Keeping it Kosher in Sunnyside

SUNNYSIDE — The way Rabbi Yitzchok Gallor walks through Sunnyside’s Valley Processing plant, he easily could be mistaken for a manager. He checks temperatures, checks the plant’s equipment and points out any inconsistencies to the company’s owners.

While Gallor is not an employee of Valley Processing, he could be called its most important customer. He works for the Orthodox Union, an organization based in New York that oversees the production of kosher products.

The agency sends rabbis like Gallor to different processing plants all over the world to give various foods the kosher seal of approval — in this case, the company’s symbol of a U inside a circle.

Valley Processing has spent nearly nine years trying to make the switch to producing entirely kosher products as it pursues a growing market demand.

Plant owner Mary Ann Bliesner said most of the plant’s annual production of 1 million gallons of grape juice concentrate are kosher, with the exception of about 30,000 gallons. The other fruit products the company produces, such as apple, pear and cranberry juice concentrate, are all kosher.

Bliesner said the company decided to go kosher because she thinks it will open new markets for its products, especially on the East Coast where there’s a larger Jewish population.

Gallor said kosher products are gaining in popularity, with the market increasing by at least 10 percent annually. He said it’s not just Jews who are buying kosher, as many others have learned to look for kosher symbols on food to identify high quality.

He said among those keeping kosher are Muslims, Seventh-day Adventists and many vegetarians.

But ensuring something follows Jewish dietary laws is a long, detailed process.

Two rabbis are assigned to Valley Processing. Together they alternate working 12-hour shifts so there always is a rabbi on hand.

Rabbi Avrohom Gallor is Gallor’s 28-year-old son, and he’s been working with his father for six years. He said the rabbis’ biggest concerns are cleanliness, sanitation and “making sure the product is pure.”

He said because Valley Processing now is processing grape products, the rabbis have to take more care. He said because grape juice is so closely related to wine, which is special because of its spiritual significance, they must carefully watch the process to make sure there is no way the juice they deem kosher can ever be made into wine.

The trick to that is heating the juice slurry to a point where the enzymes that cause fermentation are destroyed.

Long before the juice hits the processing equipment, the plant must be thoroughly cleaned and kosherized. The younger Gallor explained that because metal equipment is porous and can collect impurities, it must be super-heated to open the pores for cleaning.

Once everything has been kosherized, one of the main responsibilities of the rabbis is making sure everything stays kosher. That means when equipment breaks, any replacement parts must be properly sanitized before they can be put to work.

“So we avoid mix-ups,” Avrohom Gallor said

That means the rabbis also need an intimate knowledge of the plant’s workings. During a recent tour of the Sunnyside plant, the younger Gallor pointed to the maze of pipes overhead and said he knows what is flowing through each of them at any given time.

The rabbis spend so much time at the plant during the fall that there is a sukkah on-site. A sukkah is a simple building with a roof built from branches that is used during Sukkot, a Jewish holiday that begins five days after Yom Kippur.

Bliesner said she used to bring in a sukkah every year for the rabbis, but after several years she figured it would be easier to build one and leave it up all year.

Ensuring that 1 million gallons of grape juice concentrate leaves the plant kosher is a big responsibility for the rabbis.

The elder Gallor joked that his greatest worry is that when he dies he’s going to have some explaining to do at the pearly gates. He worries that he might miss something that would allow non-kosher juice to slip through.

“I am human,” he said with a smile.

Story by Elena Olmstead in the Tri-City (Washington) Herald. Reprinted with permission.

OU Kosher Staff