All Washed Up

In the health conscious world of the new millennium, healthful fine dining and garden fresh vegetables have taken an honorable position of prominence. Salad bars are in vogue. A colorful salad helps dress up the bland dinner plate. Fresh vegetables are healthy and wholesome. Unfortunately, it also causes havoc with the G-d fearing housewife, or the caterer’s mashgiach, who want to make sure that the vegetables served are not only clean and fresh, but insect-free, as well. Oftentimes, this task is tedious, time consuming, and frustrating. This is particularly true when dealing with large quantities of exotic, leafy vegetables that have to be inspected in a relatively short amount of time. What is the answer?

Enter a remarkable, time saving addition to the produce yard and the hottest item on the supermarket produce section: pre-washed, cello-packed salads. Now greens in all varieties, cole slaw, garden salads, European salads, from the mundane to the exotic, from organic to hydroponic, can be bought cello bagged and ready to use. These varieties are specially washed, spun, and dried under superb hygienic conditions, using equipment that the housewife could only dream of using. Of great consequence to Jewish law, many of these cleaning systems have been tested and have been shown to effectively clean vegetables so that many of these processes render these vegetables insect-free, requiring no further inspection. It is a mashgiach‘s dream! Are all cleaning systems created equal? What technologies do they utilize? Are there other halachic factors that have to be taken into consideration before one can use these products without worry of infestation? Let us take a behind-the-scenes look at this new and fascinating industry.

According to vegetable processors, the goal of fresh vegetable processing is to provide good food safety protection while preserving the fresh characteristic that you look for in garden fresh vegetables, since vegetables are grown in earth and fertilizer, an environment conducive for bacterial growth. Aggressive washing and chemical treatments in the wash water removes and reduces the risk of the introduction of spoilage bacteria and pathogens. Fortunately for the kosher consumer, the same techniques that reduce bacterial presence will also remove toloyim, infestation. As previously mentioned, aside from bacterial concerns, earth and fertilizer often harbor other unwelcome predators that find comfortable housing in a leafy vegetable. Aphids, ladybugs, flies, and thrips are commonplace in these varieties of greens. Insect ingestion is strictly forbidden by the Torah. If vegetables contain insects, Jewish Law dictates that these fresh vegetable varieties would be forbidden to be consumed until the insects are removed. Different seasons, different growing environments, and different countries of origin are all factors that contribute to a vegetable’s contamination or cleanliness.

Summer and Autumn are the best growing seasons because insect infestation is kept to a minimum. There are more infestation problems during the rainy season, when the ground is muddy. The area best suited for quality vegetables is Salinas, California. Other growing areas include Florida, New Mexico, and Arizona. Even in these growing areas, there is a difference if the vegetable producer grows their own lettuce, or if the produce is purchased from the small independent farmer on the open market.

How are raw vegetables processed? Before entering the facility, the raw, unprocessed vegetables have to pass an initial inspection. If the product is infested or of poor quality, it is rejected. Not all sources of supply are similar. Some of the fresh vegetable producers grow produce in their own fields. This gives them an additional quality control edge. In these fields, the company can exercise good agricultural practices to help control infestation through controlled fertilization and pesticides. Others buy produce from high volume farmers. Buyers can be selective and can reject substandard produce from the field. The least desired method of raw product purchasing is spot-buying from the small farmer. This reduces consistent quality assurance results.

Upon reaching the facility, the raw material is initially checked on the dock. Once accepted, the product is ready to be processed. Some companies treat the vegetables with a pre-wash. Other companies send the untreated vegetables directly to the first inspection table. At the inspection table, the leafy vegetables are cored, and the outer leaves and any discolored or limp leaves are discarded. It is standard operating procedure to discard 35% to 40% of each head of iceberg lettuce and 50% of romaine lettuce. Some companies do the initial inspection, cutting and coring in the field, and ship the cut up leaves to the facility in large totes. This high percentage of discarding is advantageous on many counts. The consumer is happy because only the choicest portion of the greens is sold. Also, most vegetable infesters lodge themselves in the outer leaves which are discarded.

