Although it would not be correct to say that unethical people can’t get kosher certification, reputable certifiers will run if they get the feeling that management is looking to cut corners the instant the certifier leaves. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to conduct the conversation:
Organized Kashrus Laboratories
OK Kosher Certification
Q: I understand certain Setton Pistachio products are certified kosher by your organization. Have you played a role in the recall?
A: OK does certify Setton pistachio products. We are working with Setton in assisting the company to help determine and notify customers and manufacturers that have purchased the pistachios that are being voluntarily recalled. It’s not even clear there’s a real danger, but there’s a concern, so we want to play it safe.
We have a first rate computer system that in a couple minutes generates a list of all companies using the products. A concept in Jewish law says something of questionable danger that can be harmful to one’s health has to be treated more seriously and more sensitively than something that’s forbidden to eat. It requires the upmost priority.
I want to make it clear this is the first time in Setton’s history there has been a question or recall of this nature. Please stress the point that I don’t feel it’s fair to make negative calls against the company, which took an aggressive stance once they learned there was a potential problem. It is still not clear if it originated at the Setton plant or if the contamination occurred elsewhere.
Q: Does your confidence in Setton stem from your kosher-certification procedures? What is involved in the certification process? Are there certain standards and requirements that could reflect well on a company’s food safety system?
A: Having product kosher-certified improves quality.
A: Kosher certification by definition means there’s an outside body, a regulatory body in this case, overseeing operations in a facility. We have records of all ingredients and formulas that we certify, and we are aware of and monitor the operations.
I was offered an opportunity to give certification on a facility, which was absolutely a mess and didn’t maintain proper records. We declined to do so. As a matter of policy, we won’t certify a facility without sufficient traceability and quality control systems in place. Setton has all these.
Q: How do you determine what’s sufficient? Is it subjective?
A: As a rabbi working in kosher certification, it’s safe to say I’ve visited over 500 manufacturing facilities, maybe closer to 1,000. We’re dealing with human beings. It’s possible even a leading company with strict food safety systems in place would need an adjustment with quality control.
When a large company takes food safety seriously, it puts buffer zones in place. So while it’s possible for one buffer zone to be breached, other buffer zones avert the real problem. It’s like putting a couple of fences around a puppy, and if one breaks, the puppy doesn’t get out.
We are not in the quality control business per se, but quality control and kosher do work together many times. Case in point, because of our sophisticated computer system, we can assist in quality control checks because we have very precise data that can be useful to everyone.
I have visited the Setton facility in California, and it’s a high-class, first-rate facility.
Q: Kraft said it sent auditors to Setton Pistachio and observed situations where raw and roasted pistachios were not properly segregated.
A: I’m not equipped or authorized to make any statements on what may have happened, but based on our experience, it is a facility that takes food safety in production seriously. I can say that for certain.
Q: Wouldn’t cross contamination of raw and finished product be a critical control point in a company’s HACCP plan? You would think the design flow of the plant would eliminate or at least severely blunt the possibility of raw product tainting finished goods.
A: The HACCP plan is not something we as a kosher agency would focus on in a routine visit. Design flow issues might not necessarily raise a red flag unless they directly affect a kosher system in place.
It’s not even clear where the problem originated or where the breakdown happened. It’s easy to kill a reputation of a company, God forbid, and very hard to repair it. You can go to any facility in the world and find something wrong. When you’re in a manufacturing climate and it relates to kosher, many safeguards are put in place to insure product integrity is not compromised. Even so, you can’t guarantee 100 percent that a problem won’t occur.
Q: But FDA says it has a zero tolerance policy regarding food safety.
A: That’s their job. Here’s a parable to think about: Would you take a 1,000 mile drive in an economy car, which has no air bags, no steel bars and is very light-weight? In terms of quality, most people don’t drive the safest car all the time. There’s an acceptable medium standard of transportation that would satisfy the masses, and if people put on their seatbelts and take certain precautionary measures, overwhelmingly it gets them to their destinations with a safe drive. God forbid there’s an accident; point one percent of the time, and the car didn’t offer adequate protection. It doesn’t necessarily mean the manufacturer was negligent in any way or that this vehicle is unsafe.
One also must consider an element of human error (and I hesitate to use it in this analogy because I don’t want to imply human error at Setton when we don’t know that). That human error could have contributed to the accident and does not call into question the safety systems in place.
There is also an act of God that has to be factored in any circumstance. The same can be said about food safety. If a company meets or exceeds acceptable levels of safety procedures, was there a breach in safety? If you take all the necessary precautions, 99.9 percent of the time there won’t be a problem. It’s important to keep food safety expectations in line with reality.
Q: Does the kosher certification have more weight with certain products and manufacturing processes? I imagine certifying pistachios would be more simplistic than products with numerous ingredients, or plants that are manufacturing a variety of diverse products that could get intermingled.
A: In certifying pistachios, a greater level of supervision is required depending on the level of processing. Higher standards require more oversight, and certain things are not tolerated. For example, adequate cleaning systems must be in place to avoid cross-contamination of product.
Q: But ironically, the concern in the Setton recall is cross-contamination between raw and roasted product.
A: Because raw pistachios by definition are kosher, in this case the issue of cross-contamination doesn’t relate. At times kosher requirements would enhance food safety and other times would not. Given that both raw and roasted pistachios are kosher-certified and usually denote the same kosher status, no special kosher cleanup would be required because there is no concern of cross-contamination. Both raw and roasted pistachios are kosher-compatible items.
Q: I would imagine just having another set of eyes scrutinizing operations could be beneficial in catching potential food safety problems.
