OU’s (Growing) Continental Connection

It looks like our neighbors across the Atlantic are catching onto the power of going kosher. U.S. food companies have long understood that it’s consumer demand that drives the market. They’ve also understood that kosher certification tops most consumers’ lists of demands. “If a European company wants to sell a product to the United States, whether it’s ingredients to be used by manufacturers or finished goods which are going to be used by the kosher-conscious American consumer, it’s has to be kosher,” says Rabbi Nahum Rabinowitz, OU Kosher Senior Rabbinic Coordinator, who heads the European desk. “With the OU’s worldwide recognition, it is in the best position to open markets for these companies.” Based on the current rate European companies are seeking OU certification, the trend to go kosher is in full swing.

According to Rabbi Moshe Elefant, the Chief Operating Officer of OU Kosher, Grinstead of Denmark, a large emulsifier facility making raw materials for food, became the first company to obtain OU kosher certification back in the 1960’s. He sees the dissolution of the Iron Curtain, the Cold War and the Berlin Wall as contributing factors in paving the way to kosher certification in European food production. “The trend didn’t actually take off until the ‘80’s,” says Rabbi Elefant. “As the world gets smaller and kosher gets bigger these companies turn to us for supervision in order that they can penetrate the increasing kosher market in the United States and Israel. There are also European companies that have certified plants in the U.S. and need to cross-supply to each other. This has become a very common situation.”

Prime Ingredients for Export

So, what are the kosher continental offerings? True to their nature as biology’s powerful catalysts, enzymes serve as the movers and shakers of the European raw materials export industry. Some of the world’s major enzyme companies are based in Europe, and Novozymes in Denmark, an OU certified facility, is one of the biggest. “Novozymes has more than 600 products that are key factors in the production of thousands of products used worldwide,” says RC Rabbi Menachem Adler. “Enzymes are used to create all sorts of different properties in foods; they’re used in the production of corn syrup, glucose syrup, corn, wheat and potato starch; they convert glucose into fructose used in many sodas.”

Enzymes have become big business. In 2004, Novozymes had a market share in industrial enzymes of approximately 44 percent, and close to $100 million in sales. Dr. Avraham Meyer, European rabbinic field representative living in England, reports that these invaluable OU kosher exports also enhance our enjoyment of corn flakes, After Eights, and cheeses. “They make things happen faster and taste better,” he says. “It’s a fascinating world, which the consumer of the final product knows nothing about.”

Aside from the versatile enzyme, a myriad of raw materials, such as chemicals, oils, fats, fatty acids, glycerin, fatty alcohols, as well as flavors and food colorings are widely used to enhance food products. “I was recently at a company in Belgium that makes fruit paste and fruit pieces for the baking industry, as well as for ice-cream. It produces many flavors and each of them has to be kosher compatible,” Rabbi Yisroel Hollander, an RFR living in Antwerp, covers 130 plants, primarily involved with raw materials. “For the past five years, the company has been kosher strictly for special productions and they keep getting more and more requests for kosher ingredients.”

This heightened kosher awareness crops up with increasing frequency and in unexpected ways. According to Rabbi Hollander, Diana Natural, a large company in France that makes coloring from fruit and vegetables, contacts him every August now to make 40 tons of kosher for Passover red coloring, months before they have actually received any order. “But, they know it’s coming!” says Rabbi Hollander. The flavorings listed on the labels of innumerable products on the U.S. supermarket shelves originated from leading European flavor companies such as Firmenich in Switzerland or Symrise in Germany.

In our interdependent world, the requests come from both sides of the ocean. “As the demand for kosher increases throughout the world, companies are being called upon to provide ingredients,” says RC Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer. “Europe has a specialty niche in the milk protein market, used to fortify nutritional products such as Ensure and infant formulas. It’s not something manufactured in America.” He cites the reason.” The European governments subsidize their farmers to use their milk to develop these proteins.” And then there are the coveted products indigenous to European countries such as Danish Blue Cheese from Dana Blue, in Denmark, cheddar Gloucester cheese from England, and Boursin – a French cream cheese.

While these transatlantic OU-certified raw materials continue to make their way into products and the retail market across the U.S., Israel, and other spots around the globe, consumers are also finding an increasing number of savory European-manufactured “finished products” on their supermarket shelves. Kosher carbohydrate lovers in America and Israel are enjoying easy access to Walkers Butter Cookies from Scotland, Carr’s and Ryvita crackers from England, McCane’s Oats from Denmark, cake mixes and bread crumbs from Holland, top-selling Loacker wafers from Italy, and Hefti Produkta (Hafner in the United States) premium gourmet mini-pie shells.

