LaBriute Meals expanded its position in the kosher foodservice niche by specializing in self-heating, shelf-stable meals.
Certain ingredients in kosher processing must be supervised at all times by the certifier (mashgiach). Meat is especially critical, due to the rules of ritual slaughter, purity of the animal and strict separation of meat and dairy commanded by Jewish law. And, of course, the overall need to distinguish kosher from non-kosher meat.
"Many people think of kosher certification as simply coming in to 'bless' the kitchen," says Rabbi Reuven Flamer, CEO of Natural Food Certifiers Inc., Spring Valley, N.Y., the first natural and USDA-organic food kosher certification company. "Kosher is certification to physically inspect that every step and ingredient complies with the Kosher laws that ensure pure foods.
A systemic situation
The separation of meat and dairy extends to the equipment as well. For example, a nondairy yogurt-like product may not have an iota of dairy in the formulation, but if the equipment or, even in some cases, the preparation surfaces have contact with dairy, then the product is considered dairy.
"If you prepare kosher and nonkosher in the same facility and use the same equipment, the certifying rabbi must kasher ("kosherize") all the surfaces, utensils and equipment and then recertify them. And recertification may occur only after a 24-hour 'down' period," says Flamer. "Most processors don't know that the exhaust vent and filters over preparation surfaces and vessels need to be inspected as well," he adds.
(Courtesy of Lubicom Inc.)
Rabbi Flamer recalls one situation where a large manufacturer was doing mass production for foodservice and hit just such a snag. "A single-boiler, multi-vessel return-steam system for double-jacketed vessels was in use and the steam was originating three rooms away in a nonkosher set-up in the facility. Heat, being a transferring agent, can cause contamination because of the condensate. The steam was routed via a vessel in which nonkosher food was prepared, rendering the equipment using the steam unkosher. We fixed the problem by using a boiler additive - usually a bitter or noxious chemical, such as chlorine."
Fresh leafy greens also can be problem sources. According to Jewish Law, a whole insect is considered as offensive as pork. All fresh produce must be inspected. But items such as leafy greens and berries - where insects can easily hide - must be rigorously checked.
"Insect infestation is affected by issues such as season and climate. Inspecting lettuces and other leafy greens for bugs, especially extremely small ones, such as aphids, can be tedious and expensive," says the OU's Genack.
"The light box has become standard. It's an OU innovation we developed to make the process easier and more efficient," Genack notes. Also, the work must be preformed by a mashgiach, which means an added full-time position for the processor.
Case in point
As daunting as kosher foodservice may appear, it's growing for good reason. "Soul Vegetarian sought to have our products meet kosher requirements for several purposes," says Laura Gaines, president of Soul Vegetarian Food Products Inc., Los Angeles. "Kosher certification instills confidence that the products meet religious and ethical dietary requirements. But it is also represents another level of the high quality we continue to achieve with our organic, kosher, vegetarian/vegan foods."
There are hundreds of different hechshers - that is, kosher certification seals - in use all over the world. Many states, and even large cities, have their own kosher oversight group. Different organizations apply different levels of strictness in their adherence to kosher laws, so research is in order to find the kosher organization that best fits your needs. Some of the larger kosher certifying agencies are:
Gaines points out that the foodservice industry serves consumers who don't have the opportunity to check labeling. "When we began presenting to entities such as hotels and universities, we found the demand was very high for organic and even more so for kosher foods," she says. "Being kosher, we can serve a wider variety of foodservice consumers."
The biggest challenge for Soul Vegetarian was sourcing ingredients and manufacturers willing to comply with the rigorous requirements to produce organic and kosher foods. "We are constantly challenged to source ingredients that meet our high standards," Gaines says.
The effort paid off. "Our initial forays into foodservice have enabled us to serve senior living centers, long-term care facilities, hospitality venues, employee dining facilities, restaurants, event catering and other institutional and foodservice categories. We are presently being distributed in a few key markets. As we expand, we are continually seeking new foodservice opportunities and distribution."
|Kosher Food Production, by Rabbi Zushe Blech (Blackwell Publishing, 2004; www.blackwellpublishing.com). Includes both basic kosher laws and theory plus details essential food-production procedures required of modern food plants to meet kosher certification standards.|
"The certification was well worth it," Gaines says. "It allows us to tout our products as the purest quality available. Health-conscious consumers are seeking foods that are nutritious and prepared in a safe manner. Kosher represents that, even to non-Jewish consumers. The kosher certification has expanded our market."
Rabbi Flamer says processors should not be discouraged. "A company shouldn't think that going kosher is insurmountable - thousands of companies are doing it. And it can be a lucrative market. It's definitely worth looking into."