A: I can point to many instances in my own experience throughout the years in facilities that manufacture other types of products different from Setton. One place comes to mind where I observed pallets not stacked properly, creating a safety hazard. I pointed it out and they fixed it. In another case, we were certifying specialized items in a manufacturing facility.
One of the operators was about to mistakenly mix two non-compatible chemicals that could have caused a danger of explosion. Our onsite Rabbi, who routinely checks formulations and workflow processes, noticed the discrepancy and reported it immediately to stop this from developing into a serious problem. I was about to ‘coterie’ a complicated piece of machinery that had many parts to it, and in inspecting the machine, noticed one part not adequately cleaned, with some food residue on it from a previous batch of product made a day before.
The next time the machine was going to be used, the company risked a cross-contamination and cleanliness issue. The procedural checking we go through has added value.
Q: How often do you visit operations for monitoring, and are these pre-scheduled or surprise visits?
A: I can’t divulge the frequency, but we visit on an unannounced, random basis. If we feel any facility is not up to our comfort level, based on our concern we do increase the frequency when necessary. Frequency is custom-tailored to the type of manufacturing. That frequency is determined by an expert Rabbi familiar with the nature of manufacturing for that type of product.
We require an immense amount of paper documentation from our customers, and not all kosher agencies demand such paperwork. We tell our customers it’s going to be cumbersome, but long term we’re doing them a favor with an enhanced level of protection, traceability and quality.
Q: Could you elaborate on how your tracking and quality-control systems work?
A: We certify with all manufactured goods on a per product basis. Backed up with a formula in our system, we’re able to hone in on a particular ingredient. We can immediately isolate it and find where this ingredient is being used. That’s a vital point. If making barbeque sauce with 100 ingredients, it’s even more complex. If an ingredient changes status from a kosher standpoint, we notify all customers of the change and make sure an acceptable ingredient is substituted.
Our kosher quality-control system has many aspects. What is involved with kosher certification varies. Does it lead to a safer product? In some instances I believe it does. From my experience, kosher certification certainly enhances the product and provides a climate for greater traceability and oversight than could otherwise be required.
Q: Are you aware of the separate report regarding Setton Pistachio’s sister company Setton International? The media has seized on a recent New York State Inspection of the Setton International facility based in Commack, New York that found bugs and pest control lapses. I know bugs are an issue with kosher certification…
A: These are two separate sister companies. My understanding is that bugs were not found in product. I don’t know any plant in the world that doesn’t have bugs. We are talking about huge facilities producing hundreds of thousands of safe products. Why would someone want to destroy someone’s reputation over this? This has nothing to do with Setton Pistachio or the salmonella investigation. Any reports trying to tie these issues together are not an accurate assessment. Someone could be trying to sabotage the company.
In Jewish law, if we have product not typically known to be infested, say an apple, you can find a worm in an apple but it’s not common, we have strict rules. If we find one worm, it doesn’t’ mean the whole batch is infested. We have to find three worms in the batch to find it problematic.
In the case of the pistachio contamination, just finding one incidence that they haven’t determined goes back to that Setton Pistachio facility. It wasn’t enough to indict the company of wrong-doing and destroy its reputation while doing serious damage to an entire industry.
We thank the good rabbi for his willingness to share his experience and his perspective with the industry.
These words were both helpful and profound:
“Here’s a parable to think about: Would you take a 1,000 mile drive in an economy car, which has no air bags, no steel bars and is very light weight? In terms of quality, most people don’t drive the safest car all the time. There’s an acceptable medium standard of transportation that would satisfy the masses, and if people put on their seatbelts and take certain precautionary measures, overwhelmingly it gets them to their destinations with a safe drive. God forbid there’s an accident; point one percent of the time, and the car didn’t offer adequate protection. It doesn’t necessarily mean the manufacturer was negligent in any way or that this vehicle is unsafe.”
We have often pointed out the oddity in the way the government views food safety as opposed to automotive safety. Cars crash, people die and the government doesn’t recommend against driving or even driving that particular car. In the absence of some specific problem that is uncovered, the automotive model generally continues being produced unchanged.
Yet, we know how to make safer cars — as we have repeated over and over again — we don’t do so because doing so has a cost.
The rabbi is raising the point that you can’t look at the end result — a car accident — or a spot of salmonella in food — even an illness or death from food — and ascertain solely from that whether the producer was negligent. This is because we choose to allow the production — of both autos and food — under less-than-ideal standards.
Now legally, this makes no difference in the US — although perhaps it should. A manufacturer who sells adulterated food is liable. So no amount of rigor in one’s food safety program indemnifies one against liability — this is a significant disincentive to invest in the highest standard of food safety.
Where it should make a difference though is in FDA policy. The finding of salmonella or even — what they have not found so far in this case… an illness — simply is not very significant, just as finding out that a particular car model can crash and people can die is not surprising.
We also found the rabbi’s comments on the New York inspection telling:
“My understanding is that bugs were not found in product. I don’t know any plant in the world that doesn’t have bugs. We are talking about huge facilities producing hundreds of thousands of safe products. Why would someone want to destroy someone’s reputation over this? This has nothing to do with Setton Pistachio or the salmonella investigation. Any reports trying to tie these issues together are not an accurate assessment. Someone could be trying to sabotage the company.”
Many people are grasping at straws. There’s no there there. The substance is lacking. That the entire pistachio industry has been crushed based on this evidence is astonishing.
Many thanks to Rabbi Hanoka and OK Kosher Certification for sharing their perspective with the industry.