Producing insect-free food products is one of the most challenging issues for kosher organizations. The main problem is the unique halachic status of insects and bugs.
Bugs and insects are different, according to Rabbi Ahron Haskel, Director of OK Israel. They are living creatures – beriya, and so – according to halacha – the concept of bitul doesn’t apply to them. “It doesn’t matter how few bugs there are or the size of the end product – it is still not kosher. Also, eating bugs and insects is actually worse than eating pork! The Torah prohibited pig products only once, but there are 5 specific prohibitions – lavim – which forbid eating bugs and insects.”
Despite the seriousness of the challenge and the many difficulties in trying to cope with it, the OK has decided not to shy away from tackling these issues. For about a decade, for instance, OK Israel had certified, with great investment and care, the frozen herbs produced by Dorot Garlic and Herbs. But this project, as well as others which focus on certifying herbs and products containing them, seem easy in comparison to the latest tasks undertaken by OK Israel.
The most prominent example is the pioneering project of producing kosher, insect-free corn on the cob.
“Corn on the cob is very problematic – usually when you cut one you will find worms and bugs hiding between the kernels and the cob,” says Rabbi Haskel. “In the past we didn’t know that this infestation was so ubiquitous. In recent years it has become common knowledge in Israel and so most kosher agencies will not certify corn on the cob as kosher. The problems there are just too well-known. Today, corn on the cob is considered ‘muchzak benegius’ – assumed to be infested with bugs.”
The OK, however, has decided to enter that uncharted territory, following a request from Strauss Group to find a way to import insect-free corn on the cob.
Rabbi Haim Ben Hamu, the head mashgiach of Strauss Group, tells us: “About a year and a half ago, the company applied to the OK and asked for its help in importing corn on the cob to Israel. The Chief Rabbinate didn’t allow it because of the insect issue and no agency agreed to undertake kosher supervision of the project. Rabbi Haskel agreed to try, even though it’s the riskiest kosher issue. Unlike with other products, it is very easy to check the quality of the certification by checking the produce to see whether it contains insects.
“Rabbi Haskel sent me to Thailand with another mashgiach to find out more about the possibility of producing kosher corn on the cob. We first visited the cornfields and found out that most insects enter the corn ears through the open part. Consequently, the younger and closer the corn ear is to the stalk, the lower the degree of infestation. So, we reached two conclusions: first, the corn should be harvested relatively early; and secondly, the upper third of the corn ear, which is near the opening, cannot be used.”
“The local facility was unhappy with our conclusions and at first refused to cooperate, but their client – Strauss – insisted they had to listen to us. So they did”.
To achieve insect-free corn on the cob, every production in Thailand begins with a mashgiach visiting the fields, checking that pesticides are being used properly, and ensuring that the bigger, drier, corn ears are not being harvested. Then, once the trucks with the corn ears reach the facility, they are checked again to make sure that the right kind of corn was harvested.
Each production is attended by four mashgichim. The ears of corn undergo various methods of cleaning. Later, they are cut into three parts; only the two bottom parts are used for the kosher production. They are cleaned twice more before packing. Throughout the production, the mashgichim sample the corn, checking each time that the cleaning procedures have indeed worked and the corn is free of infestation.
Once the products reach Israel, a significant sample is sent to the lab of infestation expert, Rabbi Vaye. “So far the results have been very encouraging,” says Rabbi Ben Hamu. “We haven’t yet started marketing it as 100% insect-free, but I think we are very close to reaching this goal.” Indeed, during the very week we interviewed Rabbi Haskel, he sent us the new report from Rabbi Vaye’s lab: the last sample was found to be 100% bug-free!
If corn on the cob has been a clear no-no for frum people in recent years, strawberries have posed their own unique problems. While there no complete ban on consumption, the current kosher recommendation in Israel is to peel the entire strawberry before eating. This, however, proved a major obstacle for one of the OK’s biggest clients in Israel, Tara/Muller, a part of Coca Cola Israel Group. One of the most popular Muller products is a yogurt with strawberry pieces.
“Certifying this yogurt was a challenge,” says Rabbi Yanki Hoffman, the rabbi in charge of the strawberry project. “In recent years we have learned that strawberries come replete with tiny bugs, which are very hard to detect.”
As usual, though, the OK decided to try. The first stage was sending Rabbi Hoffman to the strawberry fields in Europe, from which Muller purchases its strawberries. “We found out that some fields were considerably less infested and so we only approved those field. In Europe there is a tracking system which makes is easy to know from where produce comes, and we have taken advantage of that.”
Once the strawberries are in the facility, they go through a number of cleaning processes, each designed to get rid of a specific insect. At the end of the process, says Rabbi Hoffman confidently, “there are zero insects in the strawberries.”
In every production, three rabbis who are experts in this field are present and they take a huge sample of the strawberries to check for any bugs. “There is no bitul when it comes to bugs, but there is a halachic term which means ‘not common’. If bugs are not common in a certain food, then one is allowed to eat the food. The most stringent kosher agencies in Israel will certify strawberries as kosher if they find no more than 3 bugs per 300 strawberries. We find no more than one in a thousand!” says Rabbi Hoffman.
“These kosher projects are indeed unique,” says Rabbi Haskel in conclusion. “Sometimes, the differences between lamehadrin kosher agencies are subtle. People might avoid a certain certification, but they know they will not be violating Torah laws if they ever do eat something certified by that agency. The case is very different for fruits and vegetables that are infested with bugs. For instance, you can break 5 lavim with every bite of infested corn on the cob.
“These projects are not easy for us. They are extremely costly – which is why only big companies can afford them. And they demand huge effort and investment on our part. But, in the rare cases when the client is fully committed, we will undertake the task, as hard as it is, in order to save Jews from eating insects. These difficult kosher productions are really leshem shamayim.”