Down the road from Manchester United’s Old Trafford ground there is another equally famous institution, but, unlike United, this one has its own kosher stamp.
This is Kellogg’s Trafford Park factory, all one million square feet of it, the largest cereal-producing plant in the world and home to some of the nation’s favourite breakfast foods.
Over a million boxes a day — 400 million a year — are churned out here, amounting to 185,000 tonnes of Corn Flakes, Frosties, Coco Pops etc to supply the UK and Europe.
More importantly, many of these cereals are certified as kosher, which makes Trafford Plant one of the largest kosher-supervised operations in the country.
The Manchester Beth Din’s kosher director for 10 years, Dayan Yehuda Osher Steiner, supervises 60 factories a year in Europe, the United States, Japan, China, India, and recently in Sri Lanka, to put the MK stamp on hundreds of food products for major companies like Heinz and Kraft.
Today it is Kellogg’s turn.
After a health and safety briefing the dayan stands clothed in white overalls (including hair net and “beard balaclava”) ready to inspect machines that are the size of articulated lorries in the enormous five-storey facility with its miles of pipelines, conveyor belts and production lines.
But what could ever be unkosher about a few toasted corn grains and some puffed rice? Some 31 of Kellogg’s 99 products produced in the UK are kosher, but what exactly is the dayan supervising?
“For a company like Kellogg’s, which is constantly innovating new recipes, we have to be in constant contact,” he explains. “Before we even get into the factory we have to check hundreds of ingredients.”
Kellogg’s cereals are also certified vegetarian, but the guidelines which ensure they remain free of animal products cannot be relied upon to guarantee their kosher status. Neither can simply reading the ingredients, says the dayan.
“Take Fruit ’N’ Fibre,” he says as hundreds of cereal boxes whizz past on the conveyor belt of a 20 metre-long packing machine making three boxes a second. “You’ve got the raisins and sultanas, which kosher laws have to ensure have no problem of insect infestation, and that coatings on raisins are vegetable oil and not the animal derivatives used by some companies.
“How about glycerine [a sweetener often used in low-fat products]. The consumer may not be aware that a lot of glycerines are not kosher,” he adds, also citing the use of grape juice and wine which needs to be kosher, but which vegetarian certifications would have no issue with.
“Then, apart from that, there are the vessels which the products are being made on. There are lot of requirements to ‘kosherise’ equipment.
“You are purging equipment from non-kosher infusion, an integral part of keeping kosher,” the rabbi says.
On the fifth floor of the factory there is a huge hall containing 22 rotating cylindrical pressure cookers, rumbling away like jet engines. They are cooking millions of corn grits using steam, a potential kosher catastrophe, explains Rabbi Steiner, who is now wearing ear plugs as protection against the thundering noise.
“I speak to the food engineers and the boiler engineers and understand how steam is used within an operation. It took me a long time to understand the Kellogg’s process,” he shouts above the din.
Two floors down, Corn Flakes travel along conveyor belts to be toasted and flavoured, and tossed into what look disturbingly like cement mixers. The concrete floor shakes as immense heat blasts out of the towering machines and thousands of perfectly formed Corn Flakes avalanche down the shoots.
Cross-contamination of foods via steam and heat are topics discussed in detail in entire chapters of halachic kosher codes such as the Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries. It could present a problem that kosher products are made alongside Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Squares, for example, which contain both pork gelatine and milk.
Not only does Dayan Steiner have to be on top of this issue, but he and his team also have to monitor Kellogg’s suppliers to ensure ingredients going into the kosher cereals are themselves kosher. For example, they inspect all 12 factories of the suppliers that provide the 10 ingredients that go into the Frosties brand.
Linda McCabe, Kellogg’s European foods quality programme manager, oversees the company’s kosher operations. She says the 10 Manchester Beth Din’s rabbis who carry out factory inspections have significant knowledge of mass-food production and also have agreements with Kellogg’s to conduct unannounced spot-checks.
“I was at one of our suppliers when the rabbis just turned up. As an outsider you don’t realise the detail they need to see. I was definitely surprised at the complexity of the rules of kosher. But food production is a very complex area. If we look at cereal alone, the processes differ for every different product.”
For Kellogg’s, however, kosher is good for business and the company image. Kellogg’s says it wants to make its products available to as many different types of families as possible. As well as the MK stamp, cereal packets carry a Muslim halal symbol, making Corn Flakes and Frosties acceptable to Muslims too.
Indeed, rabbis and imams will sometimes carry out their supervisions together.
After two hours