Keeping It Kosher in the Age of Corona

OU Rabbinic Field Representative Rabbi Moshe Perlmutter inspecting Allen Flavors Inc. in New Jersey. Photo: Meir Kruter

 

Soon after the coronavirus reached North America, life-saving restrictions began to reshape every aspect of our daily lives, Jewish communal and ritual activities included. Shuls were shuttered for months. Yeshivot and shidduch dating went online, and Pesach 2020 was different than any Pesach almost anyone could remember.

Meanwhile, a story of change and adaptability was unfolding behind the scenes at OU Kosher. The agency turned on a dime to keep its kosher supervision operations running smoothly, despite the massive disruptions of Covid-19. This success was, in great part, due to the efficiency and long arm of technology.

But kosher supervision could not survive on Zoom alone. It was the strength of the relationships between OU Kosher and its client companies that made the transition to a tech-based pandemic-era operation possible. As a result, kosher food from its certified plants remained available throughout the pandemic’s first year, and continued through its second.

The Start of the Pandemic

OU Kosher Senior Rabbinic Field Representative (RFR) Rabbi Simcha Smolensky was scheduled to fly to Turkey on March 12, 2020 to conduct a routine factory inspection. But on March 11, a local mashgiach phoned him with news of the first coronavirus cases in Istanbul, cautioning him about a possible airport lockdown.

“I decided it wasn’t worth the risk of getting stuck there,” remembers Rabbi Smolensky, who is based in Chicago. He would have no regrets. The pandemic brought the world to a screeching halt that week.

OU Kosher’s New York offices shut down, its staff decamping to work at home. Travel restrictions, border closures and shelter-in-place orders grounded its global network of over 900 RFRs. Factories locked their doors to inspections.

Under normal conditions, agency policy is to drop supervision if mashgichim have no access to a plant. But it was the height of a pandemic. OU Rabbinic Coordinator (RC) Rabbi Chaim Goldberg, the OU’s fish expert, says, “We did not want to do that to our companies, nor did we want a return to 1950s kashrus, leaving the kosher consumer to read labels and hope for the best.”

Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO, OU Kosher

OU Kosher CEO Rabbi Menachem Genack’s top priority became figuring out “how to continue operations until we could get our personnel back in the door.”

In order to proceed, OU Kosher had to evaluate each facility individually. It had to suspend supervision when it could not guarantee adherence to protocols without an in-person inspection. It cancelled limited product runs, like special cholov Yisrael lines and dropped a cheese company when plants would not accommodate the required presence of a mashgiach temidi.

Virtual inspections took place. But they worked effectively only because kashrus supervisors already had well-established relationships with the companies in their bailiwick, and factory-specific supervision protocols were long in place. As such, they posed mostly the same potential stumbling blocks as on-site ones.

RC Rabbi Mordechai Stareshefsky points out, “We knew the people and the ins and outs of our plants, and where they might be hiding problematic ingredients. We were able to continue supervision without too much additional concern, despite the limitations.”

While individual plants may have posed specific challenges as OU Kosher moved to tech-based inspections, there was one major obstacle it faced everywhere. “Factories are hollow caves. They have terrible WiFi,” says Rabbi Stareshefsky, who travels regularly to visit the over 229 companies and 400 plants he supervises.

Another unavoidable obstacle of a virtual tour is the fact that smartphone video signals are often disturbed when passing electrical motors or concrete-and-steel work areas, or inside all-metal buildings. RFR Rabbi Gabe Brojges, who inspects plants in Western Canada and several western US locations, says this simply requires extra “patience to collect sufficient views of the items you are focusing on.”

Some plants installed routers to help resolve several of these issues. Meanwhile, OU Kosher’s own operations went high-tech almost overnight—a new world for a good number of its mashgichim, who had never heard of Zoom, Google Duo, BlueJeans or other videoconferencing and screensharing apps.

For twenty-five-year-veteran RFR Rabbi Dovid Rosen, who covers the Maritimes, Ontario, parts of New England and his home province of Quebec, the shift was life-changing. “I was old school before, but now I really rely on technology.”

A Virtual Shift

Rabbi Perlmutter with a factory worker at Allen Flavors Inc. Photo: Meir Kruter

Many people still envision a food company as a glorified kitchen where workers select ingredients, blend them together, and then cook or bake a product, using some discretion in the process, according to Rabbi Gavriel Price, an RC in the OU’s Ingredients Department. But to participate in today’s global food supply chain, the trend is for companies to put in place increasingly rigorous quality control systems that monitor every single aspect of production.

“People fail to notice that the retail products we eat—whether orange juice, ice cream or potato chips—are remarkably consistent in both their taste and quality,” Rabbi Price says. “This consistency is the result of an extraordinary infrastructure of quality and safety systems that inform ingredient production at multiple steps along the supply chain.”

