The Talmud teaches us that when Hashem sends us crises, He prepares the antidote in advance. As the global coronavirus set in last March, OU Kosher had little lead time to transition its large headquarters operation at 11 Broadway in Manhattan to a completely remote work environment. In what might be described as miraculous, the shift was pulled off without a hitch. As the world’s largest kashrus agency, it is not only retail consumers who rely on us for the more than one million OU-certified products; food industry companies and even other kashrus agencies the world over also depend on the OU.
There is no doubt that the ability of OU Kosher to contend with this crisis and all its associated challenges was dependent on tremendous Siyata d’Shmaya (Divine assistance). The technology infrastructure that enabled this seamless move created by the pandemic is not new at the OU; it has been carefully designed, implemented, and refined over decades, and is constantly evolving. “The OU Kosher success story is built on the synthesis of expert rabbinic, professional, and support staff leveraging state-of-the-art technologies, to serve the unique needs of kosher suppliers, manufacturers, and consumers,” explained Rabbi Menachem Genack, chief executive officer of OU Kosher.
OU Kosher Chief Operating Officer Rabbi Moshe Elefant, who directs all OU Kosher technology projects, sees the continued development of technological tools to enhance the function and reach of the world’s largest kashrus agency as intrinsic to our mission: “This is the future of the world of kashrus!
“We must acknowledge the dedicated OU IT (Information Technology) team of talented analysts, developers, support, and infrastructure staff who do an incredible job managing the technology that keeps OU Kosher business moving forward every day, with all its activities functioning and prospering,” he says.
“OU Kosher is a not-for-profit public organization whose ultimate commitment is to the kosher consuming public,” noted Rabbi Eli Eleff, managing director of OU Kosher Community Relations. “We use all the latest tools and resources to provide them with reliably kosher-certified products, as well as to respond to their kashrus queries and offer kashrus-related education.”
KASHRUS HOTLINE: OU Kosher connects with consumers around the world through multiple platforms, using both traditional and cutting-edge technologies. This allows the Kashrus Hotline, under the direction of Rabbi Tzvi Nussbaum, to respond to hundreds of phone inquiries a week (thousands in the weeks preceding Pesach). Secure cloud-based technology is used to provide the Kashrus Hotline team up-to-date information on OU products as well as a variety of related topics. A state-of-the-art call center and queuing technology is utilized to manage the calls and minimize wait time. For the “Webbe Rebbe” email service, each consumer encounter is tracked via a ticketing system that streamlines its resolution. Rabbi Chanoch Sofer coordinates the OU’s email response to 80 emails a day, and an average of 300 a day before Pesach.
WEBSITES & APPS: Resources encompass oukosher.org, the dedicated Passover site oupassover.org, and apps for both Android and iOS. Features include product search, informational videos, travel information, a brachos/blessings guide, kashrus articles, and even tips for tevilas kaylim. The websites also offer convenient chat functions.
SOCIAL MEDIA: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram platforms engage approximately 25,000 [@OUKosher] followers.
DAF HaKASHRUS: This consumer and kashrus professional periodical is distributed in both print and electronic versions that reach a total of 35,000 subscribers.
HALACHA YOMIS: The fascinating daily halachic email companion is distributed to 15,000 readers. Skillfully edited by Executive Rabbinic Coordinator Rabbi Yaakov Luban, it offers concise and illuminating expositions for scholar and layman alike.
ASK OU: Seminars and classes provide in-person and virtual symposia for academic institutions and community education. This past summer due to COVID-19, ASK OU ran a week-long seminar via Zoom with over 1,100 participants in 16 countries that covered myriad exciting and informative kashrus topics.
OU KASHRUS SYSTEM
During the past several decades the number of kosher-certified products has grown exponentially. The OU currently certifies over 1 million kosher products that are produced in approximately 10,000 facilities that undergo 60,000 inspections annually in over 100 countries worldwide.
How does OU Kosher ensure that strict kosher standards are enforced in all of these certified products, keeping up with the expeditious demands of manufacturers?
Rabbi Dr. Samuel Davidovics, the OU’s chief information officer explains: “The nucleus of the OU Kosher computer system consists of both its database, which tracks approximately 2 million products and ingredients, and the associated kashrus business intelligence, which is incorporated to facilitate all aspects of the kosher certification service.”
