The scene in my local supermarket is a familiar one each year. A few weeks before Passover, an eight-day holiday that falls sometime in March or April (the Jewish calendar is lunar, and that’s why the date varies from year to year), the first shipment of OUP (P=kosher for Passover) Coca Cola arrives and is placed on display for sale. Immediately, customers pounce on the coveted drink and within a few hours the shelves are left empty and barren. New Passover shoppers eagerly await the next delivery of this precious merchandise.
Most people probably have no idea why soda must be certified for Passover. Here is the story:
The classical food for Passover is matzah, a flat thin cracker of unleavened bread, which is baked before the dough has a chance to rise. Why matzah? The Bible relates that over 3000 years ago, the Jewish people were freed from slavery in Egypt through Divine intervention. As they prepared to leave Egypt and travel to the desert, they baked matzah, rather than bread, because they left in great haste, and there was no time to wait for the dough to rise. To commemorate the Exodus, God instructed the Jews to eat matzah every year during the Passover holiday.
In addition, the Bible prohibits eating “chometz” (leavened bread made from wheat, oat, spelt, rye or barley) during Passover. Chometz is proscribed because it is the antithesis of matzah, since leavened dough rises before the baking occurs. Through Rabbinic interpretation, the definition of chometz has been expanded to include not only bread products, but any food item, made from wheat, oat, spelt, rye or barley, that is not similar to matzah. Thus, grain-fermented vinegar as well as many breakfast cereals are considered chometz and may not be consumed on Passover.
In the Middle Ages, when grain flour was not readily available, it was common to bake bread-like products from various legumes and seeds, known as kitniyos. To avoid confusion, it became customary to abstain from consuming these foods in any form on Passover. Although the rationale no longer applies, the custom has continued; Jews of European descent do not eat beans, soybeans, rice, millet, corn, mustard seed, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, canola seeds, peanuts, buckwheat, and other vegetables during Passover.
But what does soda have to do with Passover food, and why should it bear an OUP? For that matter, why do pickles and potato chips bear an OUP logo?
Readers of this article might be aware that kosher law restricts consumption of non-kosher food, even when they are non-primary ingredients. For example, a cherry soda that contains castorium, a beaver extract used as a flavor enhancer, is not kosher, even though one is not eating a visible beaver steak. Kosher law on Passover follows the same principle, and products containing grains or legumes, even as sub-units, are unfit for use on Passover. Thus, soda which contains corn syrup is not acceptable for Passover because corn is on the Passover black list. OUP soda is made with cane sugar rather than corn syrup. OUP pickles contain vinegar that is not fermented from wheat or corn alcohol, and OUP potato chips are fried in cottonseed oil in place of canola oil.
How Does a Product Become OUP certified?
In many ways, the process of certification for Passover is similar to year-round kosher certification. The formula is submitted to our office for review to determine that all the sub-units are acceptable. Most of the time, equipment must be kosherized with boiling water or with dry heat in order to prepare it for Passover service.
Nonetheless, Passover supervision is unique in one aspect. Most non-Passover kosher certified products are not produced in the presence of a Rabbinic Field Representative (RFR). The RFR visits the plants at regular intervals and such spot-checking is sufficient to establish the integrity of the kosher status. In contrast, most Passover certified products are manufactured while the RFR is in attendance. This is because the Bible is far more stringent and exacting in describing Passover laws than year-round kosher requirements. If non-kosher food is bad for the soul, then chometz during the eight days of Passover is considered spiritual poison.
In fact, in a kosher home, there are weeks of rigorous cleaning and scrubbing in preparation for the holiday. Kitchen shelves are lined with paper to insure against the presence of minute amounts of chometz (so as not to contaminate the food); this is why supermarkets often line their shelves were Passover products are sold. This same caution is reflected in the full-time supervisory requirements for OUP products.
Can Any Food Be Made Kosher for Passover?
