Labeling. What is Kosher for a food community?

Philosophical food restrictions were not something I grew up with. Well, there was the “Fish on Friday” thing, but I was never really able to understand why fish wasn’t a dead animal too. (I have a long history of aversion to dogma, which didn’t serve me well in Catholic school, as I would say things like that out loud. To nuns.) And my dad didn’t like fish so we actually just got a cheese pizza on Friday nights and that was the end of that.

Is this Kosher? Image by Julie via Flickr.

Is this Kosher? Image by Julie via Flickr.

That said, I think it’s fine for people to develop philosophies, rituals, and rules about what to eat for themselves. Pizza night was comforting and tasty. But just because my family liked pizza on Friday nights, I would never expect other families to feel the need to adhere to our little tradition and abandon their fish fry. Many cultures and religions have developed rules and rituals about food and food ingredients. Among the best known of these are the Kosher and Halal types of religious food permissions and restrictions. But many others exist as well.

I became more interested in understanding the Kosher system as the GMO food labeling debate has played out. I knew that the Kosher system had been successful, and apparently sustainable, and it was not established or maintained by the government. It seemed to be a suitable model for the philosophical objection to the GMO process that people have. Although some scientists and other science-minded folks lean towards other types of label systems, including more science-based and educational strategies that I wouldn’t necessarily reject, I still think that philosophical labeling should be handled with Kosher as the model system.

Kosher by Timothy Lytton, via Harvard University Press

Conveniently, a book was recently published that explores the Kosher label history. Timothy Lytton has written a text that provides historical context, political machinations, community tensions, various false starts and ultimate success of the label’s use. Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food is a worthwhile read if you are interested in food label systems. (It is a bit pricey for the 150-page size, I thought, so I waited a while for a library copy. But many of the key issues are discussed in the press links over there on the book publisher’s page.) Covering the Kosher dietary restrictions (sometimes written as Kashrut or Kashrus) from a historical origin and from their earliest implementation to the European strategies in the Middle Ages, through to the changing needs of immigrants in the New World, the early part of the book briefly introduces the original strategies that communities used to maintain adherence to their dietary rules.

The system had worked well enough when small trust communities formed the predominant social structures. But this system was challenging to maintain in the US where communities mixed  Jewish immigrants from many different ancestral communities. There were tensions among more- and less-observant groups. Further, because of the profit motives of many types of food purveyors, there was a great deal of opportunity for fraud and abuse. This bothered religious leaders who genuinely wanted their flocks to have access to quality food that met their requirements. And consumers distrusted the claims of some labelers and food providers, of course.

Many strategies for Kosher labeling and rule management were attempted in the US, and several helpful examples are described. Among the earliest labels was a lead tag attached to a carcass. (Seriously–that’s lead as in Pb) Most efforts ultimately failed due to the recurring themes of “rabbinic infighting and lack of resources”. This included disputes among those who establish the rules who sometimes couldn’t please different sub-groups in the community. Power structures that developed included monopolistic gangs and bribery situations in some cases. And the additional cost of the process of proper food preparation and ongoing supervision had to be paid somehow, even in the cases of trustworthy attempts this can be expensive. Hiring trained personnel and paying for effective monitoring time is not trivial.

In some places governmental regulations were attempted. The story of the New York state saga is useful. But essentially these fail for a couple of reasons: the government doesn’t have the same philosophical framework as a religious group (for many good reasons as far as I’m concerned) and may not be quite as rigorous or driven to encourage adherence. But they also lacked the financial resourcing to do it right (obviously this is not new either). Eventually, though, the right system for the US seemed to come along–in the form of private certifications:

“For nearly a century, kashrus in America was plagued by anarchy that facilitated widespread fraud and corruption. That began to change only when nostalgia for centralized communal control was replaced by faith in a quintessentially American institution with the potential to provide reliable kosher certification: the private business enterprise operating in a competitive market.” (page 34)

A sampling of Kosher symbols via Jerusalem Kosher News.

A sampling of Kosher symbols via Jerusalem Kosher News.