OU’s ingredient database includes both OU-certified products and those certified by other kosher certification agencies that have been assessed and approved by the OU’s Ingredient Approvals Registry, directed by Rabbi Yerachmiel Morrison. That information represents an enormous resource, the very lifeblood of kosher certification.
“The internal kashrus desktop application incorporates business intelligence tools that provide the OU Kosher rabbinic staff with instruments to manage the kosher programs of even the largest corporate entities,” explains Rabbi Gavriel Price, OU’s rabbinic coordinator for special projects. Decisions related to the kosher status of a plant and the products that it produces are dependent upon many factors. The system incorporates logic consistent with kosher law to ensure these factors are considered throughout all aspects of the certification process. There are automated checks and safeguards that make sure all ingredients that are approved to be associated with certified manufacturing facilities are compatible with the kosher status of the products being produced there. For example, a certified kosher dairy ingredient could not be approved at a plant that only produces pareve products.
In our fast-paced global business world, accurate up-to-date kashrus information is essential. Rabbi Avorhom Juravel, director of Ingredient and Technical Services reminisces: “Years ago, every kosher certification agency managed its information independently. Every customer had to provide kosher certificates for each ingredient they wanted to use in an OU-certified product. This was a long and tedious process. OU Kosher established a new standard that is now known as the Universal Kosher Database (UKD).” Today, with the additions and participation of the major kosher agencies, OU personnel and clients now have access to current information for more than 1.8 million kosher-approved products and ingredients.
Automated system-to-system communication with our kashrus agency partners ensures that any additions, terminations, and modifications to the kosher status of any product or ingredient is reflected across our systems within 24 hours. Every product has a unique identifier that is easily verifiable. Protocols are followed that maintain the confidentiality and integrity of all customer information throughout.
UKD has modernized kosher material research and verification way beyond the age of paper certificates. Now both our clients, and those of our partner agencies, are able to streamline the ingredient components of their kosher programs.
KOSHER FOOD PRODUCTION EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES
Similar to manufacturing quality and safety programs, in which companies invest substantial resources, the effective management of a kosher program can be greatly enhanced by professional training and guidance. OU headquarters and field staff advise and train OU clients’ personnel in best kosher practices.
Recently OU Kosher partnered with Alchemy Academy to provide an array of educational content for kosher food producers. Online employee courses presented by OU Kosher Senior Field Representative Rabbi Avraham Stone help our clients’ staff to better understand and manage their kosher programs.
OUDIRECT – OU’S ONLINE CLIENT ACCESS
“The OUDirect client portal facilitates customer management of their kosher program any time of day or night,” notes Rabbi Moshe Zywica, OU Kosher executive rabbinic coordinator. Thousands of OU customers enjoy the accessibility of OUDirect, altogether using the site approximately 1 million times each month. Customers from across the globe can customize the formatting of their letters of kosher certification and download them at their convenience. Companies with large product inventories can automatically import their thousands of updated letters of certification to their own internal systems, which helps streamline their internal audit processes.
Customers also leverage OUDirect to manage their product and ingredient listings, submit requests for updates to their OU account manager, and track the status of their submissions. They can manage their own kosher program staff, see their kosher account financial information, and pay invoices online. Intuitive search and filter features on every page assist clients in quickly zeroing in on the set of data they are looking for. Support is always just a click or phone call away. The OUDirect helpdesk, powered by our able team and an enterprise support platform, tracks all call-in and email support requests, ensuring rapid response time.
Applying for new products and ingredients across manufacturing facilities is accomplished online with just a few clicks. UKD materials can easily be added to client-approved ingredient lists, expediting a product’s release to market.
There are always new features on the horizon to enhance OUDirect and add value for our clients.
OUDIRECT – OU’S ONLINE MASHGIACH ACCESS
“The unsung heroes of OU Kosher’s business are the 900 rabbinic field representatives (RFRs) who are tasked with conducting site inspections—closely monitoring the food production process at their assigned manufacturing facilities,” notes Rabbi Michael Morris, OU’s mashgiach ombudsman.
