It’s Not Child’s Play: Understanding the Complexities of Kosher Baby Food

April 15, 2010

Baby food is big business. Infant nutrition is a multi-billion dollar sector! There are several major players in the “jarred” or “ready” baby food market. Probably the two most familiar producers are Gerber (a division of Nestle´) and Beech-Nut Nutrition (a division of Hero). Other major players include Nature’s Goodness (a division of Bay Valley Foods) and Earth’s Best (a division of The Hain Celestial Group) – the largest manufacturer of organic baby foods.

In addition to these familiar names, other manufacturers address important niche markets. For example, PBM Products, LLC is an important private label (store brand) manufacturer. Homemade Baby (Homemade Harvey) makes products certified organic as well as gluten free. Leaving the jar behind, Happy Family’s Happy Baby products come fresh frozen or in pouch formats. Bobobaby, Inc., a recent Canadian import from the Olympic city of Vancouver, also offers innovative fresh frozen products. One thing they have in common: they are all OU Kosher certified.

There is a natural marriage between kosher and prepared baby foods – and not just because the kosher-keeping population tends to have large families. Infant nutrition is closely linked to wholesomeness. People want only the best for their children, and baby food makers are held to a very high standard. As the demand for accountability and certification increases in the general food industry, it is all the more so in baby food. The public has come to see the OU symbol as a mark of wholesomeness and trust – knowing that certified companies are held accountable for their ingredients and processes by an unsurpassed regimen of inspection and verification.

Of course, one of the key concerns in baby food is allergens – as many children are sensitive to milk, seafood and certain grains. As many of these concerns are closely related to kosher, OU certification is an important indicator of quality to baby food consumers. Kosher, after all, requires key allergen separations. Pareve (non-dairy, non-meat) products not only do not have those categories as ingredients, the equipment must be thoroughly cleaned and koshered (special sanitization) in between. Kosher products cannot contain shell fish – a major allergy concern. Kosher for Passover products will not contain wheat, barley, spelt oats or rye – of great value to people with gluten intolerance.

On its surface, baby food is deceptively simple and many consumers have a mistaken belief that kosher certification of this industry is equally simple. Many baby foods – especially the kosher certified varieties — are vegetarian and contain little more than fruits and vegetables. They appear to be little more than fancy – and sometimes expensive – apple sauce and cooked soupy carrots. What consumers do not realize is what is going on behind the scenes. In order to fill the market’s desire for a wide variety of nutritional and tasty products – fit for a diverse demographic – baby food plants are, in fact, quite complex from a kosher standpoint.

Beyond fruit and vegetable purees, baby food product lines include a wide range of meat and dairy offerings. Normally, these are all made in a single production facility and, commonly, on shared production lines. Moreover, baby food production twins easily with other soup and sauce productions as the basic ingredients and equipment needed are similar. Adding to the complexity, modern facilities are designed to handle the widest range of products on the least equipment possible.

As a result, facilities and lines where strained carrots are made one day may well produce a meat formula tomorrow. Today’s apple sauce is likely followed by tomorrow’s apple and yogurt. The rice cereal made on a dryer or put in a jar today commonly shares equipment with oat and barley products. All of these scenarios, from a kosher standpoint, mean complexity.

A number of strategies are employed to address these problems. Whenever possible, we encourage companies to set aside dedicated lines for kosher pareve products. Another critical element is scheduling. The more we are able to separate kosher and non-kosher productions, the more we can minimize koshering and the associated costs. For example, if a company can arrange for a line to run in a sequence where kosher pareve is followed by kosher dairy and the week’s production ends with non-kosher products, much hassle is avoided. As most plants do not run during weekends, the required 24-hour wait before koshering is automatic.

Another benefit to the weekend break – companies undertake extensive cleaning regimens, including full CIP and sanitary washes. Many times, these procedures suffice for koshering (of course, they must be closely monitored). Other times, however, it is necessary to send rabbis to the facilities to implement special koshering protocols.

Baby food plants commonly have very long Schedule A (ingredient) lists consisting of hundreds of ingredients. Many, including special vitamin pre-mixes and specialty purees, are unique to each company. Additionally, new nutritional trends often carry unique kosher concerns. Omega acids DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and ARA (arachidonic acid), both important to brain and eye development, are commonly derived from non-kosher sources, including fish oils. The quickly increasing demand for organic baby food means developing new kosher sources and ingredient streams. The demand for less added sugar means finding substitutions to maintain taste. The most common juice sweetener, white grape juice, is highly kosher sensitive. As the industry must be agile in response to market trends (read ever-changing parental expectations and demands), “keeping it kosher” can involve a lot of work and sometimes significant expense. Everyone from product development to purchasing needs to be “kosher cognizant” and everyone needs to work together!

As always, working closely with the OU office to review working assumptions and programs is crucial. Our vast OU Direct database (available to companies), as well as our internal database, contain tens of thousands of kosher ingredients and sources to help companies find the best matches. On the production side, many programs have been in place for a long time – but the plants have not remained static. Systems designed for older equipment can often be simplified when companies move to modern CIP lines or computerize. Sometimes a continuing problem with a retort system can be obviated by adding Bitrex or other chemicals that make the water non-palatable. Why? Because such water does not spread non-kosher taste! Of course, there may also be missed opportunities to move some products to different lines or change scheduling. As always, your rabbinic field representative and the OU office should be looked upon as resources.

One of the critical issues with baby food certification is audience. Many people do not realize that baby food is fed not only to children but to the aged and infirm. Moreover, what mother doesn’t taste the food before feeding it to her children? And when traveling or in a pinch, baby food makes an excellent and healthful adult snack. Why does this make a difference? Because there are important leniencies in Jewish law when children or the infirm are involved.

One crucial example of this is Passover. Normally, the OU – in keeping with Ashkenazi tradition – does not permit rice or soy for Passover. However, many babies, and some adults, need it for basic nutrition. Since these are cases of great need, there are grounds to permit rice consumption. However, it is not so simple. Flaked (dry) rice baby cereals are usually made on the same drum driers as barley and oats which are biblically classified as chametz — leaven. Moreover, the storage and handling of these items can easily lead to small amounts of admixture. Without a full koshering and special production, those items cannot be permitted. We are, however, able to make some exceptions for infant formula when it is strictly soy based. The matter is complicated and changes each year.

While baby food is very simple in appearance, keeping it kosher requires continuous effort and cooperation. Behind the scenes, baby food is actually a complex industry from a kosher certification standpoint. Baby food is very important to the OU’s core population, for whom the care of children and the elderly are central. We are proud of our leading role in continuing to provide truly kosher products to this important market sector.