22 October 2008

It's time to call a Rabbi

I learned recently from an article by the Associated Press that the U.S. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is going to open a field office in China later this year in the hope that a greater FDA presence in China will prevent unsafe food imports from gaining entry to the US. Wow! This revelation was a shocker...not because they are "going to open a field office in China" but because they haven't done so already. It seems to me that this FDA shortsightedness is just another symptom of the disorganization and lack of leadership on the part of the federal government. Supposedly the FDA staff that will be posted at the China office will inspect facilities, provide guidance on U.S. quality standards, and "eventually" train local experts to conduct inspections on behalf of the FDA. After giving this some thought I decided that it would be better to make a contract with a group of Jewish Rabbis to go to China to check the quality of the food exports instead of the FDA and I'll tell you why.

Not long ago my boss called me to his office and asked me what "Kashrut" meant. He said that we had to clean the interiors of some railroad tank cars and they had to be certified "Kashrut". I checked it out and I told him that "Kashrut" is the name for Jewish dietary law, food handling, and food preparation requirements, and that we needed to get the tank cars certified as "Kosher" by a special Jewish Rabbi who is trained for that purpose. The tank cars were going to carry cooking oil that would be used in making "Kosher" food and so the shipper needed to get the tank cars certified according to "Kashrut". To make a long story short we contacted an appropriate Rabbi and made arrangements for him to come and inspect the cars after we washed them out with soap and hot water.

Normally when someone comes to inspect the cars for cleanliness they more or less just open the top hatch and stick their head in to see that the interior appears clean. This was not how the Rabbi did it. He put on a special "clean" suit and went down into each car and went over the interior inch by inch to satisfy himself that all the surfaces were squeaky clean. This was no easy task because the cars were sitting in the warm sun and it was very uncomfortable down in those tanks to say the least. No only that but he went over our entire cleaning process even to the point of taking the temperature of the water that we used with his own thermometer to make sure that it was hot enough to meet the Kashrut requirements. We were very impressed. No, on second thought, "impressed" is not the right word. We were simply blown away with his dedication and thoroughness. The Rabbi was a very nice guy but he was also very firm and resolute. I realized that for him this was more than just a job. It was a moral and spiritual obligation. This was a man of great character. As a result of his visit in particular, I have the utmost respect for the Kosher label.

The Rabbi told us that he had been to many different countries including China and told us that for various reasons China had been a particular problem. He said that they had to work very hard with the Chinese before they could certify anything as Kosher. However, once the first companies to receive Kosher certifications on their food shipments realized how special that was and how good it was for their business then other companies decided that they should get Kosher certifications too. This posed a problem because the Rabbi started receiving requests for companies who made things like pots and pans and furniture to certify them as Kosher and of course these items don't fall under the laws of Kashrut. There were so many requests that soon there arose an acute shortage of Rabbis available to do the certification inspections. This is ironic because up until the 1930's there were plenty of Jews in China. When World War II ended, many Jews left China for Israel, America, or parts of Europe. Most of the remaining Jews left when the Communist regime began in 1949 and made it too difficult for them to remain. For a little over fifty years there was no significant Jewish life in China and now the Chinese want Jews to come back because the Chinese need their help.

Apart from the Jewish community, there is a large and growing group of consumers who purchase Kosher products for quality and sanitary reasons including hotels and restaurants. Also, many individuals in the Muslim community follow requirements called "Halal" which are similar to Kosher requirements which at times may be an acceptable substitute. If you want to make sure that the food you eat isn't contaminated or adulterated in some harmful way then you should buy products whenever possible that have a "Hechsher" mark on the label. A Hechsher is the special certification marking found on the packages of foods that have been certified as Kosher. You can see several examples below.

There is a new movement afoot in Jewish circles to include an additional form of certification called the "Hekhsher Tzedek". It is concerned with human rights. Hechsher Tzedek seals will be placed on certified Kosher foods that were produced in plants that operate within Jewish ethical standards. Kosher production facilities will be checked in six areas: fair wages and benefits, health and safety, training, corporate transparency, animal welfare, and environmental impact. This is another area in which Jewish Rabbis could help China gain (or regain) the confidence of their global customers. We don't need to spend millions of dollars creating a new FDA bureaucracy in China. All that congress needs to do is pass a law saying that food imported from China that has a Jewish Orthodox Kosher certification and a Hekhsher Tzedek will receive automatic approval for entry. Then the FDA can stay home and look for tainted tomatoes and mad cows and the Kashrut rabbis can take care of the Chinese tainted food problem.

That's why I think that if we want to ease our fears about food safety, instead of calling on the government to get more involved we should call a Rabbi.


Steve Cotton said...

My mother gives you her seal of approval. You have won over heart.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting article...thanks..I learned a lot...

In case you are looking for other topics, do you know about the Uña de Gato vine? Yesterday I met an elderly man as he came out of the jungle with two cardboard cartons that were obviously heavy.

Thinking he might have something interesting to sell, I stopped to ask what he had. I ended up giving him a ride to his customer who had placed the order for the vine. It was an entertaining and informative experience. Kathe

Babs said...

Great post - I designed a restaurant once that "went Kosher". I was duly impressed with all the procedures and work to accomplish this in the kitchen. It was a windfall for the restauranteur!

Frankly Ronda said...

I so enjoyed your post and love your oh so practical suggestion!

We do not keep kosher except for a bit around Passover and we do not cook pork in the house - turkey bacon is quite tasty.

YayaOrchid said...

First, I have to say GREAT POST BOB! I've said it once and I'll say it again, you have a MOST informative blog. For that I thank you!

Second, I just wanted to add that I'm grateful to you for educating us about such an important aspect of Jewish life. I happen to feel a very strong love for the Jewish community, mostly due to my spiritual faith/journey. Anything that helps us 'gentiles' to understand and appreciate a culture which has always been attacked is good for fostering goodwill. Hopefully you will again write something about the history of Jews in Mexico. I know that among our Hispanic culture there are many with Jewish roots unbeknownst to them. There was an interesting document written by a Texas professor from I believe UT that explained that many of our foods had Jewish influences. An example would be pan Semita and other flatbreads.
Just wanted you to know I found your post of great interest!

YayaOrchid said...

Anonymous, if I may ask here, What about una de gato vine? Just today I was at a small nursery, and I asked about some pots of plants I hadn't seen before. The nurseryman said it was una de gato vine, but he added that it wasn't the 'medicinal' una de gato. So now I'm wondering what you know about it.

Anonymous said...

I know nothing about Uña de Gato except for the patter my hitchhiker gave me the day I picked him up...but I Googled it and found lots of information about it...they even sell it commercially...

The elderly man told me that you take a chunk of the woody vine and make a tea and it cures everything...he most frequently referred to cancer and diabetes cures....I tried to buy one chunk but the whole shipment was presold...I suspect he will show up on my doorstep one day with some to sell me...Kathe

Tancho said...

Too bad the rest of the inspectors that inspect our foods don't have the same commitment!

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.