Kosher Certification and Quality Assurance

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As the OK Kosher Tri-State Area Rabbinic Coordinator, I do most of my kashrus work in the New York and New Jersey area. Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since I last spent time in Chicago, IL. Back in the late 1980s, I spent a summer as a staff member in the local Jewish day camp. Flying in to Chicago twenty-five years later, I could not help but reminisce and relive the wonderful experiences I had back then, but this time I was in Chicago for a different purpose – OK Headquarters regularly receives requests for lectures from companies and organizations and this time I was chosen to address a group of Quality Assurance professionals who meet regularly to discuss recent developments in the food industry.

The group regularly discusses issues such as Private Label matters (when a product is produced by a company and then another company’s label is affixed to the product), third party audits, product development, novel approaches to product evaluation, etc. This was the first time a rabbi was asked to address this audience and I had a daunting task ahead of me. The topic was "Using the Kosher Certification Process to Enhance the Overall Quality & Safety of Products."

Due to the high demand for kosher products and the need to teach staff members about the basics of kosher, the OK is often asked to give lectures on the basic laws of kosher and its application to modern food production. In 25 minutes or less I had to provide a summary of the laws of kosher in general and how the kosher dietary laws affect kosher audits and quality control. In the short time given, we only had the opportunity to cover the basics. The discussion was based on my experience with quality control as a Rabbinic Coordinator at OK Kosher Certification.

It is a basic idea in Jewish thought that everything in the spiritual realm has its counterpart in the physical dimension as well. Just as the laws of kosher and their application address the safeguarding of the soul from harmful substances and harmful mixtures, so too Quality Control addresses the safeguarding of one’s physical health and ensuring the product is manufactured in the way it was intended.

We focused much of the discussion on the critical need for control systems in order for a manufacturing environment to be suitable for kosher certification. For example, a receiving log of all products that enter the facility is often needed in a kosher environment to ensure all ingredients are kosher compliant before entering a facility. The Quality Control personnel and the visiting rabbi can then review the receiving log to verify the kosher status of all ingredients entering the facility. Written approval for all raw materials from the kosher agency is necessary for a kosher receiving system to be set up.

I recall an incidence when I was invited to visit a small facility that applied for OK Kosher Certification for the repacking of a selection of raw grains. "What could go wrong with raw grains and seeds other than the possibility of infestation if the product is not stored properly or is old?" I wondered. Upon my arrival at this facility, I immediately recognized that there were no Quality Control systems in place.

I discovered quite a few kosher issues at this facility. The company had no record of what they repacked and when they repacked any particular item (and they were repacking over 50 items!) I thought to myself, "If they do not have control over what they are producing, then how can I possibly monitor this?" In addition, product was directly touching the floor and the facility was not kept very clean. There was a large, 3-inch gap between the bottom of the front door and the floor, leaving plenty of room for unwanted visitors (i.e. rodents and bugs) to enter. After concluding my visit, I thanked the people for accompanying me and let them know that I would be in touch.

When I got back to the office, I wrote this company a letter stating that the OK cannot certify them for the following reasons and went on listing the Quality Control issues present.

While my colleagues and I are not officially trained in all the rules and regulations of Quality Control, due to the extensive field experience we have with visiting hundreds of manufacturing facilities, we do develop a basic understanding of the fundamentals of Quality Control and utilize this to further enhance the quality of our kosher work.

Efficient documentation systems and production log procedures are also crucial for providing the traceability that is often needed for kosher products. Cleaning procedures used for equipment may also need to meet certain requirements in order to satisfy kosher standards. A knowledgeable visiting rabbi who is familiar with the plant generally inspects facilities on a frequent basis to assist with the implementation of kosher procedure and to ensure the process is running smoothly. All these procedures ensure that the products satisfy specific standards and that production processes are traceable, protecting the quality and integrity of the manufacturer’s products.

A new facility seeking certification from the OK is set up for kosher in a distinct way. It is necessary for a supervising kosher agency to be completely familiar with manufacturing processes in order to monitor them. Our Rabbinic Coordinators are there to evaluate the facility and create custom tailored kosher protocol to meet the needs of the particular plant. These systems and procedures are designed to be practical for the customer and simulataneously meet the high kosher standards of OK Kosher. Often, used equipment will require a kosherization procedure. This proc-ess is very much dependent on cleanliness as all vessels must be spotlessly clean before kosherization can take place. The actual kosherization process is geared to purge the vessel of its absorbed taste, often using water and various types of heat.

Just as the laws of kosher address the safeguarding of the soul from harmful substances … so too Quality Control addresses the safeguarding of one’s physical health

During the conference, I also described how technology is a vital tool that OK Kosher uses in managing the kosher data we keep on file for each customer. All information is multi password protected and stored on secure servers. In addition, the latest and highest rated security software is engaged to protect the security of individual recipes. Our database contains a list of all ingredients and all products used in each kosher certified facility. Whenever a kosher certificate for an ingredient is due to expire, every company that uses the particular ingredient is automatically notified that they need to submit an updated certificate. When one company submits the updated certificate, it is automatically updated in every single facility database in our system, regardless of the parent company. It is the harmonious blend of cutting edge technology, timeless Jewish Law, and genuine relationships that creates our successful kosher operation. These are just some of the procedures that are used at OK Kosher to ensure proper compliance and enable the kosher certified product to be fully traceable.

It was enlightening for me to discuss all of these kosher systems in a quality control environment. The experience solidified my understanding of how complementary kosher is for Quality Control and vice versa. Both systems are essentially there to maintain a certain standard – kosher and Quality Control work hand in hand. I walked out of the conference with a positive feeling that these Quality Control personnel gained a new appreciation for kosher and really understood and admired the kosher systems that the OK has in place in the plants that we certify.

The net result of a product with high kosher standards and high Quality Control standards is a wholesome, high quality product for body and soul. This is directly in line with what the Torah teaches, as we see many times in Torah we must guard our health to be able to keep our bodies in good physical shape so that we can use this energy to better serve G-d.

Rabbi Yitzchak Hanoka is a Rabbinic Coordinator with the OK Kosher Certification.