Tales from the Far North: In Any Language, Québec Has Some Very Impressive OU Certified Plants

I recently had the pleasure of doing some plant inspections in the province of Québec, home to some of the home to some of the proudest French speakers this side of the Seine. Without visiting this area yourself, it is hard to imagine the animosity felt by native French speakers here toward English speakers (Anglophones, as we are called). While driving from Québec City to Montreal, the top news story on local radio was a law being passed through the legislature to permit Francophones (native French speakers) to attend English-speaking schools.

Apparently, the native French speakers have tried over the years to insulate their own from mixing with their English-speaking countrymen, and made their best efforts to preserve the French language in Québec by forcing the French speakers to attend French-only schools. Alas, their efforts are failing and most French speakers in the province also speak English. That was good news, because French is all Greek to me! Even my GPS had a hard time with the language, trying to valiantly to pronounce the French street names with an Anglo-computer accent.

My first stop in Québec was the BSA plant in Montreal. Les Ingredients BSA is one of the finest spice-blending facilities on the continent, regardless of language! Here, raw spices, starches, flours, cheeses, extracts and more are blended together to create the flavorings which enhance everything from French fries to dessert foods. Rabbi David Rosen, the OU’s rabbinic field representative for Atlantic Canada (featured in these pages in the Winter 2009 Issue) is the eyes and ears of the OU at this plant. Rabbi Rosen conducts his visits here together with the epitome of OU Kosher contacts, Ms. Valerie Duval, Document Specialist, and Mr. Marc Landry who heads Quality Control. An immaculate and notably organized facility, BSA’s blends can be found in the finest factories around the United States and Canada.

Next I drove to Québec City, home to a nearly three hundred-year-old Jewish congregation “Congregation Beth Israel Ohev Sholem,” one of the oldest congregations in North America! The original synagogue was sold during a period of “downsizing” many years ago, and the congregation moved to an area better serving its current constituents. I was fascinated to see ancient plaques donated to the congregation honoring members and memorializing loved ones lost more than a century ago.

Rabbi Dovid Lewin, the 20-something French-born current rabbi of the congregation, described the hard work involved in organizing events for the community when kosher food is hard to come by, and of the work involved in spiritually uplifting a congregation removed from the nearest Jewish community by a drive of more than three hours. He must send his own kindergarten-age son to live with family in Montreal in order to receive the basics of Jewish schooling, seeing him only on weekends.

He regaled me with stories of the struggles faced with living outside of a major Jewish community, such as having a fresh hot pizza delivered by a commuter bus from Montreal, only to receive it frozen solid after having spent several hours of a winter drive in the cargo compartment!

After spending the night in a hotel at the edge of town (and buying some necessary victuals at the local Metro supermarket – where no one spoke English…of course), Rabbi Lewin and I drove to the Kerry facility in St. Claire, roughly an hour south on quiet, winding country roads (much like the ones I enjoy in Brooklyn, NY). Here Mr. Alain Lanouette, the head of Quality Control, took us on a two-hour tour of the process Kerry uses in blending, pasteurizing and packaging various shelf stable beverages for both American and Canadian markets. Rabbi Lewin and I were both duly impressed with Mr. Lanouette’s encyclopedic knowledge of the plant’s kosherization protocols, and all of the situations in which the plant might need to call in the rabbi to kosherize the equipment.

On the ride back to Québec City I treated Rabbi Lewin to lunch, OU field representative style! We enjoyed individually wrapped cheese slices from Israel, rice cakes from Belgium, American pretzels (all brought from my local store in New York) and enjoyed them with some Canadian kosher certified Coca-Cola products in the car on the drive home.

The following morning, I was privileged to do my first gluten inspection. People who suffer from celiac disease (also known as gluten sensitive enteropathy) can suffer terribly from eating even minimal amounts of gluten. Nearly one in 133 people suffer from this illness, according to the Gluten Intolerance Group, and this figure does not include people diagnosed with dermatitis herpetiformis, a skin disease which is treated by eliminating gluten from the diet.

The OU is proud to have its field supervisors receive additional training in the requirements of gluten free production, to make inspections for Gluten Free Certification Organization. The systems for gaining and maintaining gluten free certification are quite similar to those required in kosher certification. Plants must be diligent to only purchase ingredients from approved suppliers; equipment previously having handled gluten items must be meticulously cleaned (and the systems for cleaning monitored); and products containing gluten can never be included in add-back or rework into products which are gluten free. Gluten free productions also require monitoring of ingredient storage and ventilation systems, which we do not normally include in a kosher inspection.

After the inspection, I ran back to the airport to catch my flight home, where I was greeted by my nine-year-old daughter who gave me a souvenir from home, a pen she decorated with the words “Welcome Home from Montreal, Canada,” and a little airplane. After checking carefully, I confirmed that she, in fact, wrote it in my native English.

Rabbi Chaim Goldberg has been chasing both wild and farmed fish around the globe while managing the OU Fish Desk for the past eight years. A fan of thrills and adventure, Rabbi Goldberg frequently educates and amuses kosher fish customers from ages 6-99 both in scheduled lectures nationwide and through viewings of his critically acclaimed OU educational video, “The Kosher Fish Primer.” Rabbi Goldberg lives with his wife and three children in Brooklyn, NY.