OUDirect enables RFRs to easily track their plant assignments, plan their site visits, and conduct the inspections. Gone are the days when an RFR would have to print reams of paper before visiting a facility. Armed with a mobile device, RFRs can use the mobile-friendly program interface to complete their inspection reports in real-time, answering the inspection report questions and annotating relevant information as they move through the plant. Each RFR also has access to the products and ingredients of each company he is inspecting and can manage updates that surface during the inspection in real time.
RFRs are in the unique position of being ambassadors for the OU while on assignment and can use the opportunity to guide OU Kosher clients through leveraging OUDirect to better manage their product and ingredient listings. RFRs are each seasoned OUDirect users, collectively visiting the website 277,000 times every month!
OU APPLICATIONS PROCESS
In response to fast-paced industry demands, “As soon as there is a new inquiry regarding certification, the information associated with the prospective customer enters our system, and the certification process begins,” noted New Applications Department Director Rabbi Donneal Epstein.
When a new company or plant applies for initial certification, a comprehensive workflow is initiated. OU Kosher’s expert rabbinic staff assesses the application details to determine an inspection protocol. Application ingredients are reviewed by Rabbi Chananel Herbsman, rabbinic coordinator for ingredient research. A senior rabbinic field representative, armed with all the pertinent information, is dispatched to perform an initial inspection and evaluation. This meticulous process ensures that reports and ingredient approvals are reviewed and endorsed by senior staff to effectuate a successful business partnership in the most expedient fashion.
OU KOSHER AND INDUSTRY – SECURELY SHARING DATA
“Perhaps no industry is more sensitive to confidentiality than the multi-billion-dollar flavor industry,” notes Rabbi Nosson Neuberger, flavor rabbinic coordinator. “Their flavors provide the unique profiles of many of the products that we know and enjoy. Which is why corporations are vigilant in maintaining the secrecy of their products, ingredients, recipes and processes.”
With sometimes thousands of components in one flavor, there are formidable challenges in reviewing and approving new flavor formulations. OU Kosher and some of the foremost flavor developers have designed secure systems for sharing this information, so that thousands of components can be quickly reviewed for the approval of intermediate and finished products.
“Through almost a century of certification experience, OU Kosher has developed the trust of the food industry’s biggest players,” notes Rabbi Mordechai Merzel, head of OU Kosher’s marketing department, who interfaces with many of the OU’s largest clients. “The OU retains all information shared with it for the express purpose of kosher evaluation and monitoring in the most secure fashion and with the utmost discretion.”
REMOTE SUPERVISION, REMOTE IGNITION
Kashrus supervision involves the monitoring of food manufacture to ensure kosher integrity. In some instances, certain aspects of this surveillance can be achieved remotely.
Modern manufacturing equipment is primarily operated via advanced networked computer systems. When granted access to those systems, the OU’s rabbinic staff can monitor equipment usage, product and cleaning temperatures, and volume levels. When these systems are paired with a visual examination via strategically placed cameras, OU staff have effective control over events in the plant.
While on-site supervision cannot be replaced, this type of remote supervision often proves an invaluable supplement to in-person visits, guaranteeing certain aspects of processing and the koshering of equipment.
Due to the limitations of remote surveillance, OU’s poskim do not recommend relying on remote surveillance for the supervision of milk (chalav Yisrael) and cheese (gevinas Yisrael) products.
Certain foods require not just supervision but also rabbinic involvement in their manufacture. To achieve pas(baking) Yisrael or bishul (cooking) Yisrael, process activation must be made by OU personnel. Historically, this was always accomplished via an on-site rabbinic presence. With today’s smart technologies, ignition of processes can sometimes be realized remotely. Through virtual private networks, certain equipment can be operated as if OU staff members were in the factory.
In some instances, particularly across borders where COVID-19 restrictions impede travel, local mashgichimare accompanied virtually (via video conference) by senior experts. This allows for the in-person verification of facts to be combined with world-renowned kashrus expertise.
OU Kosher’s Rabbi Eli Gersten, recorder of OU Psak and Policy, maintains a knowledge base of these and all OU halachic rulings and policies, and keeps them readily available to OU rabbinic staff. Through this channel, rabbinic coordinators have access to the vast history of OU Kosher’s positions in all matters.
Access is also provided to multiple Torah databases with hundreds of thousands of Torah texts at the touch of a button.