Feb. 26, 2008

Getting the lard out: The koshering of the Oreo cookie

Imagine never being able to taste something as common as an Oreo. Or being unsure if a marshmallow were kosher. What does "kosher" even mean?

Joe Regenstein, professor of food science at Cornell and director of the Cornell Kosher and Halal Food Initiative, discussed these and other food adventures, Feb. 20, in a talk given as part of Cornell's Jewish Faculty Lecture Series.

Speaking in Anabel Taylor Hall's Founders Room, Regenstein told the story of how Nabisco's famous Oreo cookie was converted into a fully orthodox kosher product [in December 1997, according to the Orthodox Union (OU)]. Regenstein served as an informal consultant to get the process started by giving a talk at Nabisco on the koshering process in the mid-1990s.

The costly transformation took more than three years. "It was probably the most expensive conversion of a company from non-kosher to kosher," Regenstein said. Nabisco owned approximately 100 baking ovens measuring about 300 feet in length, nearly the length of a football field, and all had to be converted to kosher.

The process began, Regenstein recalled, when many of the country's major ice cream companies, most of them operating under kosher standards, wanted to make a product with authentic Oreos. There was just one problem. Oreos were made with lard. Under the Jewish dietary laws of kosher, pigs, the source of lard, are a forbidden food. Once Nabisco had removed the lard, mainly for health reasons, going kosher became possible.

Regenstein explained that the process of koshering an oven is done by a rabbi with an unexpected tool: a blowtorch. Because the ovens were not kosher and baking is a dry high heat process, the units had to be heated to red-hot temperatures. "You need to use a blowtorch to clean away the forbidden materials," Regenstein said. However, each oven contained a soft plastic belt that cost upward of $150,000 at the time. All belts had to be replaced.

After three and a half years, all the Nabisco lines were finally deemed kosher.

Regenstein noted that 40 percent of all packaged foods have kosher certification and that 80 percent of the consumers of kosher food are non-Jewish. To be certified kosher, Jewish laws specify that only certain animals can be eaten for food, that they be killed in a specific way, and that milk and meat be separated in the diet. However, even rabbis don't always agree on what is and is not kosher, Regenstein said.

There are different organizations, such as the OU, that certify foods as kosher. Once deemed kosher, the food's package displays an OU symbol. There are a number of different symbols signifying kosher status; however, the OU certification is the largest, and along with the other agencies that follow the normative standards, it is accepted in most Orthodox Jewish communities.

Regenstein said he never expected to be involved in kosher and halal issues. He earned a Ph.D. in biophysics and only became interested in dealing with the kosher laws after attending a lecture on the issue at Cornell. He now gives talks about the subject all over the world. "I call it an octopus with 50 legs," he said. "It has taken me in all sorts of interesting directions."

The Jewish Faculty Lecture Series is sponsored by Cornell Hillel and supported by the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust to present professors from various disciplines at the university to speak about aspects of the Jewish faith.

Julia Langer '08 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.