We usually use this forum to discuss important issues concerning various types of kosher foods, their production methods, equipment, etc. But another vital issue that must be addressed is transport. How do kosher products get from one factory to the next and, ultimately, to stores and your kosher kitchen?

The food that reaches our table may come in a box, glass bottle, plastic bottle, or similar one-time use container. These containers are disposable, and generally do not present a kashrus issue. Even soda and beer bottles and the like, which are returned for a five cent deposit are recycled and melted down (at very high temperatures) into new products, so again there is no kashrus concern. (For Pesach, bottle return could present a problem, so we ensure use of new bottles for Pesach.)

In food production facilities, ingredients may also come packaged in cartons, disposable drums, totes, bags etc. Generally speaking, these packages are one-time use containers, similar to the disposable packaging found in your home. Therefore, these containers do not usually present any kashrus concern.

Nowadays, however, there are a myriad of ingredients used in the production of kosher foods that are not packaged at all. Rather, these bulk ingredients are transported from their production sites to other factories or to storage facilities via trucks, trains, or tankers.

Some bulk ingredients are transported cold and others are heated during transport. According to Jewish law, when hot non-kosher products are kept in a vessel, the walls of that vessel absorb the non-kosher material. When a hot (kosher) product is subsequently placed into that vessel, the non-kosher within its walls is transferred to the product, rendering it not kosher. This is true for trucks, rail cars and tankers, as well as general holding tanks where bulk products may be stored until use.

Therefore, the kashrus industry must monitor that the tanks used for kosher transport are used only for kosher ingredients. If non-kosher products have been transported or stored in a tank, that tank needs to be kosherized before it can be used for hot kosher product.

Over twenty-five years ago, in the early 1980s, when we realized that potentially problematic tankers and railcars transported oils and other ingredients, an official system was set up in the USA to monitor trucks transporting domestically.

Even before that time, my father, Rabbi Berel Levy ob”m, was already a pioneer in visiting companies in the Far East whose tropical oils were being shipped to the USA. He discovered that oils were shipped from the Far East on big tankers and brought to various ports in Europe and the USA, and there was no monitoring of these tankers at all. Understanding the seriousness of this situation, my Father began to investigate.

The first step was to collect information about the ships and how they operate. It was not easy, as the information we got from the various shipping companies was not always consistent.

For example, we visited a large shipping company on the East Coast and were told that ships bringing in oils from the Far East usually went back and forth between the Far East and the West Coast, boats traveling from Europe came only to the East Coast.

At that time, before the onset of “Mad Cow Disease,” animal products were extremely prevalent in Europe. Fish oil was also widely used at the time. So the OK further inquired about the shipping routes of boats bringing in oils from the Far East, and they assured us that the boats definitely traveled the pattern described above – from the Far East to the West Coast and from Europe to the East Coast.

From the information we had then (information which proved to be not so accurate), we could assume that virtually no animal products were being shipped to and from the Far East, as they were between Europe and the East Coast. If ships traveling between Europe and the East Coast did not go to the Far East, it seemed to alleviate the problem of kosher transport from that part of the world. Unfortunately, though, it was not true.

At the time of my investigations, I asked to visit a ship, and it was arranged for me to visit a ship in the New York area. Imagine my surprise and distress when the captain informed me that the ship was on an around-the-world trip!

Clearly, we needed to know the previous cargoes of the ships bringing kosher oils from the Far East, and elsewhere. My father, Rabbi Berel Levy ob”m, set up a rudimentary system, with the advice and guidance of Hagaon Reb Moshe Feinstein ob”m, which enabled the OK to amass the necessary data. We began to collect information on the types of cargoes that are commonly shipped. Today we have amassed a tremendous list of kosher and non-kosher cargoes.

Because it turned out to be quite complicated and difficult to collect a history of all the previous cargoes, based on the p’sak of Rav Moshe Feinstein ob”m, we established a system of checking at least the last three cargoes. If these are acceptable for kosher, we can consider the tank suitable to transport or store kosher product.

A few years later, after my father’s untimely demise, I started visiting facilities in Europe, and discovered that they had absolutely no system at all for monitoring incoming oils.

Croklaan Oil Company (now IOI) invited me to visit their facility. I insisted on visiting the port at Rotterdam as well, where I realized that the problem extended beyond the ships’ tanks. The oils and fats arriving from the Far East were stored at huge tank “farms” in Rotterdam, which of course were not monitored for kosher. Although many kosher companies and agencies were producing oils in Europe, including the most respected kashrus organizations in Israel, NO ONE was checking the ships that brought the tropical oils from the Far East, or the storage facilities where they were being stored in non-kosher tanks.

Additionally, when the oils arrived at Rotterdam, they were offloaded to the storage facilities and factories via barges on the famous Dutch canal system, or by road tankers. Of course, the kosher status of the barges and road tankers also needed extensive monitoring.

Europe was a complete wilderness as far as transport was concerned. Our efforts were made more difficult by the fact that no other kosher agencies required kosher transport. Fortunately, our contact at Croklaan Oil, Mr. Jan Kat, completely understood the severity of the situation. He cooperated fully with the OK, and we worked very hard to set up a system to monitor the incoming ships, the tank farms, the barges and the road tankers.

In addition, it is worthwhile to note that today, in Europe, the OK is the only certification agency that monitors the transport of ingredients by road tankers.

Today the OK certifies many oil and oil by-products from the Far East, and we have a responsibility to kosher producers and consumers the world over to see that they are shipped in kosher transport. This aspect will be discussed at length in a future article in our series on this topic.