The focus of the book then turned to the new issues that arose from the other major development in American food–industrialization. This generated new demands and challenges for Jewish communities who desired Kosher foods and the religious authorities who wanted to support them. The complexity of supply chains, new ingredients, and large processing facilities was daunting. But the corresponding rise of a new, professionally managed private system, with highly educated staff, kept up. Data about the growth of product labels and customers is provided. Some smaller certifying groups continued to exist, but the field is dominated by some heavy hitters. These include the Orthodox Union (OU), Kof-K, Star-K, OK, CRC, known as “the big five“, and others. But this development of several competing groups is, in fact, a good thing. They provide competition, consumer and producer choice, and help keep each other in line.

The next section emphasizes the collective responsibility of the Kosher certifiers, and explores the “dynamics of self-regulation” that they work under, as a sort of peer-review system.  A hit to the credibility of one of them can damage all of them. Examples of incidents and associated drama are provided. Who knew there was a major vinegar scandal in the 1980s, with resulting destruction of huge amounts of pickles and other products that were deemed unacceptable? But appropriately, the groups responded with increased vigilance, better standards, and improved communication to restore confidence. The “big five” formed new oversight trade organization, called the Association of Communal Kashrus Organizations (ACKO, now just AKO), which now has over 70 member groups.

AKO coordinated the development of standards and best practices guidelines. They hold conferences and trainings. Although not immune to power disputes and competition–although some call it a Kashrut Mafia or a “boys’ club” according to the book, it seems to be a useful and effective structure. And consumers have choices about which organization’s standards and practices they prefer and trust. This section offers details about the size of the various organizations and the products they cover. And it adds further depth on the associated support servicers who they also work with–such as folks specialized to perform appropriate equipment cleaning. It’s really an impressive structure, with many ways to support the community with education, events, training, employment, and business opportunities.

Coke with two different Kosher labels. Images by Leigh Wolf and Noah Jacquemin via Flickr.

Coke with two different Kosher labels. Images by Leigh Wolf and Noah Jacquemin via Flickr.

The last section explores the “effectiveness and integrity” of this labeling strategy. There are examples of poor oversight, lax standards, excessively stringent standards–and even application of labels to items like aluminum foil. (Ahem–anyone remember the non-GMO salt label?) It describes some of the issues that have arisen with mislabeling, and methods to address them–such as consumer alerts and recalls–as well as the proactive self-reporting of the labeling certifiers. There are some amusing anecdotes about the state laws, which can sometimes be used for consumer protection, but are sometimes barely acknowledged, under resourced, or enforced by folks with no training in kashrus. State laws have also run afoul of the First Amendment separation issues. Despite the issues, Lytton says this private label system has numerous advantages (emphasis in the original text):

“To begin with, kosher certification agencies have greater expertise in determining how the traditional laws of kashrus apply to modern industrial food production….Kosher certification agencies are more responsive and accountable to consumers. While government regulation is often considered more democratically accountable than private regulation, the reverse is true in kosher food regulation. State legislators and state agency officials–for whom adulteration and mislabeling of kosher food is a relatively low priority–are not likely to vigorously pursue complaints about kosher food regulation, especially in states where religiously observant Jews are a small minority with little electoral influence….Kosher certification agencies provide better inspection and monitoring coverage of the kosher food industry….Kosher certification agencies are more proactive and prospective than government agencies…” [several more compelling advantages follow] (pg 116-117)

No system is flawless, and examples of the failures of this strategy are also provided. But the overall conclusion seems to be this strategy is effective and the self-policing is largely adequate, and that the Kosher label system is a good model of “private third-party certification”. There’s more detail in the book, of course, with supporting data and notes–and if you are interested in food label issues this book is definitely worth your time.

What I really like about Kosher labeling: it is there to support the community that wants to abide by the rules and restrictions. It’s not about forcing their perspective on anyone who doesn’t share their perspective and philosophy. The system works to strengthen their community. It provides a service to food providers who want to have the business of their market. It’s not about restricting anyone else’s access to products they might prefer. And it doesn’t use the government to force it’s philosophies on anyone else. They can also adapt their rules without waiting for the government to do so. The community who wants this added production cost pays for that service, which can be really costly as this NYT article on Kosher wheat production details. But if the community wants to pay for that, that’s fine. It doesn’t burden anyone else in the system. This is the model I support for GMO labeling.

