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Technological Tensions

From dishwashers to microwaves to automatic coffee-brewers, technology has revolutionized the modern kitchen. The time- and energy-saving devices are no doubt a boon, given today's hectic lifestyle. Yet for the kosher consumer, every new technology introduced brings with it a host of halachic concerns: According to Jewish law, may I kosherize my dishwasher? May I kosherize the microwave between milk and meat?

The wonders of technology have had a similarly revolutionizing effect on the commercial scale. Some procedures are advantageous to kosher supervision, enhancing the ease with which ingredients can be tracked, for example. At times, though, the technologies present kosher challenges, and the supervision agencies must find ways to work around them. This is what we refer to as "technological tension"-appreciating the benefits of modern technology while seeking creative ways to make them compatible with kosher observance.

A modern food-production plant now produces a vast variety of products, using ingredients originating from all over the world. Gone are the days when products were processed and packaged close to where the ingredients were grown. Many ingredients are now reduced to concentrate form and then shipped to bottling plants located closer to the end user-the shopping centers and grocery stores that will carry the product. This saves on transportation costs, as ingredients in concentrate weigh up to three times less than at full strength. In kosher terms, though, this means that one bottling plant may be processing hundreds of different products on the same equipment. The same machine might be bottling orange juice one day and clam juice the next. The kosher agency must supervise each plant closely to monitor what is being produced on every given piece of equipment to ensure kosher compliance.

New technologies are available to improve energy efficiency, which can translate into savings of millions of dollars. One way that commercial food processors save money during production is through a process called steam return. First, the food is cooked by heating it with steam pipes. After use, the steam is returned to the main boiler. This way, the heat in the steam is conserved, and the boiler does not have to heat up a huge volume of cold water for every run. From a kosher perspective, though, the steam that was used to process a non-kosher product cannot be recycled to cook kosher products. The problem can be solved by adding an ingredient to the steam to make it non-palatable and unfit for human consumption. This ingredient has no effect on the taste of the food itself, as the steam does not come in contact with the actual product. However, this small step eliminates the kosher concern and allows this energy-saving technology to be used on kosher products as well.

Steam is also used to thaw out drums of ingredients that may have congealed during transport, due to cold weather or the like. The tub is dipped into a steam bath, which warms it back up to room temperature. The same steam bath might be used repeatedly for many different ingredients, including non-kosher ones. The resulting kosher challenge can be worked around by dedicating one steam bath exclusively for kosher use. Another way of solving the problem is by enclosing the drum in a thick, non-porous bag. The bag acts as a wall separating between the food drum and the steam bath, which may have absorbed a non-kosher taste from a previous tub. The above process is monitored by an expert kosher supervisor.

Of course, technology does not exist only to create annoyances for kosher supervisors. Many technologies actually make the job of kosher supervision much simpler. One very common piece of equipment in food production is the spray dryer, which converts liquids into powdered form. A special computer attached to the machine, called a Honeywell Chart, keeps a detailed history of when the machine was turned on, at what temperature, and for how long it ran. Before a machine can be koshered, a 24-hour down time is required, during which it is not used. The Honeywell Chart provides a very reliable record of when and how the machine was last used. This helps verify when the equipment is down for 24 hours, so that the kosherizing process can be carried out according to procedure.

Thanks to the advance of computer technology, plants now have up-to-the minute records of the ingredients used in any given production. This serves the purposes of the company, which must carefully track any potential allergens or other unsafe ingredients.

Kosher supervision is a direct beneficiary of this technology. In the event that an ingredient suddenly loses its supervision, it is now feasible to immediately follow up on which products contain that ingredient and make the necessary change.

Overall, the "marriage" between modern technology and kosher observance has been a positive one. By applying innovative solutions, we are able to derive full benefit from technological advances while not compromising our kosher standards. Jewish philosophy elaborates on the concept that everything in the world can be utilized and elevated for a G-dly purpose. At OK Kosher Certification, it is our job to stay informed of new developments in technology. We can then utilize these technologies, thereby "elevating" them by using them for the sake of a mitzvah.

Rabbi Yitzchak Hanoka is a Rabbinic Coordinator with the OK Kosher Certification.