There was a time when a half-moon K on a carton of cottage cheese didn't mean much to someone who kept strictly kosher. Conventional wisdom held that the heksher (the kosher symbol) was not all that reliable.
Today, things are changing at Kosher Overseers (KO), which supervises about 1,000 companies worldwide and has its bulging K on more than 1 million products.
Over the past three years, the 90-year-old nonprofit organization has been working to upgrade its rabbinic supervision, tracking and data management to bring its heksher up to community standards.
"Methods have changed, things have changed -- it doesn't mean the old school was bad, it just means that things have changed," said Howard Sharfman, president and CEO of KO.
Sharfman's grandfather, Rabbi Hyman Sharfman, founded the agency in the early part of last century, and his father, Rabbi I. Harold Sharfman, took it over in 1959. By the time Howard became CEO after his father died in 2000, his father's time-honored methods had begun to lag behind increasingly stringent standards.
Today, Rabbi Chaim Hisiger, who has been associated with the organization since the late 1970s, has made it his mission to make certain that every product with a KO symbol on it meets the highest community standards.
That means computerizing 90-years worth of files in the Beverlywood house that serves as the company's headquarters. And it means making sure each company that has a contract with KO has regular visitations from qualified rabbis who check every ingredient. Hissiger has also put together a tracking system that will help in ascertaining whether there are products that have unauthorized symbols on them.
After three years of working on the project, Hissiger said about 80 percent of the half-moon K hekshers are now reliable.
The trick when you're standing at the supermarket staring at a box of oatmeal is knowing which symbols have earned their spots, and which haven't.
For now the best that KO can offer is honesty.
If you call KO, Hisiger will tell you which of the products with his symbol on it are really kosher, and which are not yet up to standards -Â a system that even kashrut maven Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz is comfortable with, for now.
For more information, call Kosher Overseers Associates of America at (323) 870-0011.