Parallels with the Organic/Non-GMO Community

As a rather young arena, the organic and non-GMO community certainly hasn’t faced the volume of scandals that early Kosher communities did over many decades. Nonetheless, there have been major breaches on several fronts.  Deception in packaged foods was demonstrated by the Swaddles Organic scandal. They repackaged non-organic food with organic wrappers for five years. At the other end of organic production, another scammer was committing fertilizer fraud, selling product that was marketed as “organic” but contained synthetic materials–again, for years. And there are multiple stories of swindles at farmers’ markets by folks who are not actually growing the food they sell locally, or claiming it is without pesticides, when that turns out to be false. These types of incidents–combined with studies that demonstrate the nutritional claims of organic foods made by proponents are also not supported–risk engendering distrust in exactly the same way the Kosher community saw. And as we saw with Kosher, state label efforts may fail for lack of rigor and resources too. The federal panel setup setting organic standards causes whinging in the organic community already too.

Basically, I feel that government- or industry-based labels will be unsatisfying in their stringency for label advocates once they really grasp the outcomes, and we’d be back in the same shouty place anyway.

The target will simply shift to banning ingredients, assaults on vendors, and escalated demands for more stringency to match their philosophical (not scientific) objections. Or continued battles at the state level. The Kosher labeling model really seems to be a wise choice for a group that has philosophical objections to some aspect of food production or preparation, or for non-health related issues such as patents and monocultures. They can set the rules and requirements, monitor the producers, and deal with the breaches. It will be immune to the whims of one administration or another. And it will be sustainable if done properly. It can also serve the needs of those who want rules established on some types of foods with one brand of label, but want to to have “food freedom” from rules on other sorts of foods such as raw milk, which could divide the communities if they attempt to align on government regulations. Further, a private and voluntary GMO labeling system is already accomplishing some of the things it wants in exactly that manner.

Chipotle’s strategy of denoting their use of GMOs has pleased some food activists, and only enraged others, confused or misled some, and many are hoping this leads to the elimination of GMOs. Jason Lusk recently pointed to a study that evaluates the impacts of voluntary and mandatory strategies as well. This voluntary system is ready now, and that’s what I’d rather see than useless, uninformative, and unscientific mandatory government labels of the types I’ve seen proposed by label advocates. That said, work has shown that the democratic and transparent nature of private label systems, and their accountability, can be compromised by those with strong industry ties. (1) But that is up to the participating community to address. Lytton compares this to government notice-and-comment systems, and finds they are not necessarily better in this regard. A private system like Kosher would resolve some of the drama and tension on this topic.

If the non-GMO community wants to have rules established by alt–med vendors who oppose labels for their own products, conspiracy theorist fiction writers nominated as the One Crank to Rule Them All, anti-vaxxers like the director of the Organic Consumer’s Association that is among leading donors to label initiatives, advocates of humming pandits like the co-author of the Earth Open Source report (I’m so sad they left out the pandit data from that report), those who bury manure in animal horns with astrology, and yogic fliers, and if they wish to test and certify their food processors in a private label like the ominous sounding Global ID Group, where John Fagan (of the humming pandits) is the founder and Chief Scientific Officer–that’s perfectly fine with me. But I will fight back if those folks get near any federal rule-setting panels with my tax dollars.

A side note on GMOs and Kosher

By the way, in case you were curious about the intersection of Kosher labeling and GMOs, here’s one example of the largest Kosher certifier–Orthodox Union–and their take on this issue:

According to the Orthodox Union, the strictest interpreter of Halachic laws, GMOs do not pose a concern. “The Halachic implications of bio-engineered foods with possible genes from non-kosher sources has been studied at length by the Orthodox Union’s Rabbinical Kashruth Advisory Board, headed by the renowned Rabbi Israel Belsky of Mesivta Torah V’daath and Rabbi Hershel Schechter of Yeshiva University,” states the OU. “The conclusion of this Rabbinical Board was that such genetic manipulation does not present any Kashruth problems whatsoever….”

But if other Kosher certifiers want to exclude GMOs, that’s totally up to them. The way philosophical labeling should be handled.

