It’s Not Greek to Him

March 28, 2008

One of the great pleasures of working for the OU is the opportunity to occasionally step away from my desk and travel into the field. While there is always a sense of thrill and adventure involved in seeing the world, these are far from pleasure jaunts. Most importantly, these journeys provide critical insight into the real world workings of kosher. As the saying goes, “Hearing (or reading) is nothing like seeing!”

Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Greece to review several OU accounts and also investigate some potential new ones. I arrived in Athens on Monday afternoon and was picked up by Rabbi Mendel Hendel, who works as the OU representative in Greece. Rabbi Hendel served not only as my guide and translator (he speaks fluent Greek as well as English. French and Hebrew), the Hendels were also my hosts. Rabbi Hendel is a fine example of the dedicated OU RFRs around the world and has an excellent rapport with the companies he visits – both on a technical and personal basis.

Upon leaving the airport, it was off to our first facility (no rest for the travel weary in the OU), “Agrexpo” Orfanos, about a 45-minute drive from the airport in the Athenian suburbs. Like the other olive packing companies I visited, this is a small family owned business with minimal mechanization, preparing various Greek olives according to age old methods. In total, I visited three olive packers during my three-day stay (“Agrexpo” Orfanos, N. Gerentes and Tripsas). All have either recently invested in new plants and equipment with eyes towards new markets and additional processing (including the ability to pasteurize with a focus on the end consumer market), or are anticipating making those changes in the near future.
Fundamentally, olive curing is a simple process. While some of the details of curing are different for green and black olives, fundamentally the first stage involves placing the olives in brine. Through the workings of lactobacillus bacteria found naturally in the olive, combined with salt brine, the olives change from hard and bitter to soft and sweet. For black olives, the only ingredients are salt and water; for green olives, lactic acid and citric acid (both of which must be reliably kosher certified) are also commonly added to aid in fermentation. This first curing stage takes about a month to complete. Olives can then remain in the brine for years. When the company receives orders, the olives are packed into smaller containers depending upon customer need.

At this stage, it is traditional to add vinegar for taste as well as a small amount of oil to prevent spoilage at the top of the barrel. Traditionally in Greece, both for reasons of availability and taste, vinegar means wine vinegar. As has been discussed many times in these pages, any wine product is highly kosher sensitive and must be exclusively from acceptable kosher sources. One option might be for companies to use kosher wine vinegar exclusively. This, however, is expensive, both in raw material cost and because we would require significantly stepped up supervision. The only alternative is to find a replacement or replacements. The most common choice is acetic acid, which the company dilutes to an appropriate strength.

Not all companies use vinegar and none use it for all customers all of the time. As in any industry, there is a strong desire to give the customer what he or she wants and we must be diligent with our companies to avoid interchangeable ingredients. For example, one company wanted to continue using wine vinegar for its non-kosher customers while using acetic acid for its kosher clients. We made it very clear that the only way such an arrangement is conceivable is if they pack the kosher product only when a rabbi is present. Otherwise, the likelihood of an error is too great, as in the finished product it is nearly impossible for anyone without a highly trained pallet to taste the difference and because the wine vinegar is so much more readily available.
Also, there are restrictions on the use of acetic acid in Greece due to its potential use in the illicit drug trade. Companies wishing to produce kosher olives with vinegar must use only kosher options for all presentations, unless they are interested in a limited special production.

Sitting at my desk in New York, I might have heard about all of these issues, but I would not have gained anything like the understanding I now have. I also would not have gotten to meet the owners and production people on the ground. An e-mail relationship is useful, but it is nothing like the personal relationship and understanding gained from face-to-face meetings. This is invaluable and leads to dramatic improvements in understanding one another’s needs and in the OU’s ability to provide excellent customer service geared to each company’s unique qualities and situation. The truth of this became clear over and over again during my trip as I saw and understood both the similarities and differences between each company, each plant and each management and production team.

One also begins to truly understand a product in its context and to better understand the relationship between producers, importers and consumers – often very critical when monitoring a kosher program. In Greece, for example, there appears to be no requirement that exported goods reveal production locations. The importers send the graphics and text for their labels and packaging. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to inaccuracy. For example, many import barrels stated only “olives in salt brine” yet the companies often add vinegar as well. Again, this is an issue that requires increased diligence and understanding on our part as we continue to make certain that the OU symbol guarantees integrity to the consumer!

Another critical part of a field review is understanding the real world working conditions of the field representative. Every administrator knows that the people in the field can work cheaper and do more in a day – after all, on the map it all looks so easy. Alas, in the field, the realities are often very different. Each day, we left Athens by 6:00 a.m. avoid that city’s infamous traffic. Each day, we returned late in the evening. Many plants were four and five hours’ drive from the city via admittedly beautiful, but windy, small roads. Commonly, there is no direct way to get from here to there. Long days on the road away from home and family are common for our field representatives and it is important that we in the office fully appreciate their work and dedication.

Of course, one of the joys of travel is seeing other countries and cultures and Greece was no exception. I rarely get to do the “tourist” stuff. On the other hand, I get to see the back roads and meet the real people in ways tourists rarely do. While I had no time for tours, I did get the opportunity to walk through Athens in the evening. It is impressive to see how the Acropolis dominates the city. On our third day in Greece, we took a particularly lovely drive onto the Peloponnesian Peninsula. Here I got a taste of the Greece one so often sees in travel brochures – mountains ending directly in the deep blue waters of the Aegean Sea. It is truly beautiful and, again, so very different when behind the wheel on a back road going to a factory site rather than on a tour bus hearing the story told to a million tourists before you.

One, perhaps, misses the “history,” but one also gets to see a place in his own vision with his own thoughts, through the eyes of those who live and work in the place. Food is made everywhere in the world, yet I find that each culture, each landscape, each culture and geographic nuance, changes the product in subtle yet wonderful ways. That is one of the other true joys of taking the opportunity to review companies and to meet the people who have joined the OU family throughout the world.


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