Juda Glasner worked as a kind of culinary detective from the late '50s until 1964.
The West Los Angeles Orthodox rabbi served as a state investigator seeking out bogus kosher food products. He helped enforce a state law that makes it a misdemeanor to falsely represent foods as kosher or prepared for sale according to Jewish law.
But in a belt-tightening move in 1964, the Legislature abolished Glasner's position in the state Department of Health Services, which was then called the Health Department. And ever since, state officials concede, enforcement of the law on kosher foods has been in limbo.
At least two attempts to beef up the state's enforcement efforts failed to pass the Legislature when rival Jewish groups wrangled over exactly what makes something kosher.
Now, Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) have proposed identical bills aimed at defining enforcement of the law as a consumer issue, not a religious one. Rosenthal's was introduced last week and Hayden submitted his measure on Monday.
The measures propose shifting responsibility for investigating sales of fraudulent kosher foods from the Department of Health Services to the state Department of Food and Agriculture.
The lawmakers also are requesting $75,000 for the department to hire two inspectors and a clerk to handle problems in the sale of kosher products.
In a recent letter to an Assembly budget subcommittee, Hayden said he wanted Food and Agriculture to take over enforcement "because the misrepresentation of kosher foods is a good-quality issue rather than a public-health concern."
Stuart Richardson, chief of the food and drug branch of the Department of Health Services, confirmed that his unit has responsibility for kosher cases but has not handled any in some time. "There's nothing we have done recently. . . . It's really not a health issue, it's a consumer-based issue," he said.
Rabbi Glasner said that since his job was abolished 20 years ago, the Legislature has shied away from the kosher issue, in part because it has not wanted to give the impression that the state was enforcing religious requirements.
He said that if there are conflicts within the Jewish community over what constitutes kosher food, Hayden and Rosenthal could face a bumpy legislative road.
Glasner, 67, a refugee from Romania and president of the United Orthodox Rabbinate of Los Angeles, has not taken a position on their proposals.
But he questioned whether inspectors could enforce the bill without having a religious background. "I don't see how (the inspectors) could get by without knowing what constitutes kosher," he said.
He said, for example, that when he had the job, much of his time was occupied by the question of whether hot water could be used in dressing poultry. The answer, according to Glasner, is no. "You had to use a great deal of tact and diplomacy," Glasner recalled. But, he added, "You had to be firm and not let anyone get away with a violation of the law."
The problem facing Los Angeles' kosher community was underscored last summer when the state attorney general's office began to crack down on the sale of allegedly bogus kosher meat.
The investigation led to court cases, which are still pending, against three butcher shops. But, Hayden pointed out, the investigation was possible only because the U.S. Department of Agriculture loaned an inspector to the state.
Herschel Elkins, senior assistant state attorney general who spearheaded the investigation, said he sought federal help after his office received complaints from consumers who said a number of kosher butchers "were selling non-kosher meat and that no one was doing anything about it."
Elkins said that the source of the products, primarily meat, is the issue. Inspectors can trace whether meat has been slaughtered at a kosher slaughterhouse and then lodge a court complaint, Elkins said.
"It requires no religious expertise . . . but requires (an investigator) to find out who is doing the supplying," Elkins said.
One of the groups pushing for the legislation is the Los Angeles-based California chapter of Agudath Israel, a coalition of Orthodox Jews.
"It's just a question of getting butcher shops not to sell non-kosher meats when they advertise themselves as kosher," said Rabbi Chaim Schnur, director of Agudath Israel of California.
"If they advertise themselves as kosher, then you have people assuming they will be getting kosher meat," he said.
The kosher meat industry in California is monitored by a group of Orthodox rabbis. Religion, not health, is the reason many people follow kosher dietary laws. In fact, besides Jews, members of other religious groups also eat kosher products.
When a product is labeled kosher, it can be sold for as much as three times more than a comparable non-kosher product, Elkins said. He pointed out that a number of other states have laws similar to the California proposals.
In New York, the state Department of Agriculture and Markets has a staff of 12 to enforce a 9-year-old state law against mislabeling kosher foods.