After the initial cleaning and coring, the heads are broken into pieces and are either sent on a belt to be sliced and shredded, or left as whole leaves. The produce is now ready to be sent to the main washer.

There are many high pressure washers on the market: the flood washer, and the open or closed and long or short flume. The three factors needed for effective vegetable washing are freezing cold water, chlorine, and aggressively agitated water. The industry standard for cold water washing is 34°F. Chlorine levels can vary. Today, it is not uncommon to have chlorine levels set at 100 plus parts per million, or to have special systems installed that automatically set and monitor the active chlorine dispersion to give the vegetables the best chlorination possible. The most versatile water system is the flood washer that has overhead sprayers and underwater jets. The most powerful system is the flume with high spray water jets on either side of the flume.

After the washing, the vegetables are dried in high speed spin dryers. Other systems dry the produce in special drying chambers. These processes also help remove any extraneous material that may have been left behind from the wash. The now cleaned vegetables are ready to be cello or vacuum packed and enjoyed.

The cleaning system seems great. Obviously, not every leaf is checked. What halachic provision assures us that these cleaned products are able to be eaten without checking? Whatever the system, the goal is to be able to establish a chazakah assuring that the system not only cleans effectively, but cleans halachically as well. What is a chazakah? A chazakah is a means to create a halachic assumption. In general, if any action, activity, or circumstance is repeated three times, or repeats itself three times, Jewish law dictates that we are permitted to assume that what has been consecutively repeated will now continue to repeat itself. This status quo is called a chazakah.

Can a chazakah be established with produce, and if so, can a chazakah be established with a produce cleaning system? Most definitely!

This is the way a standard chazakah is established with regular raw, leafy vegetables: If a consignment of produce comes from one source, and three heads from the vegetable shipment are completely and thoroughly checked and found to be free of infestation, a chazakah can now be established on the rest of the consignment. Halacha allows the assumption that the rest of the vegetable consignment is equally insect-free. For this test, the outer leaves of the three heads can be stripped off, since they will equally not be used in the rest of the shipment, but the leaves cannot be washed or treated before being checked. This chazakah check has to be repeated every time a new shipment arrives. The chazakah check only applies to the particular variety that has been checked, and not to any other variety of vegetables that is present at the time of the chazakah‘s establishment.

With a vegetable cleaning system, the means of creating a chazakah is to see if the system can effectively clean three batches of lettuce, or any other leafy vegetable, that you know was previously contaminated. After going through the wash system three samples are checked. If the samples are found to be free of infestation, a chazakah on the system has been achieved. It can now be assumed that the system can effectively clean the vegetables and no more checking is required!

Of course, periodic inspections have to be done to be sure that the system is still cleaning properly so that the chazakah can be maintained. Different conditions, seasons, or different sources of supply can affect the status quo as well, so, again, the system must be monitored constantly. At times, due to atmospheric conditions, high humidity, heavy rain, or seasonal change, there is an increase of insect presence in the fields. Of course this means that there will be more toloyim in the leafy vegetables. This manifests itself with a higher insect presence in the vegetables when the company tests the quality of the unprocessed lettuce before it is brought into the facility for further washing and processing. During these times, the wash system may not effectively clean for toloyim, and the certification is removed until the field conditions normalize so that the wash system will do an effective job. Often this occurs around Pesach when the consumer will not see the Star-K symbol on the date code for a prolonged period until conditions normalize.

Occasionally a consumer will call the Star-K and report that an insect was found in their vegetable salad. Not pleasant. However, this would not break the chazaka, nor should the bag of salad be discarded. If this happens, a good insurance practice would be to check the remaining salad. The next bag does not require additional checking.

Unquestionably, this burgeoning industry has become a positive addition to quality kashrus supervision. It is encouraging and inspiring to see kashrus and technology working hand in hand.