the store must be fine too,” experience teaches us that today we must rely upon the expertise of people who understand food production and the issues involved in kashrus oversight.

So, the next time you go to our local Baskin Robbins on 10 Mile and Greenfield and order and triple-scoop double fudge sundae, first of all, take your time. That’s a lot of food. But also appreciate your ability to eat that sundae with the confidence that the entire sundae, from the ice cream to the crushed Oreos to the cherry on top, is one-hundred percent kosher.