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Kosher & Computers - Luxury or Necessity?

By: Rabbi Simcha Smolensky

 

Much has been written in recent years about technology and kashrus. This has almost exclusively meant the discussion of various new food processing techniques and the implication of such techniques on kosher certification. An example of this has been the exploration of butter production now being done in such a manner as to cast serious doubts on the universal acceptability of butter as kosher even without certification. However, there has been almost no discussion on the ways in which technology has become a key tool in the very process of granting kosher certification to food products. It is the goal of this article to explore this approach of utilizing modern technology and how such technological tools have become an absolute essential part of granting any reliable certification.

The Challenge

It is obvious that kosher certification will always rely on the age-old principle of Mashgiach visits on a yotzei v’nichnas, in and out mashgiach visits, basis in a factory setting or on hasgacha temidis, a mashgiach on premises at all times, in food service operations. Administrative oversight at the office level is equally important.  At the same time, the nature of food processing in our day and age has changed. Companies are using new methods both in terms of processing technique and in management. The resulting complexities make the mechanics of kashrus supervision we utilized ten or twenty years ago obsolete. Mashgiach visits can no longer be relied upon in and of themselves to grant a hechsher. Without utilizing modern technology in the form of an information processing system, a kashrus agency cannot hope to provide a credible certification.

Let us first consider some of the changes that have occurred in the food processing industry in order to demonstrate the difficulties faced by a kashrus organization today.  One of the biggest changes in the management style used by companies is known as “Just in Time Delivery.”  A few years ago, a company would maintain an inventory of raw materials (also referred to as ingredients) used in production.  A mashgiach could visit a plant at any time and check all the ingredients used at that facility.  Today, very few companies stock raw materials in this manner.  Instead, a company will only order in those raw materials needed for production scheduled for the near future.  Ideally, a company’s goal is to order the raw materials needed for today’s production to arrive this morning.  Raw materials don’t stay in inventory, but get used right away.  It is plain to see that with anything less than hasgacha temidis at all hours of the plant operation, a Mashgaich will not have even a remote chance of inspecting all the raw materials used by that company.

Another factor that has become almost universal today is the use of multiple vendors. pical companies will no longer purchase raw materials from only one source. This can affect certification in two ways.  First, commodity materials like salt, sugar, flour, oils, and corn syrup will often be purchased from brokers. Price, not the specific vendor, is the driving force behind which specific materials arrive on the company’s loading docks. While the source of salt or raw sugar is of little kashrus concern, items like oil or whey bought in this manner present potentially significant problems for kosher production. Second, more kashrus-sensitive materials like flavor components may be purchased from any one of three or four vendors depending on pricing or availability at the time a company needs to order.

In some cases, an ingredient may be kosher from one vendor but non-kosher from another. This is a situation referred to in the kashrus community as “compatible ingredients.” It is of critical importance that the kashrus agency be aware of this situation if it should exist in order to implement the necessary controls to see that the non-kosher ingredient cannot be used even accidentally in a certified product.  In some cases, this means not certifying products for which compatible ingredients are stocked. In others a requirement for special production with only hashgacha temidis may be the only solution.

The above are all illustrations of common problems that must be faced in the field.  Yet there are still other issues which have to be monitored on an administrative level in order to certify a company properly. The certification status (i.e., pareve, dairy, etc.) of each ingredient used must be tracked along with the expiration date for that certification.  Accurate lists of all ingredients used in a plant must be kept up-to-date. The formula for each product that is to be certified must be checked to see that all component ingredients are kosher, and the individual status of each ingredient must be tallied in order to assign a certification status to the finished product.  A product that contains even one dairy ingredient, for example, must be labeled dairy.

Let us take the case of what might be considered an average company under cRc certification as a practical example.  This company uses a total of just over 800 ingredients. Of the ingredients used in this plant, about 500 are kosher and include both pareve and dairy items. These ingredients are used to produce roughly 1000 different products, of which about 600 are kosher certified. Again, some are pareve and others dairy.  In order to certify a product, a formula is submitted by the company advising the cRc of the breakdown of what is found in that product.  Each of the 600-odd kosher formulas that are on file may use anywhere from two to 40 separate ingredients.  As new products are developed, new formulas are sent in for review and approval to add to the kosher list.  As the company evaluates new vendors, new ingredients are constantly evaluated and submitted for review. 

