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The Changing Face of Kashruth in the Light
of Modern Technology


The Changing Face of Kashruth in the Light
of Modern Technology

An interview with Rabbi Sholem Fishbane - cRc Kashruth Administrator by Avy Meyers, editor of Jewish Chicago (2002)

Rabbi Sholem Fishbane has been the Kashruth Administrator of the Chicago Rabbinical Council since September of 2001. He is originally from Chicago. Prior to returning here, he was working in Buffalo as the spiritual leader of the Saranac Synagogue.

Tell us about your background.

I am originally from Chicago. I had been living in Israel for five years, where I attended a Rabbinic Training course called Ohr LaGola. This is a two-year course in which students are paid a stipend and trained in community work to become a community Rabbi, religious studies teacher, psychologist, outreach worker, etc. After finishing training there, students are asked to use their skills to assist Jewish communities throughout the world.

After five years in Buffalo of intensive work and gaining much experience in the field of kashrut, the opportunity arose for me to become the administrator of the Chicago Rabbinical Council. We thought the educational opportunities available in the larger Chicago community would be beneficial for our four children; therefore, we welcomed this challenge.

How have things gone so far?

It has been an exciting year. This is a job that requires much balancing and organization. There are really two parts to the organization. One part is supervising the companies, the plants, and the manufacturers. The second part, which is a whole different world, is the food service industry which includes restaurants, bakeries, and catering. We have an excellent rabbi who supervises food service: Rabbi Yaakov Eisenbach. My time is spent trying to administrate both sides of this operation simultaneously.

I am also involved with the cRc as an organization. There are many facets to the cRc at large. For example the cRc recently organized a very successful singles weekend.

Throughout the world, there are many Kashruth supervisors working for the cRc. Next month I am scheduled to be in Spain and Belgium to review some of our plants.

What type of plants does the cRc supervise in Spain and Belgium?

The cRc certifies Dr. Pepper, Seven-Up and Hawaiian Punch. Dr. Pepper/7Up is based out of St. Louis, where it makes the base for its drinks. The company has a sister plant in Spain that provides some ingredients to its U.S. plant. For this reason we must be in Spain in order to oversee the company's operation.

Among other companies that we have in that area is a chocolate company, as well as one that produces flavors. I will be conducting an initial inspection in Valencia, Spain for an alcohol company that recently applied for certification.

Tell me about other kosher-certifying agencies and their relationship with cRc.

There are currently 445 kosher supervising agencies in the world. The big five are the OU, OK, Star K, Kof K and the cRc. We all work together to try to maintain similar standards. When visiting a company and reviewing its raw materials, the mashgiach (rabbinic field supervisor) will notice up to 50 different products with different kosher certifications!

Unfortunately, some of the 445 agencies are not necessarily recommended by us. Claiming something is kosher or not kosher is no longer just a matter of being a G-d- fearing person or knowing Yoreh Deah (a tome of Jewish law). A very big part of hashgacha (supervision) is knowledge of technology and machinery. We have had numerous experiences of our staff going into a plant where another agency--sometimes very sincere people--is supervising a special kosher run, but we were able to point out very serious problems. If the other agency's mashgiach was knowledgeable in this machinery's technology, he would know there is no way for this machine to be kosher.

For example, some machines have certain non-visible materials (like a ceramic bolt) that cannot be kashered, so a mashgiach really needs to know the makings of the machine and how it works. Presently we have more than 35,000 formulas in a database.

Also, just because one part of the machine registers 212 degrees (the boiling point) and is being kashered, that doesn't mean there isn't another part of it that is, in truth, a much lesser temperature.

The mashgiach also needs to have a working knowledge of steam systems. That is where the cRc expertise comes in. If the company is making a non-kosher product at the plant, we would take out a map of steam lines and traps to see how that non-kosher production could affect our kosher product.

In my opinion, a good hashgacha today is when someone is in contact with the lab technicians all over America and also is proactive in the food industry. If you look at my wall, I have a certificate in dryer technology. I went to the University of Wisconsin to understand how to run, build, clean—everything about driers.

