How often have we heard the query, “What’s the problem with plain canned vegetables? It’s only vegetables, water and salt in a can!” True. It’s also true that today you can buy vegetables with a hechsher, salt with a hechsher, water with a hechsher even cans with a hechsher! But does 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 4? Can a kosher consumer buy canned corn off the shelf or should the kosher consumer beware?
As long as mankind has been harvesting food and has been faced with the challenge of keeping food from spoiling so that the product’s shelf life would be able to extend beyond immediate arrival from the field, the science of food preservation was created. Ancient methods of long term food storage included drying, salting, spicing, and fermenting. Canning is a relatively recent method of food preservation that was discovered in the 1700’s, developed in the 1800’s, evolved into a major form of food preservation in the 1900’s and continues to advance in the 21st century.
Canning has been the method most often turned to when a low cost, high quality, long shelf life product is desired. Canned products run the gamut from milchig to fleishig, from evaporated milk to canned meats, and plenty of products in between. Today there are over 600 canneries in North America, many of whom produce in more than one facility and prepare a multiple array of products.
Today, in this country’s cornucopia of plenty, vegetable canning plays a significant role in this vast industry. Does canning create kashrus problems? Where are the kashrus hot spots? Let us walk through these various processes and target the kashrus concerns of vegetable canning.
The industry breaks down vegetable canning into six general categories.
Root Vegetables predominantly refers to beets, carrots, potatoes and sweet potatoes otherwise known as yams. As with most vegetables root vegetables are seasonal. Potatoes are packed during the spring and summer months while yams are a summer and fall product. Leafy Vegetables include spinach and other garden greens such as kale, collard greens, and mustard greens which are spring and summer varieties. String Beans in their multiple forms (cut, whole, and french) comprise a canning company’s string bean line. Fresh Pack consists of items such as fresh corn and fresh peas, while Dry Pack refers to the wide variety of dried beans, garbanzo, kidney, great northern, butter beans, and black eyed peas to name a few. Mushrooms, asparagus, or rutabagas are some good examples of Specialty Canning Vegetables.
Cleaning the Crop:
One of the golden rules of successful canning is that a good, clean, healthy vegetable cans better, tastes better, preserves better and sells better. Therefore, vegetables undergo rigorous inspection, cleaning, testing and more cleaning and checking to assure that the prepared vegetable is a quality one. Unique to leafy vegetables is that leafy vegetables are tested to see that they are free of any insect infestation, toloyim. The insects that are commonly found in leafy vegetables are known as aphids. Aphids are small, stubborn predators that attach themselves to the vegetables. The trap flask test is performed on a sample of leafy vegetables taken from each batch that has been reel washed, paddle washed, pressure washed, and blanched. Two leafy vegetables that commonly present an aphid problem are spinach and kale. Canning companies constantly combat this predator. Through a triple effort of control in the field, development of aphid resistant varieties of spinach, and aggressive cleaning efforts, the normal aphid score is zero on a trap flask test.
The pre-canning preparation for other vegetables does not include lab testing but each canner employs their own unique method of ridding the raw vegetables of extraneous matter. Today, new computerized detection systems have been installed to automatically detect extraneous matter before entering the plant for processing. Dirt and extraneous matter are shaken out through dry reels and destoners. After the vegetables pass the initial detection system the vegetables are ready for the next stages of processing. Skins of root vegetables are steamed, peeled and scrubbed before dicing, slicing, and blanching.
Filled to the Rim:
At this stage the vegetables are ready for canning. To make the finished product, various systems begin to interact. Empty cans are pre-washed and conveyed to fill stations where vegetables and hot brine, syrups or sauces fill the cans. Simple brine consists of water and salt. Sweetened vegetables are usually sweetened with a blend of water, corn syrup and liquid sugar. Other vegetables are flavored with sauces. Sauces are combination of corn syrups, tomato sauces, spice blends, flavors, vinegar and oil. As usual sauces need careful kosher ingredient monitoring. Some sauces are flavored with meat and or chicken flavors, others with cheese.
Vegetables Under Pressure:
Now the cans are ready to be sealed. Empty cans are filled and capped and are conveyed to the retorts. A retort is a large pressure cooker that cooks the vegetables for a controlled length of time and pressure to create a bacteria free environment in the can so that any microorganisms that may cause spoilage will be killed.
Retorts, like any other piece of machinery, varies from the simple to the sophisticated. The old standard basket retort looks like a large horizontal torpedo that opens up to accept large baskets of cans in its cavity. May-lo Retorts have the cans drop into a bed of cold water. Once the cooker is filled with cans, the water is released from the cavity so that the cans can be steamed. A Stearolamatic Continuous Cooker has the cans travel along a timed chain belt, cooking the cans as they move along the track. A Hydrostatic Retort is a six story building of rotating shelves that can cook over 25,000 cans at one time when filled to capacity. Furthermore, today’s hydrostatic cookers can have 2 separate shelving systems moving at different speeds. It is not unusual to have 2 types of vegetables retorted at the same time in a Hydrostatic cooker. Quite a difference to the couple of hundred cans cooked in a basket retort.