“I was told that in Zurich one can’t have a kiddush (a repast following Sabbath services) without those mini-pie shells,” says RC Rabbi Dovid Rockove, who works with RFR’s supervising bakeries in England, Scotland, Ireland, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Poland and Italy. American’s don’t have to boast Italian ancestry to frequently enjoy linguini, fettuccine or rigatoni. Barilla, one of Italy’s foremost producers of these chewy multi-shaped morsels of dough, has become America’s number one brand of OU-certified pasta. And the nation’s rising interest in healthy eating keeps Borges Spanish olive oil (under the Star label) the leading brand of olive oil in California and a top seller in its category throughout the U.S.

If This is Monday, It Must Be Paris, Zurich, Milan, Hamburg – or Zwijndrecht?

Traipsing around Europe may be some peoples’ idea of a vacation; for the OUs rabbinic field representatives (RFR), it’s a job, one that they feel privileged to be performing. Rabbi Hollander leaves his house on Sunday evening or Monday morning and returns home Thursday evening. “I could be on five planes in a week and do about six hours of driving, ten regular inspections, and one or two initial inspections. Then I get to the hotel at ten o’clock at night and fall asleep, to get up at seven the next morning and start again.

He says his record stands at eight planes in one week. Besides his native English, the London-born rabbi speaks fluent French, Flemish, Yiddish, and Hebrew, and understands German “My phone bills are sometimes a bit higher than RFR’s in the United States,” he says. “It’s a valued opportunity to answer my children’s homework questions. When we go on vacation, we stay home.”

During one of those rare breaks, he received an urgent assignment to oversee a kosher for Passover production for two days. “That’s just how it is,” says the dedicated RFR. Most midnights find the rabbi checking his emails and phoning Rabbi Rabinowitz to discuss business. “He starts his day when I finish mine.”

Dr. Meyer also visits food companies throughout Europe, insuring they uphold OU’s impeccable kosher standards. “I fly out on Sunday,” he says. “I then plane, train, taxi, and car my way around greater Europe and come home, If I’m lucky, on Thursday night – with my luggage.” He says traveling in Europe is anything but simple. “I’m on five or six flights a week, which means five or six sets of security to go through – and baggage doesn’t always follow one when one is taking two or three flights to get to one place.”

Born in Scotland, Dr. Meyer manages to penetrate the language barrier. He readily admits to speaking English and “Scottish English” quite well, and gratefully “gets by” in German and French. In the course of a year he covers a lot of air space and cultural diversity, visiting Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Poland, Czech Republic, and Slavakian Republic. “I see new companies joining OU kosher all the time,” he says. “And those companies recommend OU certification to others. Over the last fifteen years, quality assurance teams in Europe have had to face up to additional standards and they don’t view us as an imposition, rather, just another quality standard they need in order to maintain their customers.”

Since the demand for kosher certified food comes primarily from the U.S. and Israel, RFR’s are hard pressed to find the appropriate victuals on their journeys. RFR Rabbi Avrohom Schwartz, Dr. Meyer’s colleague and neighbor in Manchester, “takes his food with,” along with a heater to warm it. His portable food supply keeps expanding with his schedule. “OU certification in Europe is very strong and getting stronger,” he says. “It’s inevitable; they’re going to have to hire more RFR’s.”

“Our RFR superstars know their business,” says Rabbi Rockove. “Rabbi Hollander could change languages on the fly; he’ll be on the phone with a client from one country and then make a phone call in another language, going back and forth, and then turn around to me in English. Dr. Meyer, who holds a doctorate in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, understands machinery perfectly.”

The U.S./Europe time differential of five and six hours can prove challenging when special productions come in at the last minute. “The window of opportunity to speak is sometimes critical, especially in the winter, when Shabbat comes in earlier,” says Rabbi Rockove. “We depend on these RFR’s and they represent us very well over there.”

Thanks to the steadily increasing kosher supervision within the European food industry, consumers are enjoying a veritable continental buffet on their kitchen tables, including OU-certified European fare of Spanish olive oil on their salads, Italian pasta, Scandinavian fish products, French wine, Godiva chocolates from Belgium, and a shot of Absolut vodka from Sweden. They’re also fortifying their daily diets with DSM (formerly Hoffmann-La Roche) vitamins from Switzerland.

If kosher customers are buying, Europe will continue supplying. Rabbi Rabinowitz attributes Europe’s kosher certification growth to the expanding global food trade. “Kosher is a very important marketing tool and becoming more so,” he says. “We have been able to develop systems that work seamlessly with companies to provide kosher food in a way that isn’t costly – and that is, in fact, profitable. That’s the OU’s success in the U.S. and we are bringing that success to Europe.”

OU Kosher Staff