On Track with OU Kosher: Keeping Railcars Clean

RailcarsOne of the latest projects at the OU has been developing guidelines for the kosherization of general purpose railcars. Dozens of OU-certified companies regularly supply or receive liquid commodities, including vegetable oil, corn syrup, and ethanol, using railcars, which is often a cost-effective alternative to using tanker trailers.

Here’s a typical scenario that would mandate a kosherization: A supplier of vegetable oil gets a new customer – a margarine manufacturer. The vegetable oil supplier needs to lease additional railcars in order to get the vegetable oil to the customer. The lessor can provide the railcars, but the railcars have been transporting chicken fat for the last five years. The vegetable oil company needs to get these railcars kosherized before getting them on their list of certified railcars – a condition stipulated by the customer. The leaser – the vegetable oil company – contacts a railcar repair and cleaning shop not only to clean the railcars, but to kosherize them as well. The railcar shop turns to the OU for guidelines on how to properly do this.

When, several years ago, this scenario first began playing itself out, the staff at the OU knew as much about railcars as the railcar repair operators knew about kosher law. And, without a proper understanding of a railcar, any guidelines that would be provided could be ineffective, excessive, or both.

Education in such matters is the key, and railcar shops from Muscatine IA, Kansas City, MO, Waycross, GA and Altoona, PA opened their doors to explain to OU personnel how railcars work. Included in these discussions were:

Q. Is re-lining a railcar acceptable, de facto, as a kosherization?

A. First, let’s explain the question: Railcars are constructed of carbon steel, but they can be lined: the interior will be treated with a polymer, a procedure that protects both the railcar and the materials being shipped in it. In order to line a railcar, whatever substance is caked on to the interior will be baked off and physically removed before the railcar is treated with the polymer. Now, for the answer: lining a railcar in some cases will provide a kosherization, but not always. It depends on a number of factors, including the degree of heat used to bake off the residue and the length of time of the heat treatment. In sum, each case needs to be treated differently.

Q. If a railcar is clean, but has transported non-kosher or uncertified material in the past, does the railcar need to be kosherized?

A. Yes. However, because of the sheer bulk of a railcar, it is not feasible to fill up a railcar with boiling water (not by a longshot!). Kosher law provides an alternative, which involves introducing steam into a railcar long enough that the condensate, measured from the point of egress, approaches boiling (greater than 205° F).

Q. Do gaskets and other accoutrements need to be kosherized or replaced?

A. There are a number of valves and pipes in the interior of a railcar that are exposed to product. A number of them cannot be replaced, but they can be kosherized by cleaning them and keeping them inside the railcar during the kosherization process. Gaskets cannot be adequately cleaned and therefore must be replaced by new ones.

Q. Does an OU representative need to be present during a kosherization?

A. This depends on a number of factors. Occasionally, if a procedure for lining (as described above) is well established and meets OU specifications for a kosherization, a representative may not be required for supervision of the kosherization. Occasionally, the history of the railcar is well documented and demonstrates clearly that the railcar has been dedicated to kosher product. In most other circumstances an OU representative would need to be present. New railcars do not require kosherization.

Q. Can a railcar be kosherized using a mobile cleaning unit? (A mobile cleaning unit means the unit goes to where the railcar is, rather than the railcar coming to the railcar shop.)

A. In some instances, yes.

Finally, there are written guidelines for the kosherization of railcars. They can be obtained through your RC.


Rabbi Gavriel Price is an OU Kosher RC servicing the transportation, flavor, and vinegar industries. He lives in Passaic, NJ and has been with the OU since 2000.