The idea for this article was born when I noticed how eager people were to learn any details of the process of hashgocha. Usually when I return from a kashrus trip, I share with my congregants in Monticello, New York a (non-confidential) halachic issue that I came across during my visit. These classes have been exciting, and people have gotten very much involved in these discussions.
As you may know, there are many companies that produce products under various names. Often a larger company that specializes in certain productions will capitalize on their expertise not only by marketing their product, but also by producing for other labels.
This is especially helpful for the kosher consumer. Years ago, most kosher products were produced in small facilities that could only afford less sophisticated equipment. Today, a lot of kosher food is made in larger, sophisticated plants that may produce non-kosher products too, yet they allow certain runs to be dedicated to kosher production. Even though the production was contracted out to another company, the product label will bear the kosher company’s name, because the product was manufactured specifically for them. This process is called producing under private label. Of course, the private label process comes with its challenges, as we often need to kasher the plant each time we use it, as well as supervise each kosher run.
For a number of years, I have been serving as a mashgiach at an OK Kosher certified company called Private Label Foods of Rochester in Rochester, New York. This company specializes ine producing many private labels (in addition to their own in house “Savory Collection” brand), hence the name.
The plant is located in the northwestern corner of Rochester, New York, above the airport and below the city of Greece. Rochester is about a 4 hour scenic drive from my house, featuring the beauty of the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, as well as the center ridges of New York State.
Private Label Food’s plant is housed in a deceptively simple looking building, with a small street side presence masking the whole back of the building. The plant itself is a bustling, busy building. There are three processing lines, two of which produce about three cases every 10-12 seconds! They produce various pasta sauces, fancy ketchups, all kinds of salad dressings and even lemon juice.
The plant is owned by Mrs. Bonnie Lavorato, and run by her son Frank. The management team consists of a variety of young, energetic, and bold people. The staff is very much focused on producing quality products, and is very careful not to ignore any issue that may adversely affect the finished product. It is really a pleasure working with them on kosher products, as they share our passion for high standards. I work very closely with many of the skilled managers on the team, who try their hardest to make the kosher production smooth.
I usually arrive at the plant on Sunday afternoon to ensure that the equipment has not been used for 24 hours (eino ben yoma) so that it can be kashered via hagolah (boiling water). It is much easier to achieve this downtime over the course of a weekend. When I arrive, the first thing I do is check the water/steam system to ensure that the pH level or the quality of water is considered halachically inedible, so that any non-kosher “taam” (taste) will not be transmitted through the water. After this is done, I check the pots. Though the company is very clean, and adheres fastidiously to CIP (Clean In Place standards and procedures), we have to ensure kosher standards of cleanliness. It’s rare to find a serious problem in cleanliness, yet we do search all the nooks and crannies, and at times come up with additional suggestions.
Afterwards, each tank is filled to capacity with 500 or 1,000 gallons of water, depending on the tank. They all are heated until they reach 212 degrees (a process which can take at least an hour).The tanks boil for a few minutes and are then emptied and rinsed with cold water. A lot of water and heat is used for this process. Afterwards, all of the pipes, hoses, connectors and filling lines must be kashered, as well as any utensils that were not sealed after the previous kosher production.
Next, we need to go through all the ingredients to be used in the kosher production. If all of the ingredients had an acceptable kosher seal directly on the package, it would be great. Often there are a number of ingredients that we need to verify by comparing production codes, or by following the instructions and restrictions on the accompanying kosher letters. The supervising agency always gives us a list of vetted and approved ingredients that the company requested; however, during production Murphy’s Law often prevails – “Whatever could go wrong, will go wrong.” Therefore, there are times when we spend hours trying to track down kashrus agencies and their mashgichim to verify the kosher status of ingredients. In one instance I remember making call after call, trying to reach a rabbi who supervised a kosher run in China. We had received seven pallets (about 500 cases) of this ingredient. All of the pallets had the same lot number, yet nine cases were missing the kosher symbol. Strategically (?), all nine were found in the center of the pallets. Some places are known to be notorious for mix-ups and forgeries, and we were extra careful with this ingredient. As it turns out, we were able to reach the mashgiach, who told us to refuse these cases, which we of course did.
After reviewing all ingredients to ensure they are kosher and approved for use in the upcoming production, the workers weigh out the various ingredients and prepare the proper recipe for cooking in each pot. This process is called batching. This can be a critical time, since any mix up that could happen with the ingredients would happen now. At this point, we must be vigilant to ensure that nothing enters this area, or into the batches, unless it is approved. Furthermore, although the ingredients are cold, we insist that only kosher utensils be used, because even though all of their utensils are clean, some ingredients are sharp and require kosher utensils. It is also very difficult to distinguish which ingredients are kosher sensitive, and which are not. This is magnified by the fact that there are all kinds of people working on the products. The best way to ensure that kashrus is not compromised, is by making simple, clear, and consistent rules that are easy for the employees to understand and follow, and by being available to answer any questions as they come up at all stages of production.
After all of this is done, can we rest assured that the product will be kosher? After all, we know that the ingredients, as well as the utensils and equipment are kosher.
No! We are not yet finished. If we are supervising a plant that is dedicated to kosher production, it is relatively simple. In such a case, we have to monitor all of the incoming ingredients, as well as spot check their warehouse; we have to constantly review the labels to ensure ingredient and kosher symbol accuracy; we have to ensure that no non-kosher equipment is purchased, and if it is, that it is kashered before being used; and of course, there has to be a good contract in place between the company and kosher certifying agency. (Of course this is only if there aren’t any complex issues in their production, as in meats, fish, wine, vegetables, Bishul, Pas, Cholov Yisroel, etc.) But in a plant that produces kosher and non-kosher, who will ensure that no ingredients or utensils were substituted, or that no non-kosher items were labeled as kosher, G-d forbid? Who takes this responsibility if there is no mashgiach present?
