Kosher Manufacturing’s Unsung Hero: The Role of Bitrex®

Bitrex®, a product produced by Veranova, is an important player in the Kosher manufacturing industry. Bitrex, chemically known as  Denatonium Benzoate has the distinction of being recognized as the most bitter substance on earth. This unusual characteristic has found an essential application in the Kosher food industry.

Kosher manufacturing processes demand stringent cleaning protocols so there’s no cross-contamination between foods of differing Kosher statuses. For instance, equipment used to process dairy or non-Kosher foods must be thoroughly cleaned and purged of any residual taste before they can be employed for Pareve or meat foods, and vice versa. This is where Bitrex comes into play.

A solution containing Bitrex is added to the boiler water or the condensate return water of a closed loop boiler system to treat the water making it “cleaned” for use in the next Kosher run. This eliminates the need for manufacturer’s to completely dump the water in their systems before the next Kosher run which is a time, resource and cost savings. Adding the Bitrex to the boiler water has the extra benefit of making the water taste bitter which is then carried with the steam so if any food comes out of the production line with the bitter taste, the facility can be notified of any leaks in the system that may be unintentionally contaminating the Kosher foods being produced.

We spoke with the exclusive U.S. representative for Bitrex about this unusual product as well as its origin and applications.  

OU Kosher: Could you tell us a bit about your role and the company you work for?

Kristin Cordz: My name is Kristin Cordz, and I’m the Vice President of Business Development for Market Actives. However, I prefer to go by “The Bitter Gal”. Market Actives is the exclusive US distributor of Bitrex, and we’ve held that position for 30 years now. I’ve been with the company for nearly 13 years and the owner of the company played a significant role in establishing the Bitrex business in the United States.

OU Kosher: What is the origin and primary use of Bitrex?

Kristin Cordz: Bitrex was discovered in 1957 by McFarland Smith Limited, an Edinburgh-based pharmaceutical company, during work to attempt to enhance lidocaine. Interestingly, one of the resulting variations didn’t possess any anesthetic properties; instead, it had a notably bitter taste, which led to looking for potential uses.. The substance was trademarked in 1958. Initially Bitrex was used for alcohol denaturing but today, Bitrex is primarily used as a safety additive for consumer products to help prevent accidental poisonings in children  .

OU Kosher: Can you explain what alcohol denaturing means?

Kristin Cordz: Denaturing refers to the process of rendering alcohol unfit for human consumption. This procedure is mainly employed in manufacturing or consumer products that incorporate alcohol but aren’t meant to be consumed. Some examples include aftershave, cosmetic ingredients, fragrances, hairspray, home fragrance diffusers, and hand sanitizer.

OU Kosher: What does it mean for a substance to be aversive? How does that relate to Bitrex?

Kristin Cordz: Aversive refers to an additive that gives a substance an intensely unpleasant taste. It’s a natural human instinct to bitter flavors since, in nature, bitter substances are often poisonous. This reflex has been observed in studies with newborns who were offered sour and bitter tastes – while sour induced a “lemon face”, the bitter flavor was immediately spat out. Bitrex has a certification program that endorses products to be minimally aversive – so bitter that, if a child were to taste it, they would promptly spit it out instead of swallowing it. Products that have gone through this certification process qualify to  bear the Bitrex logo.

OU Kosher: How does denaturing differ from the concept of aversiveness?

Kristin Cordz: Denaturing and aversiveness share a common principle, but they’re applied differently. Denaturing is about making a substance unfit for human consumption, akin to some practices in kosher manufacturing. The treatment level tends to be lower for denaturing, leading to a lesser parts per million (PPM) level being used. On the other hand, aversiveness is more about making the taste of a substance so unpleasant that it deters ingestion.

OU Kosher: How has the usage of Bitrex evolved over time?

Kristin Cordz: Bitrex was first used for alcohol denaturing, mainly because it was a safer alternative to the other options available at the time. Then, its application extended to animal aversion, which was the first commercial use of Bitrex outside of alcohol. A notable instance was on a Danish pig farm, where pigs in a feedlot situation would stress-chew on each other’s ears and tails. A grease paint laced with Bitrex was applied to the pigs’ ears and tails to deter this behavior, reducing chaos and damage within the feedlot.  In the 1980s it started to be used as a safety additive to help stop accidental poisonings as an ingestion deterrent  in consumer products, which remains its primary use today.

OU Kosher: How widespread is the use of Bitrex today?

