An OU employee, let’s call him Chaim, recently called me during his recent trip out west. “Rabbi,” he asked, “I’m standing here in the produce section of a Walmart in Nevada. And I see peaches that have a sticker with an OU on it. Is this for real?”
“Yes,” I replied, knowing that we had begun certifying a fruit distributor but startled that they had made it all the way out to Nevada.
“But what are we certifying?” Chaim asked. “Everyone knows peaches are kosher. Why do they need an OU?” “Of course, of course, peaches are kosher,” I told him. “We’re making sure that the coatings that are on the peaches are also kosher. You’d be amazed at the kinds of ingredients used to make the coatings.”
“Oh,” he said, “Now I understand. Thanks a lot. I was just checking to make sure that the OU symbol was not a mistake.” “No,” I reassured him. “This OU is supposed to be there.”
Last year a California-based fruit distributor, Kingsburg Orchards, made a commitment to using only OU certified coatings on its top-of-the-line fresh produce, and decided to market that fact with an OU symbol on the small sticker that is applied to the produce.
Kosher coatings means that the coating is guaranteed not to contain any animal fat or protein derivatives, dairy ingredients, or shells from crustaceans.
This is not an insignificant statement.
The diversity of ingredients used in coatings manufacture would make anyone do a double-take. Last year, The New York Times (August 27, 2007) reported on research efforts at Rutgers, Oregon State University, and other food science laboratories to develop coatings that extend the shelf-life of fresh produce and, in some cases, make the produce safer. One laboratory cited in the article envisioned that “Strawberries could be dipped in a soup made from egg proteins and shrimp shells. The resulting film – invisible, edible and, ideally, flavorless – would fight mold, kill pathogens and keep the fruit ripe longer.”
A 2002 text on coatings (Protein-Based Films and Coatings, CRC Press) features chapters on whey (milk) proteins, gelatin, and fish protein as sources for coatings on fruits and vegetables.
These formulations are not relegated to the dreams of research scientists. Currently, some coatings are produced from crustacean shells (“natural polysaccharides” is how they are often referred to in marketing literature) and others, even when produced using vegetable oil, may contain non-kosher (e.g., animal-fat derived) emulsifiers or plasticizers such as oleates or stearates.
Because of the complexity involved in coatings production, Kingsburg Orchards decided to commit to using kosher certified coatings. The company turned to U.S. Syntec of Yakima, Washington, the only OU certified manufacturer of fruit and vegetable coatings. U.S. Syntec, whose RFR is Rabbi Yitzchak Gallor, developed a product that would be perfect for Kingsburg’s beautiful produce.
Since the summer of 2007 Kingsburg Orchards has been marketing the kosher produce in various demographic centers.
“As a company Kingsburg Orchards was motivated to seek OU certification to provide additional benefits to our customers and ultimately the end consumer,” declared Chad Allred, sales and marketing team, Kingsburg Orchards. “We have found that it doesn’t matter if you are in a highly populated Jewish community or not, OU certification gives the consumer extra confidence in our products and makes them want purchase ours before those of our competitors. We chose the OU to certify our products due to the fact that it is not only widely known but also highly respected. The reputation of the OU is second to none. We have been very pleased in our relationship with the OU.”
From a Jewish law perspective, kosher observant consumers are not obligated to limit themselves to kosher certified produce. Although it is not possible to provide a pie chart or any other way of broadly representing the kinds of ingredients that are used in coatings (almost without exception, coatings manufacturers are tight-lipped about discussing what goes into their product) we can establish various presumptions about their manufacture. Based on those presumptions, the OU rabbinic board has stated that it continues to be permissible to purchase fruit without specific knowledge of what went into a specific coating’s production. Nevertheless, it is preferable to be certain about the actual ingredients used in a production. This philosophy underlies the OU’s decision to certify fruit coating.