Excerpt from Dovid Zaklikowski’s new book.
According to folklore, the original formula for Dr. Pepper was cut in half and held in the vaults of two banks in Dallas, Texas. During his 1976 visit to the Dallas syrup plant, however, there was no hiding the ingredients of the sugary soft drink from Rabbi Levy.
“Kosher supervision today is rather complicated,” Rabbi Levy told the New York Times. “We must know the highly secret formulas of synthetic flavorings, as well as who is selling and who is buying from whom.”
In a profile written at the time, Dial-Clock Magazine dubbed Rabbi Levy “the Sherlock Holmes of the food industry.” The “smiling, black-hatted, bearded rabbi is at home between large beverage-production equipment,” the reporter wrote. “He pokes his fingers into pipes, smells the compounds and tastes other raw ingredients. Rabbi Levy’s knowledge of food technology is current to the latest information on natural and synthetic flavorings and compounds, and he has considerable knowledge of beverage chemistry.”
Dr. Pepper is the oldest of the major soft drink brands in the United States. It was originally developed and sold out of a Texas pharmacy, until the demand for it exceeded the pharmacy’s production capacity. The drink gained international recognition at the 1904 World’s Fair Exposition, the same expo that featured the hamburger bun and the ice cream cone.
The soda company first sought kosher supervision in 1970. At the time, Rabbi Levy was waging a campaign to educate kosher consumers about the need to know where a product’s ingredients came from and how it was made before pronouncing it kosher.
Dial-Clock testified that Rabbi Levy made sure that anything the product came into contact with during production was kosher. “His inquiry is probably as comprehensive as one devised by any battery of inspectors.”
He told the magazine that there were no ingredients that would make Dr. Pepper non-kosher, but the concern was that the raw ingredients might be made in the same place where non-kosher animal derivatives or meat and dairy products were manufactured. In such a case, the reporter wrote, the “preparation vessels and mixing tanks are purged with boiling water, [a process] witnessed by Rabbi Levy.”
In a 1975 profile, the New York Times reported on the OK’s supervision of the General Foods Corporation, maker of Post cereals. “You have to have a thorough knowledge of food technology and food chemistry,” Rabbi Levy told the paper. “If you are not up to date on these aspects, you can be most knowledgeable on Jewish law, but not qualified to do this work.”
The rabbi lived in both worlds: in books of Jewish law and in consultation with the great rabbinical leaders of his generation, and in the world of food chemistry and manufacturing. “Those who are in the field,” he wrote in 1985, “must be extremely knowledgeable in modern food technology. Changes in formulas are made every day.”
Every Ingredient Rabbi Levy was a master of detail. From his small home office in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, where with his wife, Thelma, he ran the financial division of the business, he created policies that applied to any company the OK certified, and he made every effort to ensure that they were followed. When they were not, kosher certification was immediately revoked.
“He had no patience for anything but the optimum standards on compliance and efficiency,” recalled Ira Axelrod, a long-time kosher supervisor who accompanied Rabbi Levy on visits to factories and today works for the Star-K. “I am sure he was well aware of the fact that he would not win popularity contests in many a place, but that was not his role; ensuring kosher was.”
His refusal to bend under pressure and his knowledge of the food industry earned Rabbi Levy the respect of the companies he worked with. But he also did his best to accommodate their needs whenever possible. “He didn’t just come down like a ton of bricks,” recalled his son Rabbi Don Yoel. “He would try to help them. He understood that you need to be tough, but you still need to remember that they are people.” If an ingredient turned out not to be kosher, the OK would work with the company to find an alternate supplier.
Rabbi Levy insisted on tracing every ingredient to its source, which was often a complicated endeavor. Processed food items sold in American stores may contain dozens, even hundreds, of ingredients. Many of these components are manufactured outside the United States, in dedicated factories that produce just one chemical or additive. Rabbi Levy became the first kosher supervisor to travel to all corners of the world on a kosher quest. “His seemingly endless energy, exhaustive investigations and phenomenal memory made him a walking encyclopedia of kosher information,” said Rabbi Don Yoel.
In 1979, Rabbi Levy told the New York Times that he had already logged millions of miles. The reporter described him as having “the sinews of a young man and the gray beard of a patriarch,” evidence of the fact that he spent three-quarters of the year away from home.
“He had just returned from West Germany,” the article continued, “where he looked into the production of kosher cysteine hydrochloride made from human hair provided by cooperative barbers.… Rabbi Levy stopped in Denmark to check on candy, and in the Netherlands to inspect cookies.… He thinks back also to his efforts in Japan (rennet), Taiwan (mushrooms), Spain (olive oil), England (sweets), Portugal (sardines) and Belgium (chocolates).”
By the 1980s, Rabbi Levy’s perseverance in investigating even basic ingredients had made him the face of kosher in America. “He was much more than the OU was; he was much stronger,” said Rabbi Yosef Wikler, publisher of Kashrus Magazine. He attributed Rabbi Levy’s dominance to his willingness to travel, as opposed to other agencies, “where a lot of people were sitting at home and making telephone calls.”
One of the ingredients Rabbi Levy investigated was oil. Natural oils were universally accepted as kosher by other agencies. “What could go wrong with coconut oil?” many in the industry said. But on visits to oil plants and other factories around the world, Rabbi Levy discovered that a lot could, and did, go wrong with oil.
Chief among Rabbi Levy’s concerns were the ships and ISO tankers that transported the oils. The tankers also carried lard, tallow, non-kosher refined glycerin and fatty acids. If kosher oil was placed in the tankers after such a shipment, it would be rendered non-kosher. To resolve this, Rabbi Levy introduced a system for monitoring the tankers, much of which is still used today.
Another concern was that factories often fried multiple foods in the same oil. Banana chips, for example, might seem perfectly innocuous, if one didn’t know that they were fried in the same oil as cheese rings, pork rinds and other non-kosher foods, Rabbi Levy wrote in 1981.
In fact, manufacturers were not even required to list the oil a product was fried in as an ingredient. One company told him that “as long as no vegetable shortening was used in the product, and the product was only cooked in vegetable shortening – or any other shortening – the law did not require the listing of the shortening as an ingredient on the package.” Shocked, Rabbi Levy wrote, “The company could be frying the product in lard and there need be no mention of it on the package, and they would not be breaking the law!”
In April 1974, Rabbi Levy recounted how one company had asked for certification, asserting that they used only vegetable fats in their baked goods. All the labels on their products made the same claim, and during Rabbi Levy’s visit, a company executive repeated it.
As they stepped into the factory, however, there in front of them was a row of newly stacked cartons of blended animal and vegetable fats. “What’s this?” Rabbi Levy asked. “It must be a mistake,” the executive stammered. “I really don’t know.”
“This is serious,” Rabbi Levy told him. “Your label states that you use only vegetable oil.” The executive responded, “We never said our products are kosher.”
For the company, it was simple economics: the prices of vegetable and animal fats at the time were fluctuating and competing with one another. At one point, the cost of animal fat was substantially below that of vegetable oil. “It was much more economical for the company to use animal fat blended with vegetable fat,” Rabbi Levy wrote.
While consumers relied on companies to disclose their ingredients, he explained, one could not always trust a label. Labels were expensive to print, and if a temporary change were made to the ingredients, the company would not destroy all their valuable labels.