A spray dryer takes a liquid product and converts it to a powder. Almost everything we eat has some kind of dry product. Companies can't send bulk liquids, so they dry their products. Something as simple as eggs or milk could be spray-dried.

Since a spray dryer can cost up to several million dollars, a company will spray-dry a vast array of different products using a single machine. Many of these products can be dairy or non-kosher; kashering is necessary between different product runs due to the spray dryer's high operating temperature. An active part of being an responsible kosher supervising agency is being knowledgeable in the spray-drying field.

How does the cRc keep track of all its companies' ingredients and formulas?

The cRc has spent a tremendous amount of time and money to develop our own Kashrus computer system. It has been designed to track all of the ingredients used by the hundreds of plants we certify.. The certification status and a host of other information can be tracked for each ingredient entry. Such a list can be manipulated and sorted in a variety of ways, allowing us to to check the kosher status of different vendors. Ingredients coming from unacceptable hechsharim can be easily flagged. Presently we have over 55,000 ingredients in our data base.

Formulas can be entered into our system as well. Each formula can be entered by individual component ingredients, and the computer can tally the status of each, providing an overall determination of the product status, be it pareve, dairy, meat, or non-kosher due either to a non-kosher ingredient in the formula or the presence of both dairy and meat ingredients. Presently we have over 35,000 formulas in our data base.

That is quite impressive. Is this type of computer system standard amongst the other supervising agencies?

Not at all. Many agencies don't have a workable computer system at all and others are working on developing such a system. We at the cRc are proud to say that our system is considered "state of the art" in the Kashrus world.

How important is the knowledge of chemistry for kashrut supervision?

It is very important that someone on the agency staff have a working knowledge of chemistry. We are fortunate to have on staff Rabbi Simcha Smolensky, a senior supervisor, who has a strong chemistry background.

How is the cRc kashrut staff structured?

Our organization has field Rabbis and Rabbinic coordinators. These Rabbinic coordinators are in charge of companies by definition.

Rabbi Moshe Kushner supervises our companies in the dairy industry. Rabbi Smolensky; the chemicals and flavor industry. Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer; bakeries, juices, and candy industry. Rabbi Yaakov Eisenbach; food service industry. Rabbi Moshe Moscowitz; spice industry. Each rabbinical coordinator develops expertise in his respective area. When a new company approaches us for kosher certification, the company is assigned to the rabbi with the knowledge in that particular field. That rabbi performs the initial inspection of the company and maintains supervision once the company receives cRc certification.

In addition, we are proud of the fact that our Rabbinic Coordinators do not spend all their time in the office doing administrative work. They spend a majority of their time inspecting plants, making visits, and furthering their knowledge of their particular industry.

Is a lot of traveling involved in your capacity as Kashrut Administrator?

In the next three weeks, I will be in Montreal, Europe and in New York for Kosherfest, which is a major convention in the kosher industry attended by tens of thousands of vendors, buyers, and kashrut organizations.

Then I will also attend the AKO convention. AKO is the Associated Kashrut Organizations and I am slated to be a speaker there to discuss the dairy industry. I do travel more than I would like to, and it is a challenge balancing administering on the office side and traveling. I try to limit my traveling to necessity.

In the old days, many people would just take a package and look at the ingredients to determine whether the product is kosher. I take it things are no longer that simple.

That is correct. Let me give you an example. We recently checked a name brand cherry soda. The ingredients listed only: water, sugar, cherry flavor and carbonation. It seems simple enough. Well, what is in that cherry flavor? First of all, it has sherry wine. It also has (which could be found in any flavor) something called castorium which comes from a beaver! And there was an additional ingredient called civet, which comes from a cat!

This concern for suspect ingredients touches much more than sodas. In so-called natural flavors, there can be some very non-kosher items. Ingredients can also be dairy. There is a sorbet (ice) with an ingredient list of sugar, water, raspberry purée and flavor. The flavor was actually dairy. The company was putting butter into that flavor.

Some might argue that since the amount of actual flavor is so small, perhaps it is nullified and presents no kashrut concerns. Logically, that doesn't makes sense. Something is only nullified if you don't taste it, you don't see it. With flavor, in order for it to be effective it is condensed and quite potent.