Years ago, the Passover menus consisted primarily of raw, unprocessed foods, such as fruit, vegetables, fish, poultry, and meat. To some extent, Passover was a holiday of food-deprivation. Today, through modern innovations, a wide range of products are available with Passover supervision. Here is just a sampling:
Matzah is available in numerous forms, such as the popular egg matzah and chocolate covered matzah. There is also whole wheat matzah, spelt matzah, matzah Tam Tam’s, matzah crackers and Mediterranean matzah (a spiced variety). Recently Manischewitz introduced Matzah Pizza and Matzah Smores.
The OUP appears on various brands of cereal, pasta, and cake. Though these products are made from grain, they are produced with kosher for Passover matzah meal. Matzah is baked in accordance with Passover requirements, and is then ground into Passover matzah meal, suitable for use in many items.
In addition, some companies prepare Passover cereal, pasta, and cake by substituting potato starch for wheat flower. The consumer can have his choice and purchase Schick’s and Lilly’s Bakeshop special Passover cakes and cookies made from potato starch, or the same items under the Manischewitz and Yehuda brand names made from matzah meal flour. My grandparents, may they rest in peace, would be startled to discover that I can purchase OUP kosher for Passover items such as breakfast cereals, pizza, bread sticks, rolls, blintzes, waffles, pierogis and farfel.
Mirroring the recent trend of manufacturers providing gluten-free foods for the growing segment of the population, there is now a selection available of OUP gluten-free items for Passover. Under brand names such as Manischewitz, Kedem, Jason, Yehuda and Jeff Nathan, one can find crackers, matzah-style squares, flatbread and cake meal that are all gluten-free.
Passover certification covers a wide spectrum of products, which include tea and coffee, tuna fish, salmon, sardines packed in water, oil and tomato sauce, cheese (including farmer, cottage, cream, goat, sheep, mozzarella, provolone and pecorino cheese), yogurt, chocolates, candy, potato chips (even chocolate covered, if you prefer), jam and jelly, soda, and cooking sprays from a variety of oils.
Why Does OUP Sell Better?
Because the kosher choices for Passover are far less than year-round, there is limited competition within the kosher for Passover food market. Also, many people who do not eat a strictly kosher diet all year prefer OUP foods for Passover because of the popularity of the holiday. Though Passover lasts only eight days, supermarkets across the country establish designated Passover sections up to two months before the holiday begins. Kosher consumers spend weeks searching the Passover aisle for selections that will allow them to be well stocked with kosher foods for the duration of the holiday.
Each year, the OU prints and distributes, free of charge, over 100,000 copies of a Passover Directory that lists all OUP products, and this guide is particularly helpful for kosher consumers. In addition, consumers can search an updated directory of OUP products on-line at oupassover.com.
Evidence of the value of the Passover market can be found in the phenomenon of important Passover companies, who focus much of their entire sales effort on OUP items. Because many large companies are beginning to appreciate the potential of this niche market, they are manufacturing their national name brand items with an OUP for Passover, in addition to OU products for year-round use.
Unfortunately, many manufacturers do not appreciate the value of Passover certification and fail to explore the feasibility of securing OUP certification. While kosher foods have seen phenomenal growth and expansion in the past two decades, the Passover market remains largely untapped territory for most companies. That is why I refer to the OUP as the “Sleeping Giant” in the title of this article.
How Do I Apply and What Will It Cost?
Rabbi Shmuel Singer currently oversees Passover supervision in our organization. To explore the possibility of OUP supervision for your products, please call 212-613-8217 or e-mail, Singers@ou.org. We will be happy to discuss your needs and share an evaluation of feasibility and cost with you.
In general, the cost of OUP supervision is a composite of three elements:
- Cost of rabbinic supervision. This will vary in accordance with the length of time supervision will be necessary for Passover production.
- Travel expenses for the rabbinic supervisor.
- $450.00 yearly administrative fee.
Don’t hesitate to contact us. You might discover an entirely new market for your products’ distribution, and this will be mutually beneficial for your company and the kosher consumer. We look forward to hearing from you.
Rabbi Yaakov Luban is the executive rabbinic coordinator of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division.