Although we maintain a constant rabbinic presence in China, I make sure to go there myself to 'keep my finger on the pulse'.
In the early days we inspected two facilities, for the production of Kosher certified water chestnuts and bamboo shoots.
We require a full time rabbi (as any reliable certification would) for Kosher fish production. However, this was a weird bizarre request and almost impossible to explain to the Chinese manufacturer. Sometimes the companies would refuse to disclose their production procedures.
And ensuring integrity was a major challenge - our rabbi, working full time in a fish facility, would validate the packages by signing his name in Hebrew after the boxes were sealed and was shocked to be shown that one of the workers could precisely duplicate his signature without difficulty!
On our recent trip to China, we inspected facilities producing Acesulfame K and aspartame.
There have been issues in the past with Chinese companies not providing accurate information about production specifications, so I brought along an expert, both in Halacha as well as possessing a Master’s degree in Food Science with a concentration in Chemistry. Even so, the information given to us needed some "tweaking" in order for us to get the clear picture. It took hours to carefully investigate each facility and the formulas and production methods used there, including an actual visit through the facility to see the ingredients used and observe an actual production. The problems are compounded because all of our conversations were via a translator.
We met to discuss the requirements and timeline for an oleo-chemical facility that once enjoyed our Kosher certification, producing only Kosher products which we cancelled when they began to also produce non-Kosher product, had and now wished to revert back to Kosher certification.
and below is the original which is a pleasant chatty travel log but unfortunately provides zero information about and not even references to the substance of the Kashrus issues that lie at the heart of the service being provided.
So it is a puff piece, designed to promote their service by highlighting their expertise in Jewish Ritual Laws of Kashrus scientific and technical expertise not certifying facilities that also produce non-K certified product
their determination and success in spite of opposition
Although the OK maintains a constant rabbinic presence in China, this summer I returned there personally after a six year hiatus. My first visit was over twenty-three years ago and China has changed greatly in the past two decades!
My visit to China in the 1980s was not the first one made for kashrus purposes. My father, Rabbi Berel Levy, ob"m, was the first kashrus Administrator to visit China in such a capacity. True to his pioneering spirit, my father made his first kashrus visit to China over twenty-five years ago. After developing kashrus inspection and certification in other Far East countries, such as Japan, Malaysia and Korea, he was called upon by Hunt Wesson (now known as ConAgra) to visit a facility in China. It is a shame he is not alive today to see the enormous growth the OK has achieved, despite those who have continually sought to undermine our dedication and success.
The purpose of his visit was to inspect two facilities, one producing water chestnuts and one producing bamboo shoots. These are products are indigenous to China and some of the only food products exported from China at the time.
Before his first visit to China, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ob"m, gave my father special instructions to spread Yiddishkeit while he was on his kashrus mission. He had already established numerous mikvahs, added mechitzos to shuls, and enhanced many other mitzvos at the Rebbe’s request.
At that time, the Rebbe told my father that there were once Jewish communities in China and that the men even wore their hair in the ponytail style of Chinese men. The Rebbe instructed my father to find out where the Jewish people used to live, and suggested that he seek out a professor in the local university to help him investigate this (since a professor would always want to be able to answer a given question, and so would devote himself to finding the answer). What was the purpose of this request? The Rebbe said there were Jewish cemeteries in China that the authorities were going to dig up so they could make use of the land. In order to stop such a terrible desecration, these cemeteries needed to be identified and the local authorities needed to be influenced to prevent such destruction. On a recent visit to China, I was sadly informed that sometime after my father’s visit the Jewish cemeteries were dug up and the land used for development.
My father traveled to China many other times for kashrus inspections and, in fact, a visit to China was his last overseas trip before his untimely passing.
After my father’s passing, I dutifully took over his kashrus responsibilities and continued his holy mission. Of course, I continued to visit the Far East and China in my new capacity as kashrus Administrator of the OK.