Kristin Cordz: Despite being a niche product, Bitrex is used extensively in a variety of applications, such as household and personal care, animal repellents, and automotive, due to its unique properties. It has a range of unique applications also – like in kosher production, for example – and continues to be a valuable safety additive in many different contexts.

OU Kosher: How did Bitrex come to be used in kosher manufacturing?

Kristin Cordz:  I don’t know exactly how Bitrex got started working with rabbis for kosher manufacturing as that is an origin story from before my time but it has been at least 20 to 25 years. It’s utilized by rabbis worldwide, usually at a recommended level of 20 parts per million.

OU Kosher: How long have you been collaborating with OU Kosher?

Kristin Cordz: Over my nearly 13 years with Market Actives,I’ve had interactions and discussions with rabbis across the country.  I’m sure a number of them have been OU rabbis, but this is not something I have typically asked in my discussions with them. When I attended the conference at the end of April I did meet several of the rabbis who I have had conversations with and I’ve been working with some of the rabbis from the conference on incorporating kosher manufacturing into their facilities.

OU Kosher: Are you starting to work with OU Kosher and their companies on specific applications now?

Kristin Cordz: Yes, I’ve already worked with many companies that OU Kosher is involved with. Often, I get contacted by these companies because their rabbis have recommended incorporating Bitrex, and they need guidance on how to proceed. I speak to around 5 to 10 new individuals every quarter who’ve been referred to our product by their rabbis for kosher manufacturing applications.

OU Kosher: Does Bitrex have to be kosher certified?

Kristin Cordz: All Bitrex solutions have a kosher certification. This was something implemented by the manufacturer three or four years ago. We typically recommend using the Bitrex pre-dissolved in a solution of propylene glycol because it’s easier to measure, simpler to mix with other liquids, and presents a lower contamination risk. The pure Bitrex material, which comes as anhydrous granules can inadvertently create bitter contamination when being used or added in a food facility, which is why we advocate using the solution form. All of our Bitrex solutions carry a kosher certification issued by the Manchester Beth Din.

OU Kosher: Does Bitrex affect the food in any way?

Kristin Cordz: When used as intended in a closed loop system with no contact of food surfaces, then no, the use of Bitrex in the manufacturing process does not affect the food. Bitrex is not intended to go directly into food. It’s an additive in the manufacturing process rather than an ingredient. However, if it is used in a system that has an unknown leak in the system, it will affect the food by making it unfit for human consumption because the food will have come in contact with the treated bitter water. This does make the food non-kosher but it does prevent a leak from going undetected so that the facility manufacturing kosher can ensure that it is fixed so that the foods they are making are kosher in this aspect of the manufacturing. 

OU Kosher: Are there any restrictions or guidelines on how Bitrex can be used in these systems?

Kristin Cordz: Yes, Bitrex is intended to be used in closed loop systems where the steam doesn’t come in contact with food surfaces. I always ensure that the facilities we work with have such a system and that they don’t use the steam containing Bitrex for cleaning purposes.  I have worked with facilities that have systems where they use water as part of the manufacturing process but their rabbis are asking them to use Bitrex.  In these cases we have been able to determine where in the process that it can be added to the water such as in a final rinse water once food containers are sealed to avoid contaminating the food inside.

Based on the recommendations we have received by the rabbis, Bitrex is recommended to be added at the start of each kosher run and then added as needed to any additional refill water in the system.  I have learned that this recommendation mainly applies to facilities that don’t run kosher products all the time.  Though we do work with several companies that run kosher either most or all of the time and for those, who tend to start with an initial treatment dose and then tend to use a pump or similar mechanism to add the Bitrex with the refill water as it is added to the system to maintain the recommended treat rate level.

To familiarize employees with Bitrex and understand what it is we supply taste test strips to almost every manufacturing facility we work with and even to trade shows to help prevent potential misunderstandings. 

OU Kosher: What is one thing you’d want to tell prospective companies about your company? 

Kristin Cordz: Well, I think one of the key things that differentiate us is our extensive technical knowledge and the comprehensive customer service we provide. We don’t just sell a chemical; we share our knowledge of how to properly and safely use the product for their application with our customers. And Bitrex is always in stock with us so we can usually ship the same day or next day when we get orders.

OU Kosher: What would a company in another region like Canada or Europe do if they were interested in Bitrex? 

Kristin Cordz: They are welcome to reach out to me and I can put them in touch with the right person. Alternatively, they can visit our website which has a link to the distributors available in various regions.

Gary Magder