Colombia – Land of (Kosher) Opportunity

June 24, 2009

In Colombia, it seems the people are as bright and warming as the tropical sun. Like most of Central and South America, this is a country with a disturbing past and a bright future. Once known more for cocaine drug lords and kidnapping than for legitimate businesses and opportunity, Colombia is coming into its own. OU certified companies there offer excellent products ranging from consumer items like coffee, hot pepper sauces and tuna fish to industrial ingredients like tropical oils and citric acid. All are made with the finest ingredients – and just a bit of the brightness that comes with the tropical sun.

Like many Latin American countries, Colombia offers a number of opportunities to food manufacturers. Its weather and history provide for an abundance of agricultural based products and old-world know how in food manufacture. Because of its colonial and European roots, there are long established ties with the European Union. Due to relatively low labor costs, increasingly favorable trade terms and geography, Colombia offers special benefits to North American concerns. While the unfortunate past of the drug cartels continues to weigh heavily, a strong will and strong government are changing things.

This was my second trip to Colombia in the past two years. During my first trip, the focus was primarily on palm oil products used in chocolates and other industries which use tropical oils. Interestingly, Colombia is one of the few places outside of Malaysia able to develop a significant palm industry. It is blessed with just the right weather and growing conditions: the palms that produce palm oil only grow in a narrow band around the equator. The company Acegrasas, a long established name in Colombia and in the oil business, is working hard to expand its United States exports. To date, the OU has worked with them on a limited basis to make special productions of palm olein and stearin. Long term, the hope is to develop a broad certification for a wide range of specialty fats and oils.

It is much more common in Latin America to find production and consumption of animal fat based products. As a result, oil companies are commonly more complicated than in the United States and Asia. This is especially true in facilities making hardened fats and margarines which often contain tallow and lard. As these items are intrinsically not kosher, their presence makes any kosher program much more complicated. Sometimes the effect is limited to specific equipment where items are blended; sometimes the entire plant may be non-kosher. For example, if there are common supply and handling lines or a common steam system – even between separate production areas — the entire plant may be affected. At the very least, it becomes necessary to set up segregated and non-compatible systems. When possible, we work with a company to segregate kosher and non-kosher in completely different facilities.

Of course, there are also more familiar issues with dairy components, many of which require careful kosher monitoring in and of themselves and must be sourced from acceptable kosher suppliers. For example, whey is a byproduct of cheese production and has special considerations. When curds and whey are separated to make cheese, a number of kosher concerns are involved. For example, Swiss cheese is traditionally started by adding rennet to milk. Rennet is a naturally occurring enzyme in calf stomachs and itself subject to many kosher complications. If the rennet is not kosher, the cheese is not kosher.

Since Swiss cheese making includes cooking the cheese and whey before separation, the whey itself is also not kosher. Other common dairy ingredients – milk powder, lactose — are often spray dried or processed in facilities that handle non-kosher production. Then, of course, there is the generic problem of making certain that dairy and non-dairy are strictly segregated.

Because of its tropical climate, Colombia is blessed with miles and miles of sugar cane production. The result is a prime opportunity for not only year-round kosher but for Passover as well. Many key products used in industry, including citric acid and alcohol, are products of glucose fermentation. In the United States, the primary glucose source is corn; in Europe, it is wheat and other grains. The Bible specifically forbids the use of anything made from wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye during Passover. Additionally, Jews of Ashkenazi (Western European) descent do not use products made from kitniyot, including corn and soy. Cane sugar, however, is clearly permitted.

The multinational Tate & Lyle is a global producer of citric acid with a strong interest in providing Passover grade product to the international market. Their Sucromiles facility near Cali, a world center for cane sugar production, is an excellent potential source. Since citric acid can start from any glucose source and since the plant also manufactures alcohol and other potentially grain-based products, the need arose for a thorough forensic audit of both raw materials and products to determine if cane sugar was, in fact, the only glucose source for the production in question. After many hours of work in the plant as well as extensive follow up, it was determined that the citric acid in question met strict Passover requirements for this year.

Among Colombia’s kosher assets is a long established Jewish community. While it has suffered during the country’s dark years, its presence means there are qualified people on the ground to develop and service kosher. The OU continues to work with these communities to make certain their kosher standards meet the highest standards and to help them bring those companies which are ready into the international kosher marketplace. Of course, having people on the ground also presents us with the ability to service companies locally – with all of the attendant benefits.

During my two trips, I have seen the areas around Barranquilla, Bogota and Cali as well as the surrounding countryside and have worked with local rabbis from all three cities. I have visited plants making exotic fruit purees and juices, candies and a wide array of other top-notch consumer products. While many of these firms have not yet joined the OU family, we are working with them and the local rabbis to make the transition when they are ready to enter the international kosher scene.

This tropical paradise, whose climates range from temperate mountain regions to steamy Caribbean coasts, produces a wide array of other OU certified products as well. These include world famous Juan Valdez brand coffee as well as hot pepper pickles and tuna fish. By working directly with companies, importers and local communities, the sincere hope is to bring more Colombian products to the world kosher marketplace. Especially as the world community increasingly embraces Latin influences, Colombia is well poised to be a key contributor to the world of OU certified products and ingredients.