Special Productions – Special Procedures

For many kosher agencies, handling regular productions is…regular. Once an organization has a system in place for handling plant inspections, ingredient substitutions, label changes, new equipment and production adjustments, the key is simply to maintain the status quo. That is, until a plant wishes to do a “special production”.

Special productions is the term used in the industry to describe a production run which contains some sort of change from the normal production process. For a kosher certifying agency, examples of special productions would include pareve ice cream made in a dairy plant, Bishul Yisroel potato chips, Kosher L’Pesach (Kosher for Passover) vinegar or kosher soup in an otherwise non-kosher facility. For the plant, the deviation from their normal procedures may be relatively routine. However, for the kosher certifying agency, that special production can require extensive expertise and planning.

The complexity for special productions can vary significantly. Some productions simply require having a mashgiach on-site to confirm that all the ingredients used, for example, in a dry powder blend (like a cake mix) comply with the authorized list supplied by the supervising agency. Others can require a plant to be shut down for several days in order to take apart , clean and kosher the equipment. An example of this would be a plant that is used for refining Omega-3 rich menhaden fish oil. The keys to a successful special production are the same as those for proper regular production: knowledge of the plant and its production, experience in the nature of the production, and professionalism in handling the various issues that arise.

The first step in preparing for a special production is to review the current production and determine what needs to be changed. For example, in a Bishul Yisroel canned sardine run for Sephardim, the on-site supervisor must turn on the valve which lets the steam into the cooking oven. Even if the boiler was originally started by a Jew and the product would be Bishul Yisroel for Ashkenazim, the Sephardim follow the Mechaber (Rabbi Karo in Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah) who requires the Jew to be more actively involved in the cooking process. In this case, the process and the raw ingredients remain the same. For a pareve chocolate chip cookie made in a dairy facility, however, in addition to the obvious changes (pareve chocolate chips being used instead of dairy, margarine instead of butter) and koshering, the certifying agency must remember that some of the flavors the plant normally uses in its dairy cookies would be milchig (dairy), and would need pareve replacements. In addition, additives that change mouth-feel, product texture and shelf-stability must be reviewed to confirm that they would not pose an issue for a pareve campaign.

After the agency determines what changes are required with regards to ingredients and process, they must then determine what factors might adversely affect the production, and what can be done to counteract them. This is where an agency and its policies truly have the opportunity to shine. While replacing ingredients is relatively straightforward, experience in a particular type of production is the only way to prevent mistakes that could challenge the kosher status of a product.

In the sardine run mentioned above, the mashgiach must establish a system for preventing the carts of raw products from being cooked by a gentile. While he might have responsibilities in several areas of the plant (checking the kaskeses of the incoming fish, preventing species substitution of non-kosher species and maintaining raw ingredient receipt), he must be sure to be in the retort area (a “retort” is piece of industrial equipment used for cooking sealed cans, and making them “shelf stable” ) whenever a batch needs to be loaded into the retort oven. He must know how long it takes the production crew to turn out a “wagon load” of raw sardines, to stack them into the “bussie baskets” (the name for the carts where product is held during the retorting process ) , and how many baskets constitute one retort load. He should additionally log when the previous retort load was turned on, and know approximately when the next load would be ready. He might have to set up a system to seal the steam valve, preventing the staff from accidentally cooking a batch while he is outside of the retort area.

During the pareve cookie production, the mashgiach would generally need to seal the dairy ingredients (dairy chocolate chips, milk powder, butter) and dedicated dairy equipment (sheet pans, racks) to prevent them from being used with pareve. He would also need to kosher the oven where the cookies are baked, since the oven that baked the dairy cookies would be milchig. He should note if the plant has multiple ovens, and if only one oven is being koshered, he must set up a system to prevent the pareve cookies from being baked in the milchig oven. If the plant is running pareve and dairy concurrently, the mashgiach must set up systems to be sure the pareve cookies are run in the pareve oven exclusively, and that the dairy cookies are not introduced into the pareve area. Since sealing the dairy ingredients may not be an option, he must diligently monitor the ingredients brought into the pareve area. He must also confirm that no dairy ingredient or equipment has been used through the process flow, beginning with the raw ingredient blending, mixing dough, cutting and baking until the final product is packaged.

While Kosher personnel must always display professionalism, the need to do so is particularly acute when doing special productions. Since special adjustments are required, particular care must be taken to avoid ill-will and resentment. The agency has a responsibility not only to maintain the highest standard of kosher, but also to act as proper ambassadors of the Jewish people.

An important concern as well is the methodology used to assure that kosher standards are met. For example, if the mashgiach decides to blowtorch, he must be careful not to break an expensive piece of equipment or hurt someone, chas v’shalom. Before performing any koshering function, he should be sure he has the permission and assistance of the plant personnel. If the plant objects to something, he must notify the agency immediately and ask for direction. He should not “order” plant personnel to do even those things necessary to maintain the kosher program, but rather should ask them politely for assistance.

One must remember that mistakes happen, even in compliant environments. The mashgiach must act as a professional, and not overreact to these mistakes. One may not compromise on Kosher, but nonetheless diplomacy is always appropriate. A kosher agency must also communicate to the plant exactly what will be required in advance, to prevent ill will generated by misunderstandings from occurring during the production.

Special productions require special procedures. The true measure of a kashrus agency is not merely the standards it maintains in theory, but the lengths the agency will go to in order to maintain those policies in practice especially when supervising special productions.