Reference: (1)  Fuchs D., Kalfagianni A. & Havinga T. (2011). Actors in private food governance: the legitimacy of retail standards and multistakeholder initiatives with civil society participation, Agriculture and Human Values, 28 (3) 353-367. DOI:


Mary is a genomics scientist, with credentials in microbiology, immunology, plant cell biology, and mammalian cell, developmental, and molecular biology (PhD). All comments here are my own, and do not represent my company or any other company.

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23 comments on “Labeling. What is Kosher for a food community?
  1. Ute Lehmann says:

    When in the food are more then one species, it is not kosher.
    3. Moses 19 says: “You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material.” next translation
    19 “‘Ye shall keep My statutes. Thou shalt not let thy cattle breed with a diverse kind. Thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed; neither shall a garment mingled with linen and wool come upon thee.” 19 “‘You shall keep my statutes. next translation:

    “‘You shall not cross-breed different kinds of animals.
    “‘You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed;
    “‘Don’t wear a garment made of two kinds of material.

    (May be that this laws are: crossbreeded two kinds of seed wont work if seed is used again. Clothes made with wool and linnen got to bust. )

    First pray , than change genes!

    • MaryM says:

      Wow, so a field with two kinds of seed is improper? Well, monoculture it is then.

      But if you want to disagree with the strictest Kosher labeling community, that’s your call. And that’s exactly the beauty of the Kosher labeling system: if one group isn’t pure enough for you, there’s another group that will accommodate your level of purity.

  2. Keith Hayes says:

    This is a good history lesson and why a voluntary labeling system would probably work best.

    But the voluntary labeling should also be free of any idealogical bias or implying any claims. The USDA Organic label seems to meet this criteria. The Non-GMO Project labeling seems to be a problem in my opinion. It’s graphical design seems to imply that non GMO is better for the environment. It even features a monarch butterfly.

    • MaryM says:

      Yeah, but already there are two camps dislike the USDA setup. In the post I linked to the complaints about Big Organic in the NYT. But also recently there’s a move to avoid the USDA organic standards with the “Certified Naturally Grown” movement:

      There’s also the “food freedom” folks who want access to dangerous raw milk and “freedom” from other safety standards, and shun any regulations–whereas these GMO foodies want more government regulation and protection. Those groups are in a strange association right now, but that would never persist over time. The foundations are completely at odds.

      Team anti-GMO doesn’t realize it, but their best bet is really a non-government solution if their mission really is to avoid GMOs based on their philosophical objections. If, though, that’s not the real mission–and it is to scare people toward their Team Organic companies, then a government label probably is the way to go.

  3. Ute Lehmann says:

    A field with two varieties of wheat is not good for jews. (Because the offspring is not authentic seeds) There is a law for unploughed strips, with shrubberies on it, for the birds, the animals of the fields, too. (and this 2 or 3 thousand b.C.) Myself, I just dont eat porc. I’m both, I believe in Jesus Christ and have a jewish way of life. I just wanted to show why jews dont give some gmo a kosher symbol: because gmo is often mixed with two species. Mixing in between baramins (=often order, sometimes class) should be tolerated by most jews, because they know of course that seeds are bred by mixing varieties.All food should be best, seeds that are not germinable wont be used for food, even when they get cooked, roasted and so on. Emergency slaughter meat is never kosher. Kosher is a high quality sign. (Myself I have actually only one food with a kosher symbol: thats a bottle of olive oil. In Germany kosher food is often only available by mail order…

  4. First Officer says:

    GM food is considered kosher, so long as it was not originally not kosher, as the GE change is considered microscopic. It should be note that, under certain circumstances, any food could be considered kosher. These circumstances include situations where the only food available is non-kosher and/or, for medical reasons, you must ingest non-kosher food. Life and health takes precedence over the letter of the law.

    There are organizations that certify non-gmo food as kosher that declared they won’t certify GMO food as kosher but that’s because it doesn’t meet their criteria of being non-GMO in the first place and not because of Torah or Talmud interpretations.

    L’Chiam !

    • MaryM says:

      Thanks for the details Officer. Yeah–it seemed to me from the book that they had scientifically qualified scholars involved in the system. So I wasn’t surprised that the largest one came out with that assessment.

      Recently though I saw some of the anti-GMO team touting a new certifier decision that won’t permit GMOs:

      But fine–again, exactly the way the system works. If one certifier doesn’t meet your personal standards, you can find one that does. As new ag tech comes along there’s no way they’ll be able to get federal and state laws to keep up. Not that they’ll listen to me, but Kosher as a model is the way to go.

