In making decisions, context is key. Most people would agree that telling a malicious lie is wrong; by the same token, no one takes offense at an honest compliment. In certain contexts, however, the truth can also be harmful. For example, should a doctor give a seriously ill patient-whose attitude may affect his recovery-an honest assessment of his situation? In such cases, one must carefully evaluate the circumstances before taking action.

As with ethics, kosher living finds its trickiest challenges in contextual questions. Certainly, many of our choices are black and white. No one would question, for example, that meat or filleted fish require the watchful eye of a kosher supervisor; conversely, some of our staple foods-such as fresh fruits, vegetables, water, and salt-have no need for supervision.

There are times, however, when circumstances turn these basic assumptions on their heads. When “innocent” ingredients, such as vegetables, come canned from a factory, we are confronted with a question similar to ethical inquiry: How do circumstances change the way we approach the question of the product’s kosher status?

Life on the Line
An integral part of the kosher status of any factory-processed food is the equipment with which it is produced. Manufacturers commonly produce a variety of items in successive runs on the same machinery. A pot used for meat may subsequently be used to cook potatoes or carrots. The vegetables enter the cannery kosher; in order for them to remain so, the processing equipment must be “kosher clean,” that is, free of any trace of foodstuff that would compromise the kosher status of the food processed on it.

The manufacturer, however, has a different agenda: Is the taste of the previous production run compatible with the current product? Competing in the marketplace demands efficiency. If the taste and color of the first product have no noticeable effect on the second, there is no reason to slow production to clean the equipment.

Coming Clean
There are three common ways in which a food production line is prepared for a new run. In the most lenient circumstances, the company may deem it unnecessary to clean the equipment and moves directly from one product to the next. Alternatively, they may put the equipment through a cold-water rinse. At the strictest extreme, the production line is cleansed through an industrial process called “Cleaning in Place” (CIP), in which the equipment is cleaned (“in place,” so as to avoid dismantling the production line) with an acid and alkali wash and a hot rinse.

What is the effect, in terms of the kosher laws, of each of these processes? In the “no-cleaning” scenario, traces of foodstuff from the first product-non-kosher meat, for example-will inevitably remain, as well as whatever taste it imparted to the machinery. Thus, the vegetables in our example may be cooked together with bits of the non-kosher food that preceded it on the machinery and thus become unkosher. A cold rinse is likely to remove actual meat particles, but the taste from the meat absorbed in the machinery will still find its way into the vegetables, rendering them unkosher. CIP’s chemical wash and hot rinse is likeliest to purge the machinery of any trace of the meat, and this is our best bet from a kosher point of view.

While it might seem to be the answer to our prayers, CIP actually raises new questions from the kosher code. In order to be effective for the purposes of the kosher laws, a cleaning process must satisfy four conditions. First, the equipment must be perfectly clean, with absolutely no trace of the original food, before the hot rinse. Second, the equipment must not have been used for cooking for the previous 24 hours. Third, the water used for cleaning must be at the boiling point, 212° F (100° C). And fourth, the pots must be filled so that they boil over, spilling boiling water over the sides.

Needless to say, without kosher supervision, none of these conditions is on the producer’s short list. The pots are not left empty for 24 hours, the water is not boiling, nor does it spill over the sides of the pots. Indeed, our experience with one common process for cooking canned vegetables, the continuous retort-in which many cans are cooked together in a number of chambers, often with non-kosher food products-underscores just how far from ideal standard practices are. For these reasons, unless one knows firsthand that the particular factory follows kosher-friendly procedures, one must always look for a kosher symbol on canned vegetables.