The OU Becomes the Big Cheese at European Dairy Companies

OU Kosher Staff

As the global marketplace becomes a local reality at the doorsteps of every consumer, more and more top-quality
European specialty products as never before imagined are increasingly available on these shores. While this is the case in general, it is especially notable in the kosher market, where kosher consumers now have neighborhood access to numerous overseas products that are renowned for their quality and branding across the Atlantic but were heretofore unavailable on this side of the Pond.

The European dairy industry has engaged the Orthodox Union in no small measure to certify its products for export to the United States and to other significant kosher markets. The OU currently certifies over 40 overseas dairy firms, which is quite remarkable, as industries which rely heavily on refrigeration do not typically seek certification for export unless demand and incentives are major. To deal with the topic in a large-scale manner is beyond the scope of this article. Therefore, we’ll limit this discussion to Western European retail cheese and butter companies.

Overseas Challenges:

In the United States, the OU has set the standard for kosher certification and continues to be on the cutting edge in terms of its research, network and expertise. The OU is the leading kosher agency in the United States, and enjoys wide recognition.

In foreign lands, particularly those with established Jewish communities and local rabbinical organizations, the OU is somewhat of a new enterprise. Kosher supervision outside North America entails approaches and techniques that may differ from those of the OU (and other North American kosher agencies); setting standards can thus at times be more of a challenge.

So, too, the demand for kosher products in most foreign countries is relatively small and the idea of an industry having a large array of kosher plants is therefore uncommon. The result is that the implementation of kosher systems in overseas food production facilities frequently requires much independent pla-ning as there is a scarcity of comparable plants from which to adopt kosher systems. Hence, the role of the certifying agency
becomes even greater and weightier.

When we put the challenges of OU overseas certification together with the complexities of many dairy plants, we
have a real uphill battle – or so one would think. However, the dedicated efforts of so many satisfied OU dairies on
foreign soil and the OU’s renowned over-seas rabbinic field staff have combined to develop workable systems that operate to the benefit of all parties and deliver to the American consumer the quality product that is expected.

The Basics of Hard Cheese Certification:

As with any kosher product, kosher hard cheese requires that all of its ingredients and equipment be kosher. However, hard cheese is encumbered by an additional restriction: the need for full-time, on-site rabbinical supervision during production. In fact, not only does hard cheese certification require that a rabbinic field rep (RFR) be present during production; rather, it is necessary for the RFR to personally add the rennet to each vat of milk or to activate the rennet feeder for each production.

In mainland Europe, many cheese plants maintain age-old traditions of using natural rennet and lipase rather than
microbial and synthetic versions available and in wide use in the United States and United Kingdom. Traditionally, rennet comes from the stomach lining of calves band lipase derives from the tongue roots of domesticated animals. The kosher problems with standard natural rennet and lipase are numerous and the use of \these non-kosher meat-based ingredients in European dairy facilities poses a challenge to the OU when certifying cheese. Thus, the first thing to address when dealing with such operations is the issue of rennet and lipase sourcing.

Another unique cheese issue in mainland Europe is that of scalding the curd. Many cheese facilities heat-treat curd of certain varieties of cheese while the curd is yet in the vat. This is done by removing some of the whey and shooting streams of very hot water into the vat scalding the cheese and increasing via moisture. This poses a concern for kosher cheese, as extremely hot non-kosher curd renders a cheese vat non-kosher. Whereas vats used for non-kosher cheese at ambient or warm temperatures are not rendered non-kosher, hot-process or vat-scalded
cheese makes a vat non-kosher. The result is that the vats in such plants need to be kosherized prior to any kosher cheese or whey production. This involves a hot sanitizing process supervised by an RFR. When vats are not exposed to high heat, they need only be cold-cleaned before a kosher run, making it much simpler.

Staffing:

RFR staffing is also a potential concern in European cheese plants. Whereas prior to 1939 most European countries hosted sizable Jewish communities, and these communities were spread throughout most regions, the post-World
War II reality is one of an absence of such communities and sources of rabbis.

Aside from community projects undertaken by the OU to try to restore and maintain some of Europe’s most needy Jewish communities, the OU has installed a significant, highly-trained team of RFRs throughout the European continent so as to be readily available for kosher supervision. Additionally, the OU has enlisted many of the most qualified members of Europe’s rabbinate to work with us on certification projects. In such cases, the OU either jointly certifies products with a recognized European kosher agency, assuring that OU standards and protocol
are fully in place and that production and service of the company are under the direct watch of OU headquarters, or the OU single-handedly certifies the plant, benefiting from the service and avail-ability of the European RFRs. In
all cases, competitive pricing, high expertise and smooth communication are in place.

The result is that the OU more than adequately has the personnel resources to supervise special kosher cheese productions requiring full-time, on-site RFR presence, including productions that are weeks long. For example,
Yael 02 SRL of Rome produces OU-certified Yotvata brand mozzarella cheese on an ongoing basis. The head supervisor, Rabbi Yishai Hochman, is under the direct supervision of OU headquarters. Rabbi Hochman has trained and assembled a team of local RFRs, assuring reliability, availability and great pricing. What could be better: top-quality Italian mozzarella, the world-renowned OU symbol, and highly-competitive supervision costs.

At Kirkeby Cheese Export A/S of Svendborg, Denmark, the OU works jointly with a team of highly-respected
kosher supervisors from England and Denmark to certify Danablu Cheese (Danish bleu cheese), a specialty item with great appeal. At Dew-Lay Products, Ltd. of Lancashire, England, premier British cheeses under the Royal George label are made under the joint supervision of the OU’s own Dr. Avraham Meyer and Kedassia (a European certification agency), two of the most respected and well-known names in kosher in the UK.

Soft Cheese and Butter:

These products are kosher so long as the ingredients and equipment are kosher. There is no need for full-time on-site supervision. However, frequent RFR spot inspections are required.

The most challenging issues in certifying cheese and butter are the sources of cream and cultures. Although the European Union regulates cream very tightly, creating a clear division between how sweet cream (made straight from milk, not normally a kosher concern) and whey cream (from cheese-making, very often an issue) are used and marketed, OU guidelines require us to verify the kosher status of every cream supplier. Since there is a scarcity of kosher-certified cream sources in Europe, the amount of independent leg-work and investigation put forth by the OU is quite substantial, as RFRs and headquarters staff must fill in the void and inspect the many hereto-fore-
uncertified cream sources.

The OU is proud to certify the internationally renowned soft cheeses of Boursin of Croisy sur Eure, France, as
well as the top-quality butter of The Cheese Company of Lockerbie, Scotland. Boursin is inspected on a regular basis by the OU’s Rabbi Yisroel Hollander, and The Cheese Company is supervised by the OU’s Rabbi Avrohom Schwarz, who travels there from his home in Manchester, England.

Milk Sourcing:

Although the OU certifies dairy products in any country that has reliable milk regulations, some customers seek specially-supervised milk. This milk is referred to as “cholov Yisrael,” meaning that there is rabbinic supervision at the time of milking at the farm. The OU accommodates cholov Yisrael production on a frequent basis, and we note that many of the products mentioned above are exclusively certified as cholov Yisrael. This is all part of the OU’s full-service, totally-integrated kosher program.

The amount of work that goes into certifying the retail dairy products of Western Europe is immense, but is well worth it. The fine products of these companies have successfully made their way to the supermarket and specialty store shelves in every major kosher consumer neighborhood on these shores, and all are reaping the benefits.