Now consider the possibility that the company notifies the cRc that it will be switching to a new vendor for a certain ingredient.  Upon examining the request from the company, it is determined that this new vendor is not kosher, but the company decides to switch vendors anyway.  The cRc must now determine which products include this ingredient so that those products may be taken off the kosher list.  With 500-plus formula sheets to consider, imagine the amount of time required for the office staff to accomplish this task!

As mentioned, our sample company is also constantly developing new products, and hence is submitting new formulas for certification at the average rate of 5 to 10 per week.  Each formula must be evaluated on an ingredient-by-ingredient basis.  Some formulas contain 30 or 40 ingredients, and each ingredient used must be looked up to determine if it has been approved for this company and to see what the certification status of that ingredient is (is it kosher? pareve? dairy?) from its specific vendor.  For example, a popular flavor component, ethyl butyrate, may come from one of several different sources.  From one source it may be pareve, but from another dairy.  Again, we have a very time-consuming situation with the added potential for making serious mistakes.

The above case is illustrative of some of the tasks which are required to grant certification.  It is obvious that there are both a great deal of time that must be dedicated to seeing that certification is granted accurately and a likelihood that errors will be made in the process.  As daunting as this task may seem for dealing with just this one company, multiply this case by the nearly three hundred companies currently under cRc supervision, and the magnitude of the task becomes nearly unmanageable.  It is for this reason that we must look to technology to provide us with the tools that will simplify and automate the certification process.

The Modern Day Solution 

The computer is a tool that is uniquely adaptable to the task at hand.  Much more than a glorified typewriter or video game, computes have the unique ability to organize and manipulate information.  A computer system can be developed specifically to support the kashrus certification process and solve most of the problems outlined above.

A computer system can be designed to track all of the ingredients used by each plant.  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 the user to look quickly for compatible ingredient situations or to check the kosher status of different vendors.  Expired certifications can easily be identified so that a company can be informed that new certification documentation is necessary.  Ingredients coming from unacceptable hechsharim can be easily flagged.

By tracking all the ingredients being used by a company—for kosher as well as non-kosher products—the problems of evaluating “just in time delivery” situations can be greatly minimized.  Regular updates from a company’s purchasing department can be obtained and compared to the ingredient list already on hand.  The task of comparing lists can be readily accomplished in a few seconds by the computer, where to do so by hand would require hours of office time.

Formulas can be entered into the 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.

Having formula information entered in a computer system can also add an extra level of assurance that all raw materials used by a plant are accounted for.  Formula entry can be restricted to only those raw materials that have been designated as being used by any given company.  An ingredient called for in a formula that does not appear on that company’s raw materials listing would result in a warning that a previously unauthorized ingredient was included.  Once in the system, formula information can be searched to determine where particular ingredients are being used.  In the case mentioned above, locating products that contain a problematic ingredient now becomes a simple and quick task that can be completed without error.

Fortunately, computer technology has advanced at a feverish pace. Computers can be purchased today which comfortably fit on a desktop and have the power to perform highly complex tasks with tremendous speeds. The cost of acquiring this equipment has come down significantly, making a very powerful system easily within reach. With the advance in computer hardware, software (or what is often referred to as “programs”) has kept up by offering more and more high-level functions in a package that is economical and easy to use. Software with the sophistication only dreamed about a few short years ago is reality today.

The cRc, as a major national kashrus agency, has an absolute chiyuv, obligation, to the kosher-consuming public to provide 100% quality certification. While the role of the individuals involved in this process from the Administrator to the part-time Mashgiach cannot and should not be minimized, we have arrived at a time when our personnel can only be as effective as the information they have to work with.  The time has come for the kashrus agency to jump into the information age with both feet in order to ensure the public that the best hechsher possible is being placed on products.

 

 

HaRav Gedalia Dov Schwartz, Shlit"a
Rosh Beth Din

HaRav Yona Reiss, Shlit"a
Av Beth Din

 

Rabbi Sholem Fishbane
Kashruth Administrator

Rabbi Levi Mostofsky
Executive Director

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