      • theoldtechnite says:

        You’re welcome !

        From your link:

        “While according to the strict letter of Kosher food law a GMO food ingredient is not prohibited, in our view it is not natural. Additionally, there is a Torah (religious)-based law to ‘guard your health’. GMOs are the number-one growing concern among health-conscious consumers and for businesses in the natural and organic food market, as well as in the conventional food industry,” said Rabbi Flamer.

        Which is saying that they will just certify what is kosher AND what they consider to be natural. Of course, it is already shown there is nothing to guard your health against with GMO’s and, if they were really following that, “guard your health”, law faithfully, then they shouldn’t certify some greasy latke mixes, regardless of GMO content.

        Overall, you are right about the Kosher certification. There is no Jewish Pope that can dictate what is or is not allowed, only respected rabbinical organizations.

        Note too, it is a common fallacy to think Kosher law was about health. It really isn’t. If you notice, almost all of Kosher rules revolve around animal products. The only rule i can think of for vegetation (except during Passover) is the prohibition of eating food or drinking wine meant for rituals in other religions. When it comes to animal products, the Kosher rules were meant to limit the amount of meat one could reasonably eat. This was not a nod to the supposed health benefits of a vegetarian diet but a recognition that animals are also God’s creatures and, therefore, the suffering we inflict upon them for our need for meat should be minimized. However, you can eat all the cream filled fried doughnuts you want (so long as you don’t have meat within 4 hours of your last one), until your kishkas burst and still be Kosher. Even some of the more dubious food additives are Kosher, under the rule that it isn’t really food if a dog wouldn’t eat it and, therefore, not under the jursidiction of the Kosher rules, which only applies to food. How’s that for legalese !?

        Oy !

      • theoldtechnite says:

        You do have to wonder about a sight that generally calls people, “sheeple”. Rather condenscending, don’t you think ?

  5. Ute Lehmann says:

    “Do not crossbreed your livestock with other species. Do not plant your field with different species of seeds. Do not wear a garment that contains a forbidden mixture of fabrics? (Leviticus 19:19)” (see this discussion from COEJL), Jews support GMOs by 55-35% margin, the highest among religious groups polled. In fact, compare this percentage with those of people of other faiths: 57% of Protestants (62% of Evangelicals) oppose biotech based on their religious or ethical views while 37% are in favor; Catholics followed closely behind with 52% opposed and 42%in favor; among Muslims, 46% said they are opposed, with 32% in favor. I would be interested in learning why, among the faith groups polled, more Jews support GMOs. – See more at:” I did not know this article before writing. ——-> Plants should not be modified with human or animal genes. Plants should be modified with genes from the same family or order. Wheat should only modified with “grass” genes, not with tomato genes. Tomatos with pepper genes but not with barley genes and so on. I am not a religious leader, I am a biologist, and I got my diploma february 2013…main themes botany and genetics, But I am active in service and worship :-)

    • MaryM says:

      If you are a biologist than you know genes don’t carry a species. Taking a gene from a fish and putting it in to a bacteria does not make the bacteria a fish.

      Are you opposed to human genes in bacteria too?

      • Ewan R says:

        Perhaps we could modify plants by breeding them in front of variously colored rods.

        Probably work just as well for plants. If only we can figure out how best to peel our rods in order to induce desirable traits.

        It should circumvent all worry over GMO or whatnot.

    • I understand that the religious leaders did not know about modern genomics at the time of their writings (of course, no one knew about genetics at the time!) but today we know that all organisms are related, such that we all have genes in common. You and I and every human has genes in common with animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria (I wrote a post about this a while back, if you are interested: I wonder how that scientific information would fit with the religious definitions here.

    • First Officer says:

      “Do not plant your field with different species of seeds. ”

      Sounds like a mandate for monocropping ! ;) There doesn’t seem to be any prohibition against eating mixed grains or grains from such fields, after the fact.

      Either way, and often the case, one can pick and choose which religious laws and rules support one’s views. This is why religious laws and rules concerning the physical world should bend to scientific findings and not the other way around.

