Through The Bluegrass And On The Highways: An RFR’s Kentucky (And Indiana) Derby

OU Kosher Staff

I have been a full-time OU rabbinic field representative for the past 12 years. My job has taken me to all types of places and has given me exposure to people and plants of which I never dreamed.

I was born in London, England, and my rabbinical studies led me to New York City, where I met my wife and thereafter began rabbinical work. Until last year, my family and I resided in Louisville, KY. Although we now live in Cincinnati, OH, I retain the same supervision route as before, which includes Indiana and Kentucky.

My day begins early. When I start my route, I may visit a large baking facility such as Flowers Foods of London KY, Consolidated Biscuit Co, or Kraft Foods North America/Biscuit & Snacks Division. I may then proceed to visit a massive flavor house, like Clarendon Flavor Engineering Inc of Owensboro KY, and then to some dairies.

I drive over 50,000 miles a year, and I have just reached the 600,000 point – all with no speeding tickets, thank God. I stay over in hotels on average of two to three times a week.

I visit over 100 companies. Two of my plants schedule many special productions. One of these plants is Morgan Foods of Austin, Indiana, renowned for its top-quality soup offerings. As one of America’s most sought-after business partners in the private-label food industry, Morgan Foods offers retailers everything they need to win customers and keep them coming back.

Even though Morgan Foods manufactures numerous non-kosher products, the company has undertaken an amazing program to maintain OU certification of many of its products. Every kosher production at Morgan Foods involves kosherization of the facility and full-time OU supervision of kosher productions.

Another special-production company I visit often is Bluegrass Dairy & Food of Springfield, Kentucky, where I enjoy a very good relationship with their staff, especially with the Mr. Jerry Hardin and Ms. Patty Howlett (senior management); they are dedicated utmost to our kosher program. This plant processes hundreds of specialty powders made on spray dryers, including cheese, flavoring, dairy, honey, molasses, shortening and butter powders, and it also features a long list of specialty blends. Due to the plant’s mixed production (kosher, non-kosher, dairy and non-dairy); I visit often to supervise kosherization and special productions.

Understanding Bluegrass/Springfield works has been a most interesting experience, as spray-drying is one of the oldest forms of drying — and one of the few technologies available for converting a liquid, slurry or low viscosity paste to a dry solid (free-flowing powder) in one-unit operation. Spray dryers are found in almost every industry, including pharmaceuticals and detergents, paint and pigments, food and dairy, and mining and minerals.

Visiting Little Brownie Bakers, L.L.C. that manufactures Girl Scouts cookies, is always a treat. If you were to ask me what the Garden of Eden smells like, I would reply, “chocolate mint”!

Jif peanut butter, owned by The J.M. Smucker Company, is also on my route. This facility and its staff are a pleasure to work with, and their renowned products fit well with their overall stellar work.

Recently I began visiting a new plant called Bloomfield Farms, which specializes in gluten-free products, Mr. Daniel Sutherland, president of Blend Pak and CEO of Bloomfield Farms, and Ms. Ruth Companella are model examples of how one expertly runs a kosher program. There are nine different gluten-free OU Kosher certified products produced by Bloomfield Farms.

I also visit our friends at Dawn Foods products, the provider to bakery owners with quality commercial food service products for bakery management and the baker owner. I work with our dedicated kosher contact Mr. Ron Foster who excels in keeping up with hundreds of kosher dairy and pareve ingredients at the plant and with all the kosher dairy and pareve production lines.

Let me not forget Najla’s, Inc. a gourmet specialty food manufacturer specializing in all-natural upscale, handmade products made from the highest quality ingredients. And yes, there is a Najla, and a Stasia, and an Azra. Their products are made by these incredibly talented artisans. They never cut corners; never compromise quality or consistency. All Najla’s products are kosher dairy, free of high fructose corn syrup, free of hydrogenated and trans fats, free of preservatives and artificial flavors. It’s like having three pastry chefs in your corner! They do all the work, you get all the praise.

The internationally renowned Mead Johnson Nutritionals, best known for its Enfamil and Enfalac families of infant formulas as well as for our regional children’s nutritional products, including Enfagrow, Enfapro, Enfakid, EnfaSchool, and Sustagen is most fortunate to have Mrs. Evelyn Brady administer its extensive kosher program. Her total dedication to our kosher program is exemplary. The equipment and different lines used at this plant of 2,000 employees used to make all these many different products was a big learning curve for me, but after visiting this plant for more than ten years, I believe I’ve gotten the hang of it.

I visit The Carriage House Companies Inc. Division of Ralcorp, one of America’s leading store brand food manufacturers, having roots that predate the store-brand food industry. Mr. Jeff Williams and Ms. Leiga Cooper do a wonderful job with maintaining our kosher program. Some of the products produced here are salsas, barbeque steak sauces, jams and jellies, chocolate and pancake syrups.

Jim Beam Brands, located in Frankfort, KY, manufactures a large variety of the best known liquor products. Mr. Nathan Capps is a person truly dedicated to our kosher program and is always looking to enhance and add more products to the OU kosher line.

Another big industry I got very involved with is the oil industry, visiting Consolidated Grain & Barge, Inc., where the soybeans come in raw and are crushed. I then visit Owensboro Grain, where the crude soybean oil is sent. The process also includes degumming the oil and then RBD that is, Refined, Bleached and Deodorized.

Last but not least is Snyder’s of Hanover, Inc, which is now Snyder’s-Lance, Inc. Located in Jeffersonville, IN, this plant produces kosher tortilla chips, kettle chips, and potato chips. It is a company I thoroughly enjoy visiting.

My special-production work schedule often requires me to work when others are home spending time with their families or sleeping. I am frequently at special-production plants on Sundays, overnight, and at all odd hours. On these days, my work hours exceed 20 hours daily, yet the hardest part of my job is to schedule and be available to all of our partners at any given time.

I share with all my plants that I am not a policeman, seeking to discover problems. Rather, I am there to verify that all is well. If and when a problem is found, we will fix it together. My job is to assist and accommodate companies in every way possible. It has also been my good fortune serving as a matchmaker with different OU companies, and have thereby helped them thrive with business.

As a rabbi, I frequently find myself being a therapist, as many of the employees and sometimes the employers of the companies open up to me with their personal trials and tribulations, seeking my advice and recommendations. I always keep in mind what they tell me so that on my next visit I can follow up and continue to show my care and concern. Sometimes all people need is just a listening ear! On one occasion, I spent over an hour listening to someone without saying a word, and when the speaker was done he said, “Thank you, rabbi; you have such good advice!”

What a privilege it is being part of the Orthodox Union – the world’s largest and most respected kosher certification agency.
Rabbi Yosef Levy was born and raised in London, England. After spending two years of study in Manchester, England, Rabbi Levy studied for rabbinic ordination at the Lubavitch Yeshiva of New York. As part of his rabbinic training, Rabbi Levy spent a good deal of time doing Jewish religious outreach in the former Soviet Union, where he ran educational and religious programs at camps and schools.

Rabbi Levy joined the Orthodox Union in 1999 to become the first full time RFR in Kentucky, where he was assigned to supervise nearly 100 companies. He also is an active member of his synagogue and community in Cincinnati, where he serves on its board of directors, maintains educational and outreach programs for youth and adults, and visits with inmates at federal prisons. Rabbi Levy lives in Cincinnati, with his wife and six children.