Passover makes rabbi into kosher cop

The Pinellas rabbi visits various food companies to ensure adherence to the holiday's strict rules.

By Nicole Hutcheson, Times Staff Writer
Published March 26, 2007

BRADENTON - Rabbi Shalom Adler slips a thin net over his short red hair and black yarmulke. Another over his bushy beard. He pops in bright orange earplugs. A pair of bulky protective goggles cover his wire-framed spectacles.

Inspector Rabbi is now in service.

For the past several weeks, Adler, co-director of the Chabad of Pinellas County, has brought his rabbinical knowledge of Jewish dietary law to the Tropicana plant in Bradenton.

Adler, who works for the Organized Kosher certification company, inspects the production of a special run of kosher-for-Passover orange juice.

Year-round, most of Tropicana's products meet kosher standards. But to prepare for the eight-day Passover holiday, which begins April 2, the company takes it kosherization process several steps further, designating two separate assembly lines just for production of the juice.

Tropicana's moves underscore a broader push in the food industry to make more kosher foods available, particularly kosher-for-Passover varieties.

A decade ago there were about 60,000 kosher products available in supermarkets; today it's more than 100,000, reports Lubicom Marketing Consulting, a food industry tracker in Brooklyn, N.Y., that publishes the weekly newsletter Kosher Today.

Industry types attribute the surge in kosher goods to the outgrowth of the Orthodox Jewish community in the United States beyond the traditional base of New York in addition to a more health-conscious non-Jewish consumer base embracing kosher foods for a perceived nutritional benefit.

"There are people who like kosher deli or pickles and Muslims who don't eat pork and might find eating kosher as a convenient way to adhere to their religion," said Menachem Lubinsky, president of Lubicom Marketing. "Kosher has benefited from all of these dynamics coming into play at the same time."

Out of an estimated $250-billion worth of kosher food sales annually, more than 40 percent take place during the Passover season, Lubinsky said.

Food companies and grocers are taking their kosher expansion further and tapping into the Passover market. Doing so means "connecting with potential customers even after Passover," Lubinksy said.

Well-known companies like Coca-Cola and Starbucks are now designating some products as kosher-for-Passover. Coca-Cola, which switches out corn syrup for pure cane sugar in its Classic Coke during Passover, distinguishes the bottles with a distinctive yellow cap, according to the Orthodox Union, another company that certifies the company's products.

Their logo, a circle with the letter "U" inside, can be found on hundreds of products.

It's estimated that 70 percent of Jews in the U.S. partake in some form of Passover observance, surpassing even the holiest of Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur.

Passover commemorates the Israelites exodus from Egypt. The slaves fled so quickly that the breads they were baking didn't have time to rise, according to the Torah. During the Passover period, in honoring ancestors, Jews abstain from eating chametz, or leavened foods made from wheat, and grain products. Matzah, a flat crackerlike bread made from flour and water, is a common replacement. Jews of European descent also eliminate kitniyot, or legumes such as rice, corn, beans and peas, from their diet during Passover.

Jews are not to even come in contact with remnants of these ingredients. So, many households use an entirely different set of dishes and utensils as well.

Some orange juice blends contain citric acid and corn syrup. When making the Passover batch at Tropicana, the juice must exclude these ingredients, but the juice mix also must be kept totally separate from the production lines that carry the other juices.

All the Passover equipment must be sterilized with heat prior to use, including tankers that transport the juice, the assembly line and equipment used in packaging. From late February through early April, the plant produces about 4-million gallons of juice that meet Passover standards. The company's Pure Premium brands - Original, Homestyle and Grovestand - feature the kosher-for-Passover symbol.

"Tropicana, as the category leader, identified some time ago the need for these juices to respond to consumer and customer needs," said Malcolm Cofer, Tropicana quality supervisor.

Rabbi Adler has worked for the OK certification company for about five years. Companies such as Tropicana, which is owned by Pepsi, rely on companies like OK and the Orthodox Union to keep their Kosher certifications. To maintain the designation, companies are monitored by OK representatives on a regular basis. They also must pay a fee depending on the complexity of the kosherization process.

"Part of our job here is to give support," said Rabbi Yossi Pels, an executive account manager for OK, also based in Brooklyn, but has offices worldwide. "It might be complicated if they don't have the necessary support, so the rabbis offer this guidance."

OK representatives receive training including identifying the origin of various ingredients used in foods and food processing. Representatives are then assigned to companies based on their geographic location.

On a recent Thursday morning at Tropicana, Adler sloshed around in the orange juice mixed with soap suds on the packing area floor. Assembly lines rolled past carrying carton after carton of juice. Adler stayed focused on Lines 4 and 5, which carry the kosher-for-Passover supply. Each morning during the season, the plant e-mails the rabbi a spreadsheet of what juice will run on which production line. Occasionally he asks to see sterilization records. With the start of Passover only a week or so away, it's crunch time.

"I feel that responsibility knowing that tens of thousands of people will be bringing a product in their house which I'm saying is permitted for them to use," he said. "If I make a mistake all of those things are on my shoulders."

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at nhutcheson@sptimes.com">href="mailto:nhutcheson@sptimes.com" mce_href="mailto:nhutcheson@sptimes.com">nhutcheson@sptimes.com or 727445-4162.

Fast Facts

Kosher for Passover rules

During Passover, Jewish law forbids the consumption or possession by Jews of all edible fermented grain products (chametz) or related foods. Therefore, even foods and household products that meet the strict, year-round dietary regulations, and are considered kosher, are nevertheless often unacceptable, or require special preparation for Passover use in the Jewish home in order to be kosher for Passover

Source: Orthodox Union guide to kosher for Passover

Companies that produce kosher products







Maxwell House

OK Kosher Certification Co.

Headquartered in Brooklyn, N.Y., with a staff of more than 50 in administration, data entry, ingredient management, rabbinical oversight and account managers; 350 rabbinical representatives worldwide, including North and South America, Canada, Eastern and Western Europe, China and India.

Companies are certified after an application process. Maintaining certification includes followup visits and a fee depending on the complexity of the kosherization process.

OK certifies more than 114,000 products, produced by over 1,500 companies.