  6. Ute Lehmann says:

    But genes are symbolizing species. But a fish gene in a bacteria makes if it a proteine gene, a fish proteine. And if it is taken into yeast, the yeast contains that fish proteine and may cause an allergic reaktion to a person allergic to fishes who eats the yeast (as soup powder …)

    Human genes in bacteria are used to produce Human growth hormone …as example. A classmate died on creutzfeld jacob in end of 1970s , he got growth hormon which were obtained from death children, they calles him Franky-Boy, because his name was really Frank, and he was very small and because of the German Frankensteinsaga.Its possible you know Frankenstein He was the reason that I took Biology as main theme. In 1983 in school we got collection of signatures that hormones are allowed to be produced. In Silvesterday 1985 two years after my “highschooldiploma”(Gymnasium in german)a was invited to Franks`parents celebrating the new year for their second living son, not growing, too. Because he became on that day his first injection of somatotophine. They had the eldest child not affected. And they discided their baby to be born, but the baby was healthy. In 1983 I started to get bio lab assistant in Frankfurt to be faster, but then there were no people additional needed . So I started to study 1984 chemistry engineer , like my husband is. I got a chemitechnician diploma in 1987, but after birth of my second boy in 1988 no work. Because both children are healthy,I got eight. In 2003 I started to study biology—my granny died, and she never could study mechanical ingeneer–she wished to do so, but it was not possible to a woman born 1911 in germany. So she told me , to study what I wanted. My other theme is starvation in the world: Our class had a godparenthood to an african orphan girl–we did not hear about her and than that that all stayed in that orphan home have been found dead because of starvation or drough, in Sahel.We all where shocked. We all gave all our money, and a change went over Frankfurt— every salesman or banker who wanted to have a good reputation wasgoing to spend money or had godparenthoods to children in starvation zones…my classmates (and younger classes) and my went to this big bankers and salesmen and told about our bereavement, and we showed the foto of our death godparenthood girl.More schools did also, than churches did again..So the Anti-famine started in Frankfurt. So I wanted to grow new better foodplants,i wanted to grow perennials food : plants: these are more robust , have deeper roots, hold the soil, are good against errosion. “Wheat” from a perriennials “grass”…. In 2013 in February I finished Diploma in Biology. I had 83 applyments,to the netherlands, to belgia, to germany.. all negative. Two headhunters and the lady of the employment center , that is because I am aged 50 years. Now I have a 1/4 job in medical data management… I hope that one day I get that job I ever dreaming on…

    • Ewan R says:

      No, it’d cause an allergic reacton only if the person was allergic to that specific protein.

      The species matters not one jot, it is the sequence of the protein which is problematic.

    • I’m sorry you haven’t been able to find work in the field you want to work in. That is certainly very frustrating. Best wishes to you on finding work you love. Thank you for sharing why you were interested in studying biology, specifically plants.

      As for the allergies, thankfully allergies are to specific proteins, so as long as the genes aren’t for those proteins aren’t used, they won’t cause an allergic reaction. Still, it seems that scientists are being over-careful – I haven’t seen any examples of using a wheat gene in another plant or anything like that.

  7. Ute Lehmann says:

    Thank your for your answers. its very good that researchers are overcareful with allergies— I am affected with allergies too, glutene and some more. ( I would like to make a less allergic glutene, barley and oat “glutene” I can eat..)
    Wheat x rye crossing is not for kosher extreme beliefers. Nor boysenberries. I think myself, thats okay because wheat is a cross of three grass varieties-

    I am in hurry up now, I write in evening more (Europeen Time)

    enjoy your weekend

  8. Ute Lehmann says:

    I am now back from Jesus-March 2013 in Frankfurt. I am very very tired…. (:|

  9. MaryM says:

    This is an interesting tidbit from Germany that describes precisely what I expect even if there is mandated labeling:

    The comment from Alexander described the goal-post moving I anticipate:

    Where GMOs are labelled, activists opposed to the use of genetic engineering in agriculture continue to oppose GM food and push for a complete ban.

  10. Ute Lehmann says:

    Thats this sex video shop– they sell chocolate looking like teats and vulvas…I think I signed a year before against this abuse of women. Its because how the chocolate looks like not was is inside. these are pro-life and I sign there pro life for germany.

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