When it comes to food, we generally consider fresh food to be best. We relish fresh fruits and vegetables to the extent that Chazal decreed a special blessing of thanksgiving ("Shehechiyanu") when we first partake of the new crop each season. However, fruits and many vegetables are generally harvested only once a year, and our preference for freshness must also give way to the need to preserve such foods for consumption during the rest of the year. Fruit, vegetables, milk and meat are very perishable, all the more so in the days before modern refrigeration. History is replete with innovations that allow food to be stored for long periods without spoiling. Some hearken back to the times of the Tanach, where they often played a pivotal role in the vicissitudes of history. Noach fermented grape juice into wine, allowing his sons to demonstrate the characteristics that would mark them for eternity. Yosef succeeded in dominating the entire world by developing a means of preserving grain during the seven years of famine (see Rashi, Bereishis 41:48). Yishai sent preserved milk in the form of rounds of cheese with Dovid to provision the army against the Philistines (the first c-rations!), allowing Dovid to be in the right place and the right time to slay Golyas. In modern times, NASA was only able to put a man on the moon after it developed "space food" for its astronauts. The means used to preserve food can result in entirely new foods (as in pickling, smoking, or sausage making), or in the maintenance of the original state of the food for a long period (such as in canning, freezing, and drying). Each process raises its own unique Kashrus concerns.
Our story begins about two hundred years ago with Napoleon Bonaparte’s famous dictum "An army marches on its stomach." Napoleon’s armies were in the process of conquering Europe, which entailed a lot of marching, and he needed a means of providing his French army with wholesome and palatable provisions. To this end he offered a 12,000-franc prize to anyone who could develop a means of preserving food for the army and navy, which was won French chef named Nicholas Appert in 1809. Mssr. Appert spent 14 years developing his new process, which he published under the title L'Art de conserver, pendant plusieurs années, toutes les substances animales et végétales (The Art of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years). The process consisted of enclosing it hermetically sealed glass containers and heating it for a period of time. While he did not understand how the process worked (this would wait until Louis Pasteur explained that the heat sterilized the bacteria in the jar and thus prevented spoilage), he was nevertheless able to provision Napoleon’s army and begin the canning industry. In 1810 Peter Durand of England patented the use of tin-coated iron can instead of bottles, forming the basis of modern tin-coated steel cans used today. [The term "tin can" is a bit of misnomer, since only an extremely thin layer of tin covers the steel to prevent rust.] While the history of the process may be of only passing interest, the Kashrus issues relating to it are extremely topical.
You may have noticed that many vegetable products have begun displaying Kosher certification. The need for Hashgacha is based on the following concerns. While vegetables grown outside of Eretz Yisroel would be considered inherently Kosher, they are often processed in equipment that is also used for non-Kosher items. Fresh vegetables are generally harvested at a specific – and short – period of time. For example, peas, corn, and string beans are available for canning for only several weeks, during which time the entire crop must be processed. The processing involves preparing the vegetables for canning (cleaning, sorting, and blanching in hot water to deactivate the enzymes found in the vegetables), and then preparing a brine, the liquid added to the vegetable to fill the can. The sealed cans are then sterilized in large pressure cookers (called retorts). Years ago production facilities were designed for certain vegetables, and when the canning season for these vegetables ended the plant was shut down. Nowadays, more and more companies find such a system to be economically inefficient, and have devised uses for the plant during the "off-season". Some plants process non-Kosher soups and sauces. Beans and chickpeas are also processed in the off-season, since these are produced from dried beans, and often include pork & beans, chili, and similar meat products. Tomatoes and tomato sauces are often processed in the same equipment used to make meat and cheese flavored pizza sauces. Clearly, products coming form such canneries pose serious Kashrus concerns.
Canneries that process such non-Kosher products can compromise the Kosher status of otherwise Kosher items in the following ways. The brine used for vegetables can be cooked in the same kettles used for non-Kosher items. Even where the brine is always Kosher, the brine used for non-Kosher production often comes into contact with the non-Kosher products and is then recirculated through the brine system. The retorts used to sterilize non-Kosher products become non-Kosher, and the subsequent processing of otherwise Kosher vegetables would compromise their Kosher status. Even if the facility would maintain separate processing systems for Kosher and non-Kosher production, the condensate from steam used to heat the non-Kosher products is often returned to a common boiler and then used to cook the otherwise Kosher items. Depending on the system, hot water used to cook non-Kosher products can also be recycled and used to cook the otherwise Kosher items. It is therefore imperative to ensure that cans of seemingly harmless vegetables be processed in the plant with a reliable Hashgacha.
Administering a Hashgacha for a cannery raises concerns beyond the actual Kosher status of the equipment used. Some vegetables, such as potatoes, are subject to the rules of Bishul Akum, the requirement that they be cooked with the assistance of a Jewish person. In such a situation, the Mashgiach must light the boiler or otherwise participate in the cooking of the product for it to be considered Kosher. Sephardim have additional concerns regarding Bishul Akum, and a Rav should be consulted to determine which products are acceptable for their Kehilla. [It is interesting to note a recent discussion amongst contemporary Halachic authorities as to whether steam is considered Meushan (smoking) as regards Bishul Akum in canned foods, especially since it is the can that is steamed and not the food itself. See Mesorah I:95.] A further concern, common to both fresh and processed vegetables, stems from insect infestation. Vegetables prone to this problem, such a Brussels sprouts and cabbage, are not exempt by dint of the canning process.
An additional level of concern peculiar to canned foods involves the concept of "bright stock". As noted before, many vegetables are canned in a very short period of time. Manufacturers put a code on the lid of the can at the time of the canning, but the actual labeling of the product may take place much later. Major supermarket chains purchase their canned goods from many suppliers, and use the same paper labels for all of them. If a supermarket wishes to maintain a Kosher certification for its products, it is responsibility of the supervising agency to ensure that all suppliers are under its supervision. It is noteworthy to mention that even brand name manufacturers sometimes purchase bright stock from their competitors when they run out of product. As such, even if one knows that a brand name manufacturer has only Kosher plants, products bearing its label may have been processed in a non-Kosher facility.
The MK is fortunate in that it works with the largest vegetable canning company in Quebec to ensure quality Kosher canned vegetables for Montreal and many other locations throughout Canada and the United States. Much effort is involved in monitoring productions and Kashering facilities in order to maintain strict Kashrus standards. New processes for food preservation, however, are constantly being devised, often following the historic imperative of the need to feed any army. "Shelf-stable" foods, tasty meals packaged in plastic pouches and trays, are known in the armed services as "MRE’s" – meals-ready-to-eat. These became famous during the Gulf War, where they fed the allied soldiers. What is also interesting is that Kosher MRE’s were also made available to Jewish soldiers for the first time, and updated versions of these new Kosher meals are currently being sold to make traveling easier and tastier for the Kosher public. Tin cans may have evolved into MRE’s, but the concerns relating to preserving food and keeping it Kosher always pose fresh problems to be resolved.
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