So I understand that this is not only a kashrut problem but indeed a concern for vegetarians. Ingredients listed only as "natural flavor" could include a "natural" meat product!

What about words like natural, as in natural flavoring? If a product has beaver and cat products in it, it doesn't sound natural.

"Natural flavors" must be derived, according to the FDA, "entirely from natural sources - from herbs, spices, fruits, vegetables, beef, chicken, yeast, bark, roots, etc." It is a natural byproduct.

So the word "natural" has no validity for the kosher consumer?


Glycerin comes from pig's hooves?

Glycerin can be derived either from animals or vegetables. But many companies that produce glycerin make both animal and vegetable glycerin, and such a company will not kasher its equipment between runs unless the company is under kosher supervision.

Let's continue our discussion of natural ingredients. Isn't a company required to list all its ingredients on a product label?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require flavor companies to disclose the ingredients in their additives, nor do companies, or for that matter, restaurants, that use those flavors need to divulge to the consumer what those flavors contain, so long as they are GRAS (generally regarded as safe). It is likely that some companies themselves may not know what goes into the flavors.

I've noticed a lot of companies from Mexico and South America have recently put kosher symbols on their products. Is there a reason for this type of movement toward more products receiving certification?

The economy is not great, and companies are looking for an edge. If you have the exact same product on the shelf and one is kosher, while the other is not, the percentage of people who will purchase the kosher product is very high. Kosher stands for quality. People perceive that kosher means cleanliness, so a company stands to benefit from certification. If a business in Mexico is trying to penetrate the American market, the investment in certification for the few dollars it costs to be certified—and it is not so expensive—it is well worth the investment. Indeed, the company would easily recoup its investment in certification due to the increase in sales.

Are their new avenues or paths in Kashruth that did not exist a few years ago?

Certainly. Things change all the time. For instance, butter was always kosher. It didn't need to have a kosher symbol on it because it can only be made from milk from a kosher animal.

It is not the case at all anymore. This is due to a cost saver that the butter industry discovered. If you take a cup of whole milk and separate the fat, the fat will be 10 percent sweet cream, and 90 percent whey. Since butter is made out of the cream, the dairy wants a high percentage of fat. The more fat there is, the higher the profit. Most companies that sell cream are places that produce other dairy products – like cheese factories. When making mozzarella or other hard cheeses (usually non-kosher), the company cooks the cheese in a bath of water. This method is done in order to get the right texture to the finished product; you may notice this in the cheese placed on Pizza. The excess fatty water is called cooker water and the fat volume is high.

Manufacturers have an incentive to place the cream from the cooker water into the cream that is going to produce the butter.

The cRc recently had a conference on this issue with the Eastern Wisconsin Cheese and Butter Associates, a major dairy industry organization. Other dairy groups attended from all over the country. We discussed possible ways of solving the problem and saving them money. This issue remains under discussion.

Are there some problems that are more common than others?

Finding people who are properly qualified, conscientious and good.

Could you tell us how cRc interacts with the kosher community in Chicago?

We are very proud of our standards here in Chicago. Many times we compare ourselves to other agency standards, and people from outside who come in say we have one the best standards in the Kashrus industry. It does not come easily. We are a not-for-profit organization, and we work hard for the community.

We frequently find ourselves caught in controversy and bear the brunt of the "messenger." Often it is the middleman who people come after, and the cRc is an easy target. But the truth is, if you come to the office you will see how much dedication we have for the community, our customers and our restaurants. It is not always appreciated, but we do it to benefit Chicago.

There is no question that the cRc has been growing greatly in respect over the years. Thank you very much, Rabbi Fishbane, for this informative interview. Is there anything you would like to add?

We invite kosher consumers to call our office anytime with any kashrus questions they may have, and to use our website,, for information on alcohol, soft drinks, Slurpees, Passover items, and a host of interesting kashrus topics.

Thank you so much, Avy and good luck with your paper.

Avy Meyers is an editor of Jewish Chicago