OU Kosher Keeps Oil Production Greased

Edible oil and oil by-products, such as fatty acids and lecithin, are essential ingredients in almost every food industry. OU Kosher receives requests daily from companies around the world, including the most remote areas of the Amazon Jungles. Let’s take a closer look at the certification process of kosher oil and the rigorous oversight it requires before it reaches your table.

Oil production includes multiple phases, production agents, and equipment, each requiring kosher compliance. Since, for the most part, animal and fish-based oils cannot be certified as kosher, the OU Kosher certification process rules them out. Common non-kosher oils include fish-oils, tallow and lard. Palmitic and stearic acid are examples of common by-products that can potentially be sourced from non-kosher oil.

The equipment used for the refining of oil must meet kosher criteria; they cannot be shared with animal based oil products. Maintaining the integrity of the kosher production line is essential. Cross-contamination with non-kosher product must be avoided. This is one of the many reasons that vegetable oil must be certified as kosher.

There are very few edible oil refineries in the United States that refine both vegetable oil and animal oil, which is still common in Europe and Central and South Americas. However, there are many bottling facilities in North America that store and bottle non-kosher and vegetable-based oils with shared equipment. OU Kosher inspects and verifies that not only are the storage tanks not to be shared between animal based and kosher oil, but that not even steam may be shared between tallow and palm or coconut oil.

Cold Pressed Oil

Sometimes the raw material is pressed without heating; such oils are known as cold-pressed oils. Since cold pressing does not extract all the oil, it is practiced only in the production of a few special edible oils, i.e. olive oil.

In the past, crushing was done between mill stones that later became steel rolls. That is why, still today, oil factories are known as oil mills and the process as oil milling or oilseed crushing, even though it is more common to extract the oil with solvents.

The process of solvent extraction is used to separate oil from seeds/beans, where the principle is to employ a volatile liquid in which the oil is freely soluble. The pre-processed seeds/beans are treated in a multistage counter-current process until the remaining oil content is reduced to the lowest possible level. Although the solvent, hexane, is most commonly used, the kosher certification agencies keep apprised of the various solvents available in the rapidly-advancing world of food technology.

Since non-kosher oils are not crushed, there is little concern that equipment used to extract the oil will be shared with kosher oil. However, starting with the storage through the fillers, the tanks and lines are monitored for kosher integrity.

OU Kosher has found that some olive oil producers use potentially animal-based cell wall digestive enzymes to increase the oil yield of the olives. As with any other ingredient or production agent, these enzymes must be approved as kosher by being listed on the Schedule A. Steam may also be used to improve yield. Although this is most often approved, in some European countries the steam is provided by a separate company nearby that may be supplying steam to a non-kosher facility, and recycling that steam with the kosher steam. This should be considered at the planning stage for kosher certification.

Crude oils – the oil immediately following extraction – may have relatively elevated levels of phosphatides. Soybean oil, for example, can be degummed before refining to remove most those phospholipid compounds. Phosphoric or citric acid may be used to dissociate the nonhydratable phosphatides (NHP) into phosphatidic acid (PA) and calcium or magnesium bi-phosphate salt. Both components are removed by adsorption on bleaching earth in the degumming process. The citric acid needs to be certified as kosher.

With soybean oil, the most common oil to be degummed, the phospholipids are often recovered and further processed to yield a variety of lecithin products.

The miscella – a mixture of oil and solvent – is separated by distillation into two components; oil and solvent. The solvent is recycled into the extraction process. After the oil has been manufactured into the crude state, it is either refined in the same plant or transported to a different plant for refining. All transportation of bulk oil (and any liquid) must be in kosher-approved carriers.

The Oil-Refining Process

Refining is the procedure in which crude oil is made ready to be used for human consumption. The oil-refining process involves (some or all) the following steps:

1.) Alkali Refining – removes fatty acid content and other impurities. This is achieved by introducing an alkali solution into the oil while it is being heated.
2.) Bleaching – removes color-producing substances and further purifies the oil. This is achieved by putting material, such as bleaching clay, into the oil to absorb the substances.
3.) Deodorization – removes any remaining materials in the oil that can cause spoilage or unpleasant odors. Oil is pumped into a deodorizer (a very large piece of equipment that heats the oil in a vacuum).

The kosher cleaning (kosherization) of a deodorizer is difficult and is something kashrut agencies try to avoid if possible. The preference is to use vegetable oil from plants that process vegetable oils exclusively. A deodorizer can be six stores high. There are many trays into which oil is pumped, heated, and centrifuged at temperatures as high as 700°. It is difficult to clean; after each deodorization process, a film of oil adheres to the deodorizer and is not easily removed. To properly perform a kosher cleaning (kosherization), every inch, nook and cranny must be cleaned until it looks brand new, which can be very labor-intensive and expensive.

An often-overlooked issue is off-shore storage. If a tanker unloads an oil-hold to an off-shore tank that will then be transferred to a barge or railcar, the off-shore facility also requires kosher certification – to verify that the tanks are not shared with any non-kosher certified oil.

OU Kosher closely monitors the mechanics of oil extraction, the agents used, and the vehicles for transporting the kosher oil. OU Kosher verifies that from the beginning of the extraction until the retail filling, all steps comply with its rigorous kosher guidelines.

It is no surprise that kosher consumers prefer oil with the OU kosher symbol.

Rabbi Akiva Tendler serves as rabbinic coordinator serving the oil, tea and beverage industries. He is a frequent contributor to BTUS.  

Rabbi Akiva Tendler