Rabbi Elazar Green has climbed ladders to the top of towering silos, stood atop tractor-trailers and peered at the inner workings of flour-milling machines. As a kosher inspector, he is a stickler for thoroughness and details. He has to be.
If he’s going to stamp a food product with his kosher symbol, that product has to be “something I’d have in my own house … something I’d consume,” said Green, an Orthodox Jew.
His agency, Lancaster County Kosher, helps food-related companies in this county and neighboring counties to attain, and maintain, kosher status.
The Jewish dietary laws of kosher are complicated, ancient and, Green said, “extremely extensive.”
Meat and dairy may not mix. Pork and shellfish are forbidden. Produce must be carefully inspected; insects cannot be eaten.
Observant Jews look to the Bible, and to God, to know what to eat and what not to eat, explained Rabbi Shaya Sackett, of Congregation Degel Israel.
Just as “what you eat affects your physical health, what you eat also affects your soul, so there are certain spiritual guidelines,” Sackett said.
Foods, in order to be deemed kosher, have to meet rigorous Jewish preparation standards.
Green, 36, a Lancaster city resident, makes sure that certain local products, and companies, meet those standards.
Only then will he stamp his kosher symbol — a Lancaster County-shaped insignia emblazoned with the letter “K” — on a food product.
His clients include a trucking company whose trucks need to be washed according to strict kosher guidelines in order to transport kosher foods.
(Detailed records about even the temperature of the water used to wash the trucks must be kept.)
Under his supervision, the Lititz-based Snavely’s Mill Inc. produces kosher flour and Yoshon flour.
Some Jewish companies specifically seek Yoshon-certified flour, which is made from the previous season’s wheat crop.
PA Dry Mix Inc. in Lancaster, Shiloh Farms Inc. in New Holland, Dutch Country Soft Pretzels, also in New Holland, and Uncle Henry’s Pretzel Bakery in Mohnton all have products under Green’s supervision.
For the past few years, Green also has certified the pretzels, Icee drinks and coffee served throughout Hersheypark when that park is reserved to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
Sackett said he used to do more kosher supervision, and he continues to certify a kettle popcorn stand at Hersheypark (his kosher symbol features a horse and buggy).
But Green’s Lancaster County Kosher is the only local kosher certification agency.
“It’s kind of snowballed,” Green said. “It’s a lot bigger than I thought it would be.”
Green said he had done kosher inspections and supervision in the past — he used to oversee the kosher status of a Pittsburgh nursing home — but he didn’t establish Lancaster County Kosher until about five years ago.
He saw the agency as a way to help people keep kosher — and to help local companies cater to people who keep kosher.
He also saw it as a way to generate income for the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center of Lancaster & York, which he founded.
The center supports the Chabad student group at Franklin & Marshall College and provides chaplaincy services and adult education classes.
Green said the cost varies by the amount of work involved. He offers small businesses a discount for the first year of supervision and sometimes for the second.
He said his fees are a fraction of those charged by national certification agencies, because Lancaster County Kosher doesn’t have the same overhead costs, and is local.
Generally, said Green, companies begin kosher inspections expecting to have a long-term arrangement.
A kosher certificate is issued for a year. But kosher status must be maintained for the business to keep using the Lancaster County Kosher designation on its product packaging.
Green said his “major emphasis” is on flour products.
He certified Dutch Country Soft Pretzels as kosher in January, though the process had started earlier, when Larry Martin and his business partner, David Burkholder, were in the process of buying the business.
“We had a lot of customers come to us and say, ‘We’d really like you to be kosher. We’d like to buy your pretzels,’” said Martin, president of Dutch Country Foods, which owns Dutch Country Soft Pretzels.
Martin said the pretzel bakery is seeking to expand into markets in New York and New Jersey, and saw kosher certification as a way of enlarging its customer base.
Beyond the appeal to religiously observant customers, the kosher certification “just lends an aura about it of good health practices,” Martin said.
According to an Associated Press story, the market research firm Mintel expected U.S. sales of kosher prepared foods, meat, fish and dairy products to grow this year to about $15.3 billion.
That’s up from $12.5 billion in 2008, in part because more and more existing products such as Oreo cookies and Tootsie Rolls are becoming certified.
The AP story cited a 2009 Mintel consumer survey, which found that while only about one out of eight Americans bought kosher products, 62 percent of those who did said the primary appeal was food quality.
Only 14 percent of survey respondents said they purchased kosher foods because they observed the Jewish dietary laws.
It isn’t easy being kosher.
In order for its baking facility to be certified kosher, Dutch Country had to ensure that every ingredient that goes into its pretzels was kosher.
(Its ingredient mix comes from PA Dry Mix Inc., another Lancaster County Kosher-certified company.)
The pretzel bakery had to replace all of its trays and utensils, as well as the belt in its oven, which is more than 45 feet long.
“It was quite an expense,” Martin said.
The whole process cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000 to $10,000, he said, noting, “We felt it was worth the investment.”
Green also ordered a “deep scrub-down” of the pretzel bakery’s oven.
Then, to burn out any lingering substances that couldn’t be reached by the cleaners, the ovens were turned on to their highest temperatures for several hours.
He also checks the “general cleanliness” of each facility he supervises, and continues to visit the facilities regularly to make sure they continue to be in compliance.
Flour products are inspected for signs of insect infestation, and there can be no cross-contamination with nonkosher products.
Green has no interest in inspecting meat processing facilities.
“Meat production is a much more complicated level of kosher than I’m willing to take on right now by myself,” Green said.
In kosher meat processing, he explained, one rabbi inspects the animals while another rabbi does the slaughtering.
“It’s not up my alley at all,” Green said, with a laugh. “I’d much rather deal with flour than inspect (animal) organs.”
And the pretzel bakeries he inspects are more aromatic. “You walk in there, it smells like cookies.”
His brother, he said, inspects and supervises a kosher meat plant in Mexico.
“His specific expertise is exactly what mine isn’t. … I tell him, ‘I’ll supply the flour, you supply the meat, and we’ll have a party.’”
On one recent day, Green inspected a truck carrying 50,000 pounds of matzo flour.
Matzo is unleavened bread eaten traditionally by Jews during Passover; no leavened foods may be eaten during that Jewish holiday.
Certifying products kosher for Passover is a whole other level of complexity.
Old flour has to be cleared away completely from surfaces.
As anyone who has ever attempted to clean up a flour spill knows, flour makes its way into the deepest recesses of any space.
So Green has found himself atop massive bins, banging on them with mallets, to see if any residual flour falls to the surface.
If even a speck of flour is found, he orders the area to be cleaned again.
Green said it’s “neat” to walk into a pizza shop or bakery or soup market in New York City and know that the flour products came from Lancaster County.
Keeping kosher is “a lot of work but if you grow up with it, it’s second nature to you,” Green said.
Observant Jews keep kosher because “God says this is the diet he wants his people to keep,” Green said, adding, “I do my best to help people keep it.”