As one of the world’s largest yogurt makers was building their newest production facility, they called the OU Kosher certification agency because they wanted to produce a pareve (non-dairy) oat milk. The challenge was producing it in a dairy facility.
This question and others were discussed on May 15th and 16th at a gathering of 150 Rabbis specializing in kosher supervision (RFR’s) gathered in Tarrytown, N.Y., for OU Kosher’s annual RFR conference. Topics of the conference revolved around the important and oftentimes complex business of kosher certification, ranging from the Jewish laws that govern it, manufacturing processes to continuing challenges resulting from ongoing supply chain disruptions.
Each year the gathering features talks on a wide range of subjects. This year’s presentations included:
- Precautions in the Workplace which provided tips on staying safe in the varied environments and conditions RFR’s regularly find themselves in.
- The innovation of Plant-based Products was about the practicalities of kashrut for products that are changing from dairy to parve including a case study with OU Kosher certified Chobani.
- An Overview of European Kashrut looked at the language, cultural and sometimes travel challenges of supervising the OU Kosher certified facilities in Europe.
- OU Kosher Israel Operations was also highlighted. That discussion included an important update on the growing number of companies exporting to Israel and the quality of support provided by OU Kosher’s Jerusalem offices.
The two-day event, the Annual Conference for Rabbinic Field Representatives, was an opportunity for colleagues to meet and learn from each other through shared insights, discussions about techniques, and updates on industry trends.
The conference provided Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of OU Kosher, an opportunity to express appreciation for his colleagues: “Those who attended the conference are exceptional people and represent a wealth of knowledge about complex nature of food production, and the Jewish laws of kosher which are at the foundation of kosher certification.”
“The conference is about professional development, which is of critical importance because food production is in a constant state of flux. And as we learned from the Pandemic, it’s not enough to stay up to date. We have to be creative and stay ahead of the constant changes.” said Rabbi Moshe Elefant, COO of OU Kosher who himself started out as an RFR.
Kosher supervision requires an understanding of almost every type of food production process in use today. And when you combine that with the administration of 850 RFR’s who make thousands of visits to facilities in 104 countries, regular challenges result.
In the session about plant-based food innovation Rabbi Avraham Juravel, Rabbinic Coordinator for Technical Services, talked about the challenge of producing pareve (non-dairy) oat milk in a facility that is making dairy products. Producing a pareve product increases its market share because anyone can eat it. The kosher designation of OU-DE (produced on dairy equipment) but does not have dairy in it.
“This company did not want OU DE (Dairy Equipment) they wanted OU pareve (neither dairy nor meat) because they understand the importance for their market. So, we had to figure out how to produce a non-dairy product in a dairy facility. That is no simple task,” said Rabbi Juravel.
In solving this problem Rabbi Juravel considered making the boiling water used for cleaning the equipment in place, non-potable through a high PH level helping to make the product pareve and not DE. Another aspect of the proposed solution was to create pareve yogurt and cheese cultures.
Challenges of a different kind were illuminated in the session about Europe, moderated by Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz, Senior Rabbinic Coordinator. OU Kosher certifies a growing number of plants in the European market which today total 1828. This talk focused on working across many languages and cultures against the backdrop of a changing political landscape.
Countries with plants supervised by the European RFRs in order of number of facilities are:
Rabbi Samuel Friedman who is based in Belgium inspects facilities throughout Europe. He told the group about a trip to Milan Italy, at the beginning of Covid when he first heard about the Pandemic. With The looming lockdown and the numbers of sick and dying Rabbi Friedman left abruptly. A few months later, as soon as the lockdown ended, OU Kosher had him qualified as an essential service and he began traveling again. For a year his traveling required weekly covid tests to go in and out of countries.
Rabbi Moshe Elefant, COO of OU Kosher speaks to a full room in Tarrytown NY.Underscoring important cultural differences in Europe is a lack of knowledge of kashrut there. So RFR’s regularly give educational presentations to certified companies. Rabbi Yisroel Hollander title??, based in Belgium, spoke about being unable to go into any store or gas station and find food with a kosher symbol on it. Companies who do make finished kosher products in Europe generally don’t put the OU or any kosher symbol on the label because they’re concerned about alienating segments of their market.
In illustrating the limits of kashrut awareness in Europe Rabbi Hollander told about giving a French plant supervisor an in-depth explanation of kosher food while detailing how the facility would be kashered. When he was done his hosts invited him out for lunch.
“I just explained what kosher is and how we’re going to make the food in your plant kosher and now you’re asking me to lunch?” Rabbi Hollander said in dismay.
“I didn’t think you kept kosher,” replied the plant supervisor.
The talk about OU Kosher Israel, centered on kosher education and supporting a growing number of companies interested in exporting to Israel where over 50% of all food sold in every supermarket is imported.
“We get regular calls from companies all of over the world about exporting to Israel.” Said Rabbi Ezra Friedman, title. “They want to make their entire factory kosher and sell their products in Israel, and they’ll ask us what needs to be done,” he continued.
Those companies also want to trust they’ll have support they need to enter the Israeli market. Through decades of running community service programs and kosher operations the Israel staff has developed important relationships and has extensive experience navigating the complicated requirements of selling in Israel.
The OU Kosher organization, headquarter in New York City, runs around the clock in every one of the world’s time zones stopping only to observe Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Many who work in the field do it a great personal sacrifice spending days and weeks on the road away from family and community.
So, throughout the conference, OU Kosher management and colleagues regularly saluted and thanked members of the team for their efforts. This year there was a special presentation honoring Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld for his many years of dedicated service and OU Kosher’s office manager Avigail Klein was recognized for her dedication and service which always exceeds expectations.