There are many consumers who depend on the kosher designation of pareve on food items they purchase. Obviously, the pareve designation is important to the Kosher Consumer, who looks for pareve items that may be eaten with any type of meal, whether meat or dairy. Another category of consumer looks at the kosher symbol on a product not for religious reasons, but as a sign of a more pure or clean product. There is a third category of consumer that looks to the pareve designation on a product and makes, literally, a life or death decision to use the food item on the basis of that kosher symbol.
There are many misperceptions about dairy allergies. Many people confuse a dairy allergy with lactose intolerance, a very different problem. Lactose is a milk sugar, found in nearly all dairy products. When dairy is consumed, the digestive track breaks down the lactose, or milk sugar, into more elementary sugars that can be absorbed by the body. A person with lactose intolerance lacks a digestive enzyme necessary to break down lactose. As a result, eating dairy foods often results in experiencing digestive distress. Uncomfortable, yes - but usually not medically serious. Food supplements have been on the market for a number of years now that can provide relief for this condition by supplying the digestive enzyme necessary to break down milk sugar. Most lactose intolerant people can take this enzyme in a tablet form (available kosher certified from several manufacturers) and enjoy a dairy meal with little or no discomfort.
Dairy allergies are an altogether different case. A person who is allergic to dairy foods suffers a very serious, sometimes life threatening medical reaction to milk proteins. Exposure to milk protein can lead to the inability to breathe and requires immediate acute care. While a lactose intolerant individual may be able to ingest small amounts of dairy foods without suffering untoward effects, one with a dairy allergy will suffer an allergic reaction as a result of the consumption of very small amounts of a dairy food. In fact, according to allergists, the presence of as little as 1 or 2 parts per million of dairy protein in a food may trigger an allergic reaction.
Some individuals with dairy allergies have looked to a kosher pareve designation to mean that the food is safe for them to consume. This is a very dangerous perception that the cRc feels needs to be clarified.
Pareve is a designation indicating that a food contains neither milk nor meat products, by-products, or derivatives. It is critical to understand that the designation of pareve is given solely on the basis of halacha (Jewish Law). When a product is marked pareve (excepting the rare case of mislabeling - a subject for another discussion) by a reputable Kashrus agency, the religious consumer knows that the product meets all halachic criteria and may be used with any meal. But relying on this certification as a 100% certainty for medical reasons is a decision that requires careful consideration on part of the consumer, along with an understanding of the realities of food processing.
The Food Industry
Food processing, particularly in the United States, as become by and large very technically advanced. This has led in part to the highest levels of food safety ever known. Even so, as some recent highly publicized cases have demonstrated, there can still be problems that impact upon public health. Allergens, including dairy ingredients, have become a focal point in food processing plants of late. Companies are more vigilant that ever to see to it that food allergens are segregated throughout the production process. In many cases this has aided the kosher certification process by separating dairy ingredients and finished products.
Extreme care is exercised by the cRc staff to ensure that products made in cRc-certified facilities conform to the highest possible standards of kashrus. Frequent visits to companies, a careful analysis of processing methods, and monitoring ingredients and formulas are all methods employed to make sure that cRc certifications are given on the highest level. The cRc conducts a thorough investigation of production methodology prior to granting any product a pareve designation. Products that may be subject to dairy contamination, regardless of how little are not eligible for pareve certification. However, there are potential pitfalls that the consumer must be aware of.
With the complexities of food processing, it is not hard to imagine that in a plant that makes both pareve and dairy items, a very small quantity of a dairy ingredient could find its way into an otherwise pareve product. The same possibility exists at the manufacturing site of any ingredients used in an end product. So-called human factors can still come into play regardless of how vigilant the cRc is in supervising factories. Something as simple as airborne dust, a cleaning process that misses part of the equipment, or the mistaken substitution of a dairy ingredient in a formulation can all lead to trace contamination of a pareve product. In most of these situations, the finished product is still pareve according to halacha.
Some manufacturing companies, concerned with legal ramifications, have begun labeling their products with a disclaimer. One company has chosen to print "This product made in a plant that also processes dairy ingredients" on their labels, even though the label is for a kosher pareve item. Other companies may soon follow suit. Consumers should not be concerned if such a message appears on a product label, and may still rest assured that the pareve status of the product is in no way effected.
With regard to those with dairy allergies, however, additional care must be taken to prevent a potentially life-threatening situation. While the various kashrus agencies make every effort to insure that there is no dairy contamination in pareve products, those who are allergic to dairy products are urged not to rely solely on the pareve status as an indication that foods are safe to consume. The cRc is unable to make a medically certain claim that a pareve product has absolutely no dairy contamination. The cRc pledges to the consumer, as always, that the absolute highest standards of kashrus will be pursued and maintained. A consumer with a severe allergic condition must be aware, however, of the potential dangers of relying upon any pareve product.