Quality kosher fish oil is in very high demand. But, it’s not easy to make and calls for a solid commitment to kosher, in many – unusual – ways.
To start, the company needs to have a kosher fishery able to keep by-catch of non-kosher nontarget species to near zero and control a facility which can meet kosher requirements. For the most part, that has been sardine oil from Peru, where the seasonal catch allows a rabbi to confirm that the fish received contain almost no non-kosher species by-catch species and then supervise the removal of the remaining few. Europe and Asia have found a few limited areas where some small kosher productions can be done, but, until, quite recently, North American waters have not yielded any significant source of kosher fish oil.
American Seafoods Group Takes the Plunge
American Seafoods Group first reached out to OU kosher in 2009 to discuss the possibility of OU certified pollock oil from the Marine Stewardship Council certified fishery in Alaska. The plan was that ASG’s fishing vessels would catch Alaska pollock (Gadus chalcogrammus) for its company’s frozen fillets, and would also extract oil from various other parts of the fish. But, could OU Kosher be able to certify this fish oil?
In theory the ASG plan seemed doable (the pollock are known to be kosher, the by-catch was supposedly near zero, and the company was prepared to adhere to OU Kosher requirements for the run); there was only one way to know for sure. As a floating processor (a plant which processes the fish at sea), a visit to the receiving dock wouldn’t suffice for OU Kosher purposes. We’d have to send a rabbi out to sea – to watch production in real time. In fact, we’d need someone with enough stamina to handle weeks at sea, enough determination to make sure our needs were met under adverse conditions, enough courage to face the dangers associated with high-seas fishing… and frankly someone crazy enough to take us up on the assignment. This was not a mission for your mainstream RFR. Most RFR field assignments for OU Kosher special productions follow a similar scenario. The rabbi makes an appointment with a manufacturing plant looking to do the “special” run, kosherizes the facility, supervises the production, and goes home at a reasonable hour. Most field rabbis find their assignments relatively easy to get to, either by plane or by car. Bringing along something for lunch is the norm; maybe if it’s for multiple days the rabbi will pack something a little more involved for supper. If not, he can always go to the local supermarket for whatever he lacks, because there is always a supermarket nearby. At the end of his special run, the rabbi submits a standard report of what the production included.
Those are typical field assignments, typical rabbinic field representatives and most production facilities. That isn’t kosher fish oil made aboard the American Seafood Group’s “Ocean Rover.” And most certainly not OU Kosher’s fearless RFR, Rabbi Yitzchak Gallor!
Famous for spending weeks on end every fall running from one grape juice processor in eastern Washington to another, Rabbi Gallor heads the famous kosher grape crush, which involves a year’s worth of kosher concord grape juice getting pressed and drummed by the powerhouse juice producers in the Yakima Valley. He’s also famous for his entertaining YouTubes depicting his kosher work. (More on that later.)
After discussing various possibilities, ASG and OU Kosher agreed that we’d send Rabbi Gallor for a tour on the Ocean Rover during the “B” season, when anecdotal reports indicated by-catch would be at its lowest, thus the easiest time to achieve OU kosher’s requirement of near zero. Making multiple trips during the season, the next step was to balance the logistics of when the vessel would land in Dutch Harbor Alaska at a time when a land lubber could board. Purchasing appropriate victuals for his sea journey (they have modern refrigeration and cooking abilities onboard) and packing for the journey quickly ensued. Thankfully (and thoughtfully) the ship set aside a corner for the rabbi’s exclusive kosher food preparation needs. Then the rabbi went shopping for a disposable video camera.
Being somewhat of a showman, Rabbi Gallor viewed the adventure as being one worthy of Hollywood, or at least his own starring role in a self-made YouTube video about the harrowing experience of a field rabbi relocated to the area made famous by the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch.” With the captain’s blessings and armed only with his camera, Rabbi Gallor punctuated his time on the vessel with recordings of what life was like on the open sea.
Through his close observations and discussions with the crew, Rabbi Gallor discovered a potentially serious kosher issue where krill (nonkosher shrimp-like creatures on which pollock fed) could often be found in the stomachs used for making the oil. His experimented with different methods of separating krill from the stomachs to determine the rate at which a non-digested krill might be found amongst the weight of the rest of the stomachs. Armed with the raw data necessary for us to make legal inquiries and do the necessary math to determine the severity of the possible concern, OU kosher was able to certify the end product.
Throughout “Deadliest Kosher”, viewers are provided with graphic fish anatomy lessons. Rabbi Gallor also included news reports of the harsh weather conditions and what a vessel listing at 35 degrees looks like (spoiler alert: almost like tipping over). Lighter moments captured on film showed us that despite reports to the contrary, it wasn’t that difficult a journey after all.
At the end of a long special production upon the Ocean Rover, Rabbi Gallor didn’t leave empty-handed; he brought home a suitcase full of fishy smelling flannel shirts, a video of what life was like for that run (far more stimulating than the usual submitted report), memories to last a lifetime, and most importantly – a vessel full of OU Kosher certified pollack oil.
RABBI CHAIM GOLDBERG HAS BEEN MANNING THE FISH DESK AT THE OU FOR 13 YEARS, MANAGING
350 OU-CERTIFIED MANUFACTURING PLANTS AND TRAVELING TO FIVE CONTINENTS TO INSPECT AND ESTABLISH KOSHER PROTOCOLS AT PROCESSING PLANTS OF ALL TYPES. RABBI GOLDBERG’S TACKLE BOX CAN BE FOUND IN HIS FAMILY HOME IN BROOKLYN, NY.