The Babies Choice Kosherization Awards

OU Kosher Staff

Babies throughout the United States cooed contentedly and threw their pacifiers in tribute to the outstanding individuals of the Gerber facilities of Fort Smith, Arkansas and Fremont, Michigan, whose dedicated efforts have been recognized at the Babies Choice Kosherization Awards. Through the hard work of these people, who facilitated the kosherization of the Gerber plants, millions of babies can now sink their gums into the company’s quality line of fruits and vegetables. The mention of each group’s accomplishments was met with outbursts of pureed emotion, and the apple juice spilled freely at the post-awards nap.

Your humble correspondent, the RFR who planned the gala kosherization events on behalf of the OU, recounted numerous recollections from his experience in working with these teams to prepare the plants to produce kosher product. Prior to that, he named some of those at the Gerber facilities whose input into the kosherization process had made the project a success.

Members of the Fort Smith team included such outstanding luminaries as Steve Crider, Quality Service Manager and rabbi in training; Scott Duffey, Business Unit Manager for Glass; Mike Moore, the Production Scheduling Guru; Dave Stockberger, the veteran Process Leader who started at the plant when Stage 4 was labeled Stage IV; and Lee Lindsey, third shift Sanitation Manager and King of Kosherization. Selvyn Smith, vacationing Supply Chain Manager and Patsy Price, Inventory Controller who steadfastly controls inventory, were also prominently mentioned.

The Fremont team was made up, among others, of a trio known as the “Masters of Mush” — Alan Stover, Quality Assurance Manager; Mike Hikade, Thermal Process Coordinator and amateur rabbi; and Chuck Durham, Formulation Supervisor and unofficial “Go-To Guy.”

Rabbi Stone noted that planning the transformation of Gerber’s fruit and vegetable products from non-kosher into kosher items was far from child’s play. Both Gerber facilities are large, multi-faceted production environments and the project was marked by its complexity and by the constant awareness that much of Gerber’s product line consists of items that are inherently non-kosher, which could potentially compromise the kosher status of certified products.

Referring back to his crib notes, the rabbi recounted that the strategy from the beginning was to try to split the facilities into the theoretical equivalents of two facilities in each plant; a kosher and non-kosher one. However, this proved to be twice as challenging as was anticipated. He had expected that, since both facilities have similar lines and equipment and produce similar products, any solutions that would address issues at one plant could automatically be applied to the other. Instead, he discovered that the two plants have their own unique procedures, practices, customs and cultures that work for them based on the specific products and the markets they have dealt with over the years. To remedy a concern at one plant, using the same approach that would work perfectly at the other, would just not work. Each plant had to be addressed independently, as its own unique entity.

While there were many noteworthy aspects to this project, the rabbi specifically highlighted the measures that were taken to limit the impact and interference caused by kosherizations, an area that was of great concern to the company:

  • Scheduling – perhaps the key to the entire kosher system in both plants is the creative scheduling of kosher and non-kosher productions. Both plants do extensive non-kosher productions, and in each situation, by necessity, non-kosher productions will compromise to some degree the kosher status of equipment. Kosherization in such plants can be quite time consuming, and the goal was, as much as possible, to keep the kosher programs from interfering with the facilities’ normal way of operating. Use of resourceful scheduling by the amazing scheduling masters at both facilities has limited the need for kosherizations to only a few times per year.
  • Dedicated equipment – after the rabbi explained in detail the parameters necessary for kosher productions, the team at one of the plants devised a method that would consistently maintain the kosher status of various pieces of equipment through as much of the system as possible, even when producing non-kosher products. This has resulted in kosherizations that are extremely limited in scope, and which affect only a fraction of the equipment in the plant.
  • Dedicated processes – by making minor modifications to aspects of the processes necessary for kosher productions, the plants succeeded in isolating significant parts of the process that will remain in kosher status all of the time. This eliminates the need to kosherize these areas and, more significantly, insures that the same fruits and vegetables regularly used in daily production in the plants are also always acceptable for use in kosher productions.

There were a number of other important facts discovered over the course of the project. Among them were:

  • Steve Crider and Rabbi Stone both grew up in St. Louis, where they attended different high schools. The rabbi’s school regularly beat Steve’s alma mater in football, a fact which shocked no one.
  • Alan Stover can leap tall buildings in a single bound and still make it home in time for dinner.

Keeping Gerber kosher is an intricate task that requires a high degree of skill and experience. Charged with maintaining the kosher programs at the facilities and kosherizing the plants are some of the OU’s most experienced field rabbis, including Rabbi Weg at Fort Smith and Rabbis Weingarten, Smolensky and Turkletaub at Fremont.

The successful certification of Gerber would not have been possible without the tenacity of OU Kosher’s Vice President of Communications and Marketing, Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran, who ceaselessly pursued his vision of providing these quality products to the kosher babies of America; the expert direction of Rabbinic Coordinator Rabbi David Bistricer, whose nieces and nephews no longer have to figuratively drool over these products; and, of course, the good people of Gerber and its parent company, Nestlé Nutrition, who steadfastly continue in their mission of providing even America’s youngest consumers with the best, high quality kosher foods.

Rabbi David Bistricer serves as Orthodox Union rabbinic coordinator for Gerber Products Company.

Rabbi Avrohom Stone serves as OU Kosher Senior Rabbinic Field Representative, visiting with countless OU certified companies throughout the country. His instructive, enlightening and entertaining features appear frequently in Behind the Union Symbol. His “Your Kosher HorOUscope,” which appeared in the Spring 2008 issue, elicited many positive responses. In spite of his demanding schedule, Rabbi Stone also shares his extensive kosher knowledge and experiences through the “OU Kosher Coming” forum. Most recently, he lectured to college students at the University of Pennsylvania.