Should you eat it as a sandwich, or break it apart and eat the cookie part separately from the cream?
Kosher-observant Jews will now be faced with that classic American dilemma with the historic koshering of the Oreo, billed by maker Nabisco as America’s favorite cookie.
It’s all part of a move by the Nabisco Biscuit Co. to make kosher dozens of its cookie and snack products, The Jewish Week has learned.
Nabisco quietly has signed a contract with the Orthodox Union, the international kosher certification group, to supervise the kosher production of such longtime company staples as Chips Ahoy, Barnum’s Animal Crackers, Fig Newtons, Social Tea Biscuits and Honey Maid Grahams. Ritz items except for Ritz Bits sandwiches will be kosher, and eventually the premium Saltine crackers will be.
“We’re working on it,” said Nabisco quality control specialist Kevin Murphy.
While thousands of products have been made kosher over the last several years from major snack makers such as M&M Mars, Frito Lay and Hershey’s, Nabisco appears to be the last giant corporation to make such a significant investment to meet the needs of the kosher consumer.
“This means that a great majority of cookies on the shelves are now kosher,” said Rabbi Eliyahu Safran, the senior rabbinic coordinator for the Orthodox Union.
And for thousands of Jewish kids who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s not being able to eat Oreos, that most American of snacks, the Nabisco announcement marks a symbolic shift in American attitudes towards accommodation to Jewish religious observance.
“While I’m not Jewish, I can’t imagine growing up in America not being able to eat an Oreo cookie,” Murphy said.
Also being made under new kosher specifications are about 10 items from Nabisco’s Snackwell reduced-fat line.
Some of Nabisco’s new kosher products, designated with the classic OU label, already have begun to arrive on local store shelves, Murphy said this week.
As the company retools its packages to include the OU certification, it slowly will introduce more items. An official launch is expected in March.
An internal Nabisco newsletter in October hailed the contract signing between the corporate baker and the OU.
“Nabisco Biscuit’s wide [product] line had to be looked at cookie by cookie, cracker by cracker,” the newsletter revealed. “As a result, most Nabisco cookies, many crackers and all NBC bakeries are now kosher.”
The newsletter explained kosher as “meeting all Jewish religious dietary rules as set forth in the Torah. It said that “a popular misconception has it that kosher certification involves a simple blessing — but the actual process is quite complicated.”
But many of Nabisco’s most popular cookies and crackers will remain unkosher, notably products containing cheese or cookies with marshmallows such as Malomars, a company official explained.
Nabisco’s efforts to kosher its line and tap into the fast-growing kosher food industry — now estimated at $3.25 billion a year — are nearly seven years in the making with research beginning in 1991.
It took so long to finalize the project because the company sought to kosher cost-effectively the baking process at its 12 plants nationwide, Murphy said.
Perhaps the most significant step came in 1992 with the removal of lard from the company’s baked products, replacing it with vegetable oil. Murphy said the switch was made not only for kosher purposes but for health reasons as American consumers sought products with lower cholesterol.
The company slowly eliminated all its non-kosher ingredients, making sure not to sacrifice taste, and changed its production policies to adhere to OU’s standards.
“We had to make sure all ingredients were kosher-approved,” said Murphy, who confided he knew little about kosher law before he began working closely with OU’s rabbis. He said these days most ingredients available in the food industry are kosher.
Nabisco also had to change its processing, making sure the products did not come into contact with non-kosher items anywhere on the production line, as well as cleaning the ovens.
OU officials praised Nabisco for its cooperation.
“They were extremely meticulous and responsive to every facet of our kosher standards and requirements, and have now incorporated the OU kosher policy standards into their corporate policy,” said Rabbi Safran, the senior rabbinic coordinator.
Nabisco even agreed to keep records about the separation of pans and equipment in the production process. “Most companies don’t do that,” Rabbi Safran said.
“You can see the importance they attached to the certification that they had a formal contract signing and the president of the company was present, which is also rare.”
Rabbi Menachem Genack, the OU’s rabbinic administrator, advised kosher observers to carefully inspect Nabisco products over the next few weeks as the kosher-certified products begin to appear in the stores.
Murphy said each Nabisco plant will have a local rabbi that will make monthly supervision visits. “We will pay an annual fee for that supervision,” he said.
He could not say how much it has cost the company to change ingredients, alter time-honored processes and procedures, and kosher its huge ovens. But he says he learned a “bunch” about koshering and rabbinic supervision from the experience.
“I never understood Jewish dietary customs about meat and dairy being separated at meals,” he said. “I always thought rabbis made something kosher by just doing some kind of blessing.
“I learned it’s a much more technical and spiritual thing and more of a regulatory function than anything else, assuring the proper ingredients. I was really impressed with depth of knowledge of the rabbis about the food industry.”