At the OK, we take this responsibility very seriously! It is well known within the kashrus industry that the more one understands the company, the better the kosher supervision will be. When a mashgiach spends quality time watching procedures and learns the process from experienced employees, he will be able to sense where the potential problem areas are, and not only solve them much more efficiently, but more importantly, put measures into place that will help avoid issues in the first place. The instructions that I received from Rabbi Yitzchak Hanoka, the OK Kosher Rabbinical Coordinator in charge of this company, was that I should be there during the whole production, until the last kosher label is affixed. As you surely realize, a kosher label is one of the most critical parts of the supervision process, because if a label is misused, it could bring terrible consequences. If we were worried that a company would intentionally misuse a label, we would not consider them for certification, but without careful supervision and proper systems in place, a pareve label could end up on a dairy product or a kosher label may end up on a non-kosher product. It’s a mashgiach’s job to ensure that no mistakes happen.
There are some who question why it is so important to check the production so many times and why it is not enough for the mashgiach to make less frequent spot checks. The supervision requirements in this case were determined by Rabbi Hanoka after his personal, thorough inspection of the plant and a clear understanding of the production process, both essential components of a high level of kosher supervision.
There are multiple pieces of each utensil in a plant, and even multiple lines with the same machines. After the utensils and equipment for the kosher production are kashered and segregated, there are still similar looking items that are not kosher. There is always a possibility of a mix-up in the absence of constant supervision. In addition, there are many employees and, while they are trained in kosher protocol, it is not always second nature to remember to keep utensils and rework separate. The job of the mashgiach is to educate and remind the workers to ensure that the kosher quality is not compromised.
I used the word “educate” intentionally. When a mashgiach answers questions and communicates the aims of the kosher program clearly, the workers want to help uphold the kosher status much more. When employees are just told what to do, but it does not make any sense to them, they will have a hard time fulfilling the objective. If you want them to buy in to the process, they need to have a clear understanding of the objective, as well as to appreciate its seriousness. The presence of the mashgiach and his demeanor, go a long way in accomplishing this.
I recently discussed this with a colleague who served as a mashgiach in a similar plant. In that plant they kashered and checked the ingredients before the production, but spot checked only sporadically. He was working for a reputable kosher agency, one which I would generally trust. My colleague argued that even if they do use a non-kosher thermometer or a utensil, it would not make the product non-kosher, since the volume of the product is 500-1,000 gallons. The minute contamination would easily be “Botul B’Shishim” (nullified as less than 1/60th non-kosher to kosher). Furthermore, it’s a rare case when there is a mix up, and he questioned why Rabbi Hanoka would require full time supervision since this raises the cost of certification for the company.
To this I answered, “Because we represent the consumer, and this is exactly what the consumer expects when he sees the OK kosher symbol”! My colleague is right that the product would probably still remain kosher. Yet how many of us would allow that possibility to exist in our own homes? How many of us would want to buy a product where a mistake was made, yet it was “Botul B’Shishim”? I, for one, would not want to buy it! How many of us would use a non-kosher utensil in our own kitchen for dry, cold ingredients? I suspect that an overwhelming majority of our readers would not! So, why should we not ensure that the consumers can achieve these same standards with the manufactured goods we supervise?
Today’s kosher consumer demands a high standard of kosher. Rabbi Hanoka and the OK have set this standard, and Private Label Foods is upholding it! Knowing the Lavorato family, as well as the staff at Private Label foods, they would not have it any other way. They are meticulous in providing an honestly good product without compromises, and kosher status is an integral part of their quality control standards. Their four-person Quality Control team walks around and checks every detail of the production several times per hour in addition to instructing the other employees on how to maintain the best quality product. They check the dates, the codes, the caps and so many other details of production each time they make their rounds. Even when it is an automated system, even if they do not find problems most of the time, the company values these checks. An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure and it goes without saying, that to us, kashrus is even more important than quality control. This is why using a full time mashgiach is very valuable!
As we say in the tefillah before learning, “sheloi ta’ara d’var takala al yadee..v’loi oimer al tamei tahor…” May the Almighty ensure that no error will occur during my watch and may I not mistakenly misrepresent non-kosher as kosher!
A few words from Bonnie Lavorato, President and CEO of Private Label Foods, Inc.
I look forward to the days that Rabbi Chanowitz works in my food manufacturing facility. I love the fact that he interacts with my employees, teaching them all about what it means to be kosher. All of the information he passes along to them, whether he is explaining the spiritual side of kosher or the food safety aspect, it is all valuable and educational. Every time I see him he shares something new regarding the world of kosher. Personally, I look on labels to see if there is a kosher mark and those are the products I prefer to buy. It gives me satisfaction knowing a rabbi is watching over the process, making sure everything is clean and up to impeccable standards. I encourage my customers to pursue kosher status and let them know that their products could be kosher, if they are interested. Private Label Foods can take a recipe and turn it into a kosher product! We might have to use different ingredients, but in the end it will taste just as good or better. I recently developed a Caesar salad dressing, minus the cheese, that tastes absolutely delicious! I encourage other food manufacturers to add the ability to run kosher products in their facilities. It will be a pleasurable experience.