Most relevant to kashrus, he points out, is that these systems are driven by software management programs that provide robust quality and safety controls. For example, they allow only select ingredients to be used on specified equipment, and in some cases, limit which operators may perform tasks in the production process.

While food production was once a “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants operation,” Rabbi Stareshefsky adds that yearly quality audits are now required for companies to earn SQF (Safe Quality Food) or HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) certification. Most big corporations and supermarket chains will only accept products made in plants covered by these audits. “Everyone relies on them,” he says.

What this means is that there are multiple ways for a kosher supervisor to know what is happening at a plant. Every ingredient that enters a factory, when and where it is used—all this information is accessible through a company’s computer system. “Traceability reports, activity logs, and production schedules are all part and parcel of a modern manufacturing facility,” says Rabbi Stareshefsky. While the onsite presence of an RFR remains critical, those visits can be supplemented in a vigorous way by the auditing of data that has been accessed remotely.

What’s involved in a data audit? Rabbi Price explains that generally, he will ask his contact at a plant to screen share the entire history of various ingredients—when they were purchased, from whom, in what quantity, what products they went into, and on what date. He insists on documentation that independently substantiates the claims; for example, a Bill of Lading traces the chain of custody of each ingredient. Because he only identifies the ingredients at the time of the audit and goes through them one by one, the process is meticulous and time-consuming. But he is learning how to make the audits shorter while equally effective. Meanwhile, the companies have become more flexible, opening their internal systems in order to remain on good terms with kashrus auditors during the challenging period of the pandemic.

Back on the Factory Floor

Most factories reopened by mid-May 2020, though mashgichim continued with virtual inspections of plants that remained shut, and when travel or an on-site visit posed a health risk. Rabbis might even arrive at a plant, only to be barred at the door due to a sudden uptick in cases.

Rabbi Moshe Elefant, COO, OU Kosher

“We have always prioritized the safety and well-being of our mashgichim, and the pandemic has been no exception,” says OU Kosher COO Rabbi Moshe Elefant. “I’ve told them not to go if they are uneasy. They aren’t saving lives. If people didn’t get their favorite nosh, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world, though everyone has gotten their nosh.”

Still, it has not been business as usual. Rabbi Genack insisted from the outset that supervisors stay abreast of frequently changing state laws and Covid safety requirements, including quarantine rules. Corporate policies have determined what happens at the plants themselves. In some factories, PPE was already de rigueur for sanitary purposes. Social distancing, face shields, temperature checks and medical questionnaires set new standards for everyone’s safety.

As of this past March, San Diego-based RFR Rabbi Aharon Shapiro was still conducting inspections in northern Mexico virtually, though he was able to visit most of his ninety-five plants in the southwestern US in person. He used to fly to Phoenix, but during the past year, the plants there asked him to drive instead; two-day trips became three-day trips or longer.

Rabbi Rosen resumed on-site inspections at half of his plants in the fall. Though the Maritimes remained closed to all but essential workers, one company managed to get authorization for him to come in. However, they had to follow him from the airport to the hotel, bring him anything he needed during his stay, and escort him back to the airport for his trip home to ensure he did not venture beyond the factory.

For plants overseas, OU Kosher often relies on local Chabad shluchim as well as mashgichim from Israel, though they have had limited access and freedom of movement at different points during the pandemic. Despite complications and restrictions, some kosher supervisors have also been able to resume limited travel abroad from the US.

“We have always prioritized the safety and well-being of our mashgichim, and the pandemic has been no exception.”—Rabbi Moshe Elefant, COO, OU Kosher

When an older mashgiach felt uncomfortable traveling to plants in Senegal and Ghana, Rabbi Goldberg went in his place, making two trips from New York to inspect a fish company. He spent nearly twenty-four hours masked while in transit and followed extensive Covid protocols at the factory. He also needed to time his PCR test exactly for his arrival in the country, though the rules for visitors kept changing, requiring vigilant rechecking of airline and government websites before his departure. “In a way, I took one for the team,” he says, “but in fact, this was a rare opportunity for me to travel to exotic countries.”

Food Service and the Pandemic

While food production is generally recession-proof, OU Kosher supervisors have witnessed both the inevitable economic impact of the pandemic on some of their companies and the remarkable resilience of others.

Slaughterhouses were affected early on, resulting in price increases that have since stabilized, and there was a dip in availability when Empire Kosher Poultry temporarily shut down in April 2020. But the food service industry specifically—producers of bulk onion rings, milk, cheese and packaged snacks, for example—was hard hit by lockdowns and other Covid-safety restrictions that kept restaurants closed for months, cut the size of catered events and negatively impacted tourism.

Rabbi Shapiro reports that in Arizona and Nevada in particular, factories supplying gas station minimarts struggled because those businesses saw a downturn with fewer people on the road. The same food service companies are no longer filling the vending machines on college campuses that have gone virtual.

One of Rabbi Stareshefsky’s clients, a spice company that received OU certification right before the start of the pandemic, has shown enormous adaptability. Sales dried up early on when wholesale customers no longer needed five-pound canisters of its spice blends. Yet the company quickly switched gears, developing a retail brand and a fast-growing Internet business.

