It’s Anchovy Time

August 22, 2008

For generations, shoppers used to greet the grocer with the same refrain, “What’s in season?” Season means little to today’s consumer, save for the difference in price. After all, modern technology can keep apples fresh until the next fall; tomatoes on demand in the winter; and who remembers clementines as a December treat anymore?

Well there’s one audience that hasn’t forgotten that some things have a season — your local neighborhood anchovies. Yes, those unsung heroes of price-sensitive protein, anchovies are (believe it or not) “season aware.” Even those of you pinching your nose and promising yourself that you wouldn’t even threaten your children with anchovies have likely had some recently, or likely will in the near future. Confused? I’ll explain.

The market for canned or pickled anchovies is very limited and has been falling for years as younger generations appear to have lost their taste for pasteurized piscine products (though my six-year-old told me that sardines are his FAVORITE food…after pizza of course), but there is a serious demand for the heart-healthy Omega-3 oil found in anchovies and sardines.

November is prime anchovy season in Peru, where anchovies, sardines and other pelagic ground fish are collected and converted into fishmeal (think dinner for the crops at a tilapia or salmon farm). The oil is removed after the fish are cooked and is then sent to a separate processing area from the meal. Often regarded as a by-product of fishmeal production rather as a primary goal of the production plant, this oil is refined and converted into the fish oil capsules your doctor is having you take every day, as well as the growing number of grocery items enriched with Omega-3 oil.

Every product has its inherent kosher concerns. In a factory processing Omega-3 oil, our main kosher concern in the presence of non-kosher fish species in the catch. Particularly with small fish that are may be caught in a purse seine net, one can find all kinds of predators nabbed in the middle of an all-you-can-eat anchovy buffet in the same nets. Often non-predators can be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time as well. As such, the OU must set up systems to confirm that no non-kosher fish find their way into OU certified oil products.

Typically, that requires the presence of an onsite rabbinic supervisor. The rabbi needs to be on call 24 hours a day during the catch season, as the processor usually does not know much in advance when the boats of fish will arrive. The rabbi often needs to rouse himself in the middle of the night to stand watch on the receiving line, confirming that all non-kosher by-catch is fully removed before further processing. Once the load is secured and loaded into cookers, the rabbi is off-duty until the processed oil needs to be drummed. Then the rabbi must be present to seal each drum of oil and record production codes to confirm the identity of the kosher supervised batches of oil in his final report to the OU office.

Even if anchovies are not your canned fish of choice, you’ll be glad that their health benefits are being made available to you in a wide variety of nutraceutical and food supplement products, and of course, you are now more aware of what it takes to get those Omega-3s OU kosher certified.


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