At the time of my first visit, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots were still the primary food exports and conditions in China overall were quite primitive. Travel was often a challenge as airports were quite old fashioned and roads were not well constructed. In the 1980s, a distance of 120 miles by train or car took a minimum of six hours travel time. China was also a wasteland as far as Yiddishkeit was concerned. One had to travel to Hong Kong to spend Shabbos and a weekday minyan was unheard of. The only available kosher food was what you brought in your suitcase, or cans of water chestnuts and bamboo shoots!
Conducting kosher inspections in China presents a unique challenge, aside from the language and other obvious barriers – most people in China have never heard of "kosher" and have no idea what it is about. Many people that I met in my travels had never even seen a Jewish person before! During one of my first visits to China, I traveled to a city called Qingdao, a famous coastal city. I was on my way inland to inspect a plant that produced kosher surimi (a fish based product) and we had to travel into the interior of China by car. After several hours of driving, we stopped to rest and as I got out of the car I was surrounded by an amused crowd of people who had never seen a frum Jew before! I am a relatively tall person (in comparison to the average Chinese man) and had a full, black beard which was unheard of in China.
So you can imagine the cultural challenge (or should I say culture shock!) that we faced with kosher production. Our requests were strange. We wanted a full time rabbi (as any reliable certification would) for fish productions. Sometimes, after traveling several grueling hours, we would arrive at a facility and request all of the production procedures. [It is surprising that this would not have been sorted out before making the long trip - MGR] The companies would refuse, saying they do not reveal this information to anyone. We had to try to explain to them that we could not accomplish anything on our visit without the proper information. Once, we had a rabbi working full time in a fish facility for a few weeks. In order to seal the packages, he would sign his name in Hebrew on the boxes. One day one of the workers showed him how he could duplicate the rabbi’s signature without difficulty! [it would be helpful to know how they circumvented this problem for the future productions, and how they were confident that the production until whatever adjustments were made, were Kosher - MGR]
In short – it was a real challenge.
Over the past twenty years, I have continued to visit China. The China of today is a far cry of the China I experienced on my first few visits. Today, the airports are modern and a pleasure to pass through. Gone are the hours of bureaucratic red tape to enter the country. Today, the Chinese airport staff is extremely efficient. Formerly treacherous roads are now super highways. Older trains were replaced by speed trains travelling over 300 kilometers per hour. But most importantly, Yiddishkeit is flourishing. Spiritual oases have sprung up in cities all over China with Chabad Houses and shluchim who live in China with mesiras nefesh, providing daily minyanim, shiurim, mikvahs, and kosher food.
On our recent trip, we visited Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, a Chabad shliach in Shanghai. From humble beginnings, he has returned Shanghai to a spiritual center, just as it was during World War II. During weekday minyanim the shul had the atmosphere of a heimishe shtiebel and Shabbos was an incredible experience, witnessing firsthand how he and his dedicated staff welcome Jews and bring them closer to Yiddishkeit. Of course, now that there are shluchim in China, they help us in our holy mission of spreading kashrus, as well as their duties to their Chabad Houses.
China Revisited Part 2 On our recent trip to China, we visited facilities producing Acesulfame K and aspartame. Both of these are artificial sweeteners that are 180 to 200 times sweeter that sucrose (table sugar). Each sweetener has different properties. While aspartame has a taste closer to sugar and Acesulfame K has a slight bitter aftertaste, Acesulfame K is more heat stable, can be used in baked products and has a longer shelf life. They are often blended with other sweeteners in order to utilize the traits of all sweeteners used. The production processes for Acesulfame K and aspartame are quite complicated and there have been issues in the past with companies not giving us accurate information regarding production specifications, so I brought Rabbi Yitzchak Gornish, a Rabbinic Coordinator at the OK, who is a lamdan and has a Master’s degree in Food Science with a concentration [??] in Chemistry. With our combined knowledge and expertise we were able to verify that the information supplied by the companies was 100% accurate.
