Kosher Thailand?

At first glance, those words do not go together. However, nothing could be farther from the truth.

OU Kosher currently certifies 57 companies and 137 plants in the “land of smiles,” as it is affectionately known. In fact, the OU certifies divisions for some very large companies in Thailand including Dole Foods and Jelly Belly. Other companies make products for well-known household brands like Blue Diamond, Sunkist and Trader Joe’s. Just about every brand of tuna fish packs at an OU facility here.

When I travelled to Thailand on a OU Kosher business trip about 11 years ago, I noticed dramatic changes in the country. Everywhere I looked – especially in Bangkok – new high-rise buildings were going up; a state-of-the-art mass transit system was operational, and brand new, modern highways were everywhere. Yet they couldn’t keep up with all the new cars on the road! This is a country of growth and potential.

During my trip, I had the privilege of reviewing several OU Kosher certified locations with our local representative, Rabbi Moshe Hadad, who lives with his family in Bangkok. Because he is in Thailand, he can offer real-time service to companies – a tremendous advantage when getting there takes nearly 20 hours of flying and upon arrival you are 12 hours ahead of New York. Because many of the companies are located far from Bangkok, getting to them entails several hours of driving. Having someone on the ground is a real help.

The Dole/Thailand operation is second only to Dole/Philippines in size. We visited the Hua Hin, Prachuabkirikhan facility, which is about a four-hour drive from Bangkok. The facility is huge. In addition to canned pineapple and pineapple juice, a wide variety of products reflect the many markets served by the facility. Products made there include exotic fruit juices, fruit candies and a wide range of single-serve cup items. To give an idea of some of the kosher complexities – the plant goes through several thousand metric tons of grape juice per year – all of it kosher! Flavors and colors vary with market tastes and not all are kosher. For example, carmine – derived from dried insects – is used in some formulae, but never in those bearing the OU. The Rabbi must carefully go through hundreds of ingredients and labels on each visit, as well as the multiple production lines to ensure everything with the OU symbol meets the highest OU Kosher standards.

Thai Coconut is among Thailand’s largest OU kosher-certified suppliers of coconut water and drinks. Because it is so refreshing, low in sugar and full of vitamins and electrolytes, coconut water is a quickly expanding drink category. So, why is it kosher sensitive?

There are many steps between cracking open a coconut and the final single serve UHT pack in the store. The same is true of the can of coconut milk or the bottle of flavored coconut drink, also made by the same company. Some contain kosher-sensitive flavors, colors and emulsifiers. Cooking and pasteurization lines are shared with many items, so making certain all ingredients are compatible with kosher is crucial. During his visits, the RFR carefully reviews all production departments and several large warehouse and cooler areas. In a plant with around 200 ingredients for a plethora of products, this is no simple task.

Heritage Snacks and Foods manufactures a variety of snack items. Just about everything from fruits to nuts (let alone juices, freeze-dried items and, now, organic teas). Well beyond dried nuts and fruit, the product line includes many exotic offerings aimed at both the local and export market. The kosher certified list alone is over 75 products including flavored and salted nuts, dried fruits and juices. The company currently manufactures at two locations – one in greater Bangkok and the second in Ranong (southern Thailand).

Getting to the Ranong plant involves a full day of travel. We began our day with a flight at 6:30 in the morning and did not return to Bangkok until 9:30 that night. The Bangkok facility makes both kosher and non-kosher items. While the workshops for kosher and non-kosher are separate, many products begin in common. For example, roasted nuts are central to a wide variety of products. It is imperative that the lines are kept separate and that production flow is maintained so that there is no cross contamination. Highly innovative in nature, Heritage has increased involvement in organic processing. A new state-of-the-art factory, also located in the Bangkok area, plans to expand their production – adding almond milk, freeze dried and IQF products. Heritage is export-oriented, marketing its products in over 50 countries.

Chinwong Food Company has two manufacturing plants producing over 20,000 metric tons of dehydrated fruit products annually. A multi-staged process is involved for even the “simplest” products. While the process is proprietary, there is much more going on than slicing fruit and drying it in an oven. Many of its products include colors and flavors which can be highly kosher sensitive. The company’s offerings range from common dehydrated apple slices to exotic melons and even Thai chili flavored fruit!

My tour only touched on a small part of the OU Kosher operation in Thailand. Other well-known kosher products from Thailand include canned tuna fish, starches, food acids and even breadcrumbs. Thailand is a land rich in natural resources and opportunity. All indications are that kosher will continue to grow to the benefit of both the kosher consumer and the Thai economy.

Rabbi Aharon Brun-Kestler has worked in kosher supervision for over 20 years, mostly at the Orthodox Union. Rabbi Brun-Kestler’s responsibilities encompass many industries – including industrial oils and sweeteners, snack foods and a variety of consumer goods.