After retorting and cooling, the cans are palletized and stored until they are ready for labeling. This is known as bright stacking. Since all cans look alike in their unlabeled state, each company employs their own unique coding system, labeling the lids with a code before capping the can. For years it was common practice to emboss the lid with the coded product and production information. Today laser coding is fast replacing the old cumbersome embossing systems. Computerized laser printing is far more versatile and can be used as an effective tool for pre-programmed kashrus labeling so that labeling errors can be minimized.
Diversify Your Pack:
It goes without saying that any production facility is at the manufacturing mercy of many factors, machine breakdowns, personnel problems, and quality control. Canning plants also have to contend with the fickle feelings of mother nature. Simply put, if it is rainy, you cannot can what can’t be harvested. Similarly, during a non-growth season, you cannot can what does not grow. What’s a canning plant to do?
Some plants will can many different varieties of vegetables to minimize down time. For example, a facility will can yams from August through December and potatoes from May through July. However, it doesn’t take much to see that even with 2 varieties there are still many dormant months to address. Some plants maintain an abbreviated production year and utilize the off-season for maintenance and repair. Other companies add a whole new dimension to their canning venue . . . dry pack.
Canning dry pack beans is prudent and convenient because the product is not governed by season or weather. Dry pack can have a production life of its own and be packed for long periods of time or be used as a fill in on rainy days during a harvest season. Dry beans are easily re-hydrated. After soaking for eight hours they are then treated as a fresh vegetable. Dry pack is very versatile and in its versatility lies the major kashrus concerns of a canning company. Amongst the many varieties of canned dry pack beans are the American favorite pork and beans, and bacon and beans.
When producing pork and beans the common cannery practice is to put a small amount of pork in each can of pork and beans. Some companies use automatic meat depositors or flumes which automatically calibrates the meat proportion to the bean ratio; others still use the hit or miss hand deposit system. Not matter what the system, the amount of meat is so low that to the question that was once posed to a canning manufacturer, “Since you put only one tiny piece of meat in the pork and beans what is the real purpose for the meat?” “For the label,” was the reply.
Truthfully, in order to avoid being regulated by the USDA, a canning company must keep the amount of meat per can below 2%! Indeed, in most cases this small meat quantity would be nullified, botul in the can because the meat quantity is less than 1/60 of the total volume of the cans content. This principle holds true in the vast majority of can sizes from the 15 oz. can on up to the 128 oz. size. In the single portion smaller sized cans, 10 oz. and down, the pork may not be botul.
What difference would bitul make? The small piece of pork would always remain non kosher. Who cares if the pork is botul b’shishim or not? Obviously the concern is not for the product itself but for maintaining the kosher integrity of the cookers. When a kosher consumer picks up a can or corn that does not bear certification, these questions definitely are real concerns. What was produced in the plant? Have these cans been retorted together with treif product? If the retorts are disqualified because of the pork and beans, all subsequent vegetable productions would be disqualified as well. When kosher certifying a vegetable cannery, an integral part of the hechsher is to make sure that the kosher status of the processing equipment does not become compromised.
Moreover, as ethnic food popularity grows, so does canning diversification. A relatively new product that is available in cans is a Mexican favorite known as refried beans. Refried beans, a non kosher combination of beans, lard and seasonings, requires long periods of time to cook prior to canning. Other southern and south eastern favorites include shrimp jumbo and creole turtle soup. These specialty items use the same batch-up tanks, fill lines and cookers as the regular canned vegetables. It goes without saying that companies using common equipment for specialty batch cooking present real kashrus concerns for regular canned vegetables unless those plants are thoroughly kasherized between non kosher and kosher productions and are carefully monitored.
Furthermore, another large grey area would present itself in the private label sector. The store brands, generic label or food service label can be made in many different facilities. Productions are moved from place to place, depending upon product availability and low price. There would be no way of knowing whether the corn or string beans are made in a totally kosher facility or in a plant that produces both kosher and non kosher on the same equipment. Here again the hechsher on the can gives the consumers the ability and confidence to separate the grey into black and white.
The Best Buys:
In the past it was assumed that canned vegetables, such as corn or peas, were overwhelmingly produced in an all vegetable, non problematic, kosher environment. That being the case, the kosher consumer had the right to assume that these vegetables whose labels did not bear kosher certification can be purchased without special kosher certification, unless there is evidence to the contrary. All bean products are produced by companies that specialize in dry pack bean productions, where there is a great likelihood that pork and beans or other meat productions are taking place. Therefore the following bean products must be purchased with a hechsher. These varieties include canned lima beans, kidneys, chick peas, garbanzo beans, great northern, black-eyed peas, purple hull and navy beans.
However, today with the ever increasing need for optimizing production and a quest for product diversification, the same set of previous assumptions for corn and peas may not be the case. Bearing these facts in mind, in an unprecedented kashrus inter-agency policy decision, all varieties of canned vegetables, including corn and peas, are now approved for use by all the major kosher certification agencies only when bearing reliable kosher certification. Of course if the determination can be made that a canned vegetable variety has been produced in an all kosher plant, the canned vegetable would be approved sans hechsher. However this determination is often hard to make. The same rule of thumb holds true to canned tomato products which has similar concerns as canned vegetables.
It is our hope that this article will enhance each kosher consumer’s understanding of this fascinating industry and will help give a renewed appreciation of the ongoing research that kosher certification agencies do on behalf of the kosher consumer.