Unfortunately companies occasionally try to avoid disclosing complete information and one must have full knowledge of food chemistry and production methods to be sure that one is given all the information necessary.
Between the two of us, we were sure that we were given accurate information. Even so, the information given to us needed some "tweaking" in order for us to get the clear picture. It took hours to carefully investigate each facility and the formulas and production methods used there,including an actual visit through the facility to see the ingredients used and watch an actual production.
When one considers that the facility staff talking to us had little knowledge of English and all of our conversations went through a translator, one can comprehend the amount of effort put into collecting the accurate information. From the answers we received, we were able to put together an accurate picture thanks to the translator who had the proper technical knowledge to properly assist us. Having the proper technical knowledge on our part was crucial in ensuring that we received an accurate picture.
We also visited a sucralose (non-caloric sweetener) plant on our first day in China. Sucralose is an artificial sweetener and the majority of ingested sucralose is not broken down by the body. Sucralose is approximately 600 times as sweet as sucrose (table sugar), twice as sweet as saccharin, and 3.3 times as sweet as aspartame. Sucralose is stable under heat and over a broad range of pH conditions. Therefore, it can be used in baking or in products that require a longer shelf life. The commercial success of sucralose-based products stems from its favorable comparison to other low-calorie sweeteners in terms of taste, stability, and safety. However, we are still investigating the ingredients of this product so we could not grant certification at this time. The facilities for this company are in three different locations, so much time was spent in travelling from one facility to the next.
We visited various facilities, some of which were quite complicated, and Reb Shaya was well versed in all aspects of these plants.
We spent Shabbos in the Chabad House in Shanghai where we had a most uplifting Shabbos. I had the honor of delivering a discourse on kashrus to a full house on Shabbos afternoon. I was invited to share Shalosh Seudos with a group of Satmar Chassidim and give over a D’var Torah. I shared talks of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and some interesting stories which were very well received.
I spent the next week visiting facilities with Rabbi Yeshaya Prizant, the OK rabbi who oversees kashrus supervision in China. Despite his youth, Rabbi Prizant is well versed in kashrus issues and received thorough training by able OK staff. We visited various facilities, some of which were quite complicated, and Reb Shaya was well versed in all aspects of these plants.
We visited a yeast plant, an oil plant, and a pectin plant. The yeast plant needs careful monitoring to ensure that all productions are done on the proper equipment.[Why?] The yeast company was considering some new productions there which could compromise the kashrus of the equipment [Why?]and we discussed at length the various methods we could employ to ensure the kashrus of our products. As usual, Rabbi Prizant was quite familiar with the entire facility.
The next facility we visited was an oleo-chemical facility that was previously certified by the OK when only kosher products were made there. At some point, the facility notified us that they decided to produce non-kosher products as well, [How were you aware/confident that they had not been producing non-K for some time already? - MGR]so the OK stopped giving certification. This company now decided to reconsider kosher production, so we discussed the various procedures and possibilities for implementing kosher production. Again, Reb Shaya showed great familiarity with the facility, which was a huge facility according to any standards and quite complicated, as well. Subsequently, Rabbi Prizant made another visit to the facility and we are working intensively to sort out the potential kashrus issues there before granting certification.
Finally, we also visited a pectin facility. There I met a friend from a pectin facility in Switzerland that we certify! He is now in charge of this pectin facility in China. It is fascinating when one realizes that our work to enforce our kashrus standards in Switzerland helped us years later to uphold those standards in China! In all of the facilities we visited together, I saw that Reb Shaya is both well respected and well liked for the great work he, and all of the OK staff, is doing in China.
On the 15 hour flight home I had time to contemplate about how the experience and knowledge of the older generation is being passed on to a new generation of energetic and devoted rabbis. My father, Rabbi Berel Levy a"h, would be so proud of the direction the OK is continuing on, combining high levels of lamdanus and yiras shomayim with technical expertise.