Businesses with both wholesale and retail divisions have seen the latter increase as more people are cooking at home and online sales have skyrocketed. While retail has not made up for the gap totally, it has helped many OU-certified companies remain afloat.

The Human Touch

The good rapport rabbinic supervisors have developed with factory management over the years has made all the difference during the pandemic.

“I have always kept up personal relationships with my contacts at the plants,” says Rabbi Rosen. “They know who I am, and what to expect when I walk in. Together, we made this work.”

Rabbi Elefant agrees, emphasizing that OU Kosher has been doing what it can to help companies get comfortable with operational changes. “We knew everyone was struggling,” he says, “Though we’ve always aimed to, it’s the time to really put menschlichkeit first, to make a kiddush Hashem.”

Rabbi Genack credits his team’s adaptability—from going high-tech overnight to finding new ways to leverage a factory’s data management system—for enabling OU Kosher to maintain the same high standards behind the OU product label as before the pandemic. 

Several non-Jewish plant managers have used the opportunity of Rabbi Shapiro’s site visits to seek his spiritual guidance as they face the painful challenges of the pandemic. “We Jews have a history of these kinds of communal crises; non-Jews, less so. People are looking for answers, to understand why this is happening, for perspective and understanding,” he reflects. “I am grateful that they see in our relationship an opening to discuss big questions they are grappling with, perhaps for the first time in their lives.”

Over the course of the past year and a half, Rabbi Price has noticed an interesting paradox. “The experience  has motivated us to regroup as an organization by leveraging modern technology to our greater advantage. But we have also come to appreciate more than ever how indispensable our field representatives are to the nuts and bolts of kashrus, to our relationships with our companies, and what their human touch really can accomplish.”

Pesach Prep

Jewish communities braced for Pesach in 2020 as travel plans and invitations were cancelled at the eleventh hour. Many individuals and families who had never made the holiday at home rushed to order new pots and pans on Amazon. But how could they toivel them when the kelim mikvah was closed due to Covid?

OU Kosher quickly updated its online resources (the OU Passover Guide 2020 was already in print) to help answer a flood of unprecedented questions. Though not intended to replace a halachic advisor, OU Kosher staff offered a basic framework for navigating Pesach preparations under the extenuating circumstances of a pandemic.

Luckily, Covid had almost no impact on Pesach food availability because “the calendar worked in our favor, both last year and this year,” says Rabbi Elefant. Most kosher for Passover food is manufactured during the period just after the Yamim Noraim and before Chanukah. So 2020 production was completed before the pandemic, and US factories had mostly reopened by the fall, allowing for a mashgiach temidi to oversee OU Kosher’s Passover 2021 certification. In Israel, too, Pesach production proceeded as normal despite a huge Covid surge because the country considers mashgichim essential workers.

There were no significant shortages heading into this Pesach. “Even the Coke was ready well in advance,” Rabbi Elefant reported.

Silver Linings and the Future

“Technology has proven the silver lining of a painful pandemic,” says Rabbi Smolensky.

For starters, the operational changes implemented to safeguard kashrus when plants first closed down following the outbreak of Covid-19 are steadily being integrated into the way OU Kosher does business for the long-term. “Forensic auditing is now more of an integral part of our protocols,” says Rabbi Elefant. But there has been wide-reaching impact within OU Kosher that goes well beyond the way its supervisors conduct factory inspections.

Masghichim have become far more tech savvy, making it possible for them to conduct remote audits. The added benefit, however, is that it has increased their broader knowledge of kashrus by giving them more opportunities to learn from one another.

Rabbi Genack’s weekly in-house meetings with his team of rabbinic coordinators moved from a conference room to an online conference call last March. Rather than narrowing the scope of those discussions, Zoom broadened them. “More people are engaged in dialogue about kashrus issues. It’s proven more inclusive and more effective,” he observes.

Also, rabbinic coordinators now virtually accompany RFRs and mashgichim on both virtual and on-site plant inspections. The change has expanded the number of OU Kosher staff who “travel,” giving them more in-depth familiarity with certified plants. Borders have dissolved, too, as mashgichim who were once considered specific to one region have begun using remote sessions to assist in other locations.

Rabbi Genack credits his team’s adaptability—from going high-tech overnight to finding new ways to leverage a factory’s data management system—for enabling OU Kosher to maintain the same high standards behind the OU product label as before.

He adds, “These short-term changes are becoming part of the fundamental way we operate, and they will strengthen our certification going forward.”

Merri Ukraincik has written for the Forward, the New York Jewish WeekHevria, the Wisdom DailyTablet and other publications, including Jewish Action. She is the author of I Live. Send Help, a history of the Joint Distribution Committee.

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Mashgiach on the Go

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This article was featured in the Summer 2021 issue of Jewish Action.
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