India’s Food Industry: On The Rise With OU Kosher

OU Kosher Staff

The next time you’re savoring your side of basmati rice, mushrooms in your salad, and vegetables in your instant soup – you just might catch a scent of sandalwood incense and sweet flowers. After all, you’re enjoying a taste of India.

As high-tech communication reaches ever higher, OU Kosher reaches ever wider. Prominent Indian companies such as Global Green, Argo Dutch, Nagar Haveli, Sunstar and Kohinoor are busily producing a vast potpourri of OU-certified foods and raw materials for America’s burgeoning OU Kosher food industry – and the kosher consumer’s worldly palates.

To date, 82 companies and 155 plants on the Indian subcontinent have gone OU Kosher. “They come to us because their customers require it,” says Rabbi Yossi Tirnauer, an OU Rabbinic Field Representative for over twenty years, whom the rabbis at the OU Kosher office call ‘the Master of India.’ “I told the head of Mohini Organics, a company that makes emulsifiers, it would take a minimum of one year to prepare the facility for OU Kosher certification; if he’s in a hurry, maybe he should go to another agency. He said: ‘Rabbi, I did my research; I know what I want. I’ll wait a year; no problem.’ After about eight months, he was OU certified.”

Rabbi Tirnaeur, a native Israeli, travels to India twice a month visiting factories manufacturing pickles, milk powder, concentrated mango and papaya juices, enzymes, oil, vinegar, herbal medicines, spices and IQF, a.k.a. instant quick freeze foods. “Anything that grows from the ground in India can be dehydrated or IQF,” says Rabbi Chaim Loike, OU Rabbinic Coordinator who specializes in spices. “The dehydrated vegetables in many of the soups we eat come from India.” Many of the pickles we eat are also from India. In fact, Rabbi Gavriel Price, the RC in charge of the Mohini Organics account, refers to India as “the cucumber distributer to the world.”

Situated near the equator, the country enjoys abundant vegetation. “They do a lot of herbals, oil extractions from botanicals,” says Rabbi Mordechai Merzel, RC, “industrial products that go into foods, vitamins and other items — the possibilities are endless. Spices, peas, gherkins are also indigenous to the region, as well as teas from Sri Lanka, which used to be part of India. And they are offering products at economical prices.”

Dr. Rakesh Jain, president of Nagar Haveli, manufacturer of aromatic and specialty chemicals for 15 years, attributes much of India’s food industry success with both raw materials and retail products to OU Kosher certification. “I remember when Rabbi Tirnauer first came; he had eight or ten places to inspect,” he says. “Now, he has more than one hundred.”

With the Indian food and raw material industry, as well as the demand for OU Kosher certification growing, Rabbi Tirnauer delegated some of his kosher supervisory work to Rabbi Bezalel Kupchik, a fellow Israeli, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Crombie, originally from Sefat, Israel, who lives with his family in Sri Lanka, and flies to India four times each year to his assigned factories. “(After fifteen years on the job in India), Rabbi Tirnauer knows the companies; he knows the culture and the people,” says Rabbi Shaul Gold, an RC who specializes in pickles and rice. “He is also very good at making sure the system he put in place continues to run optimally.”

The rise in production has also prompted lifestyle changes in the populace. “I met an Indian chemist who works for Firmenich, a huge multinational natural and synthetic ingredient company, who grew up in Gujarat, (the state with the fastest growing economy in India),” says Rabbi Price. “When he was younger, the people who worked together assumed they would work side by side for the rest of their lives. Now, it’s a fact of life that they will most likely move away; half the workers employed by the company travel from Mumbai and fly back. Goods move, people move. It’s a dramatically different life from just a few decades ago.”

MOOve Over – Cow Crossing

The RC’s at the OU Kosher office in Manhattan welcome the chance to sample the markedly different Indian culture during their initial visits to companies. “There are animals all over the place,” says Rabbi Price. “You stop at a red light and a cow comes right up to your window. In the U.S., if you want to pass a car on the highway, you move to the left lane and accelerate, then move back to the right. In India, you honk your horn and the person in front of you has to move out of the way, then you accelerate and he goes back to his original lane. This causes a cacophony of honking.” Rabbi Merzel concurs. “It makes New York City seem like a prairie in the middle of Kansas,” he says.
Despite the noise, Rabbi Loike is impressed by India’s sophisticated production systems. “There are some really high-tech processes going on there,” he says. “Agro Dutch, an OU Kosher company, is the largest integrated mushroom company in the world; due to superior standards of cleanliness in their manufacturing procedure, their product is free of bug infestations, a major plus, since Jewish law forbids the consumption of insects.”

According to Rabbi Gold, we have Rabbi Eliyahu Safran, Senior Rabbinic Coordinator and Vice President for Communications and Marketing, to thank for the inroads OU Kosher has made in India. “He worked very hard over the years to develop solid, warm relationships with the owners of the companies in India and they, in turn, brought other companies to the OU,” he says. “He would meet people at trade shows and developed a long term relationship with each of them. It’s about business, but it’s even more about interpersonal relations.”

Apparently, it’s also about quality. “We have converted many of our non-kosher suppliers to get OU Kosher certification,” says Suma Devassy, who handles operations at Marcatus QED, one of India’s largest exporters of gherkin pickled cucumbers. “It is one of our requisites in our quality manual. People understand, just like any other quality parameters, they need to have the OU. The OU’s mechanisms are very stringent, so it has an impact on bringing quality systems. It forces the vendors in India to follow certain protocols and this helps them to follow such standardized practices. The recognition, the acceptance, the quality assurance — we knew OU Kosher certification was the only way. We have grown exponentially. And it’s only going up and up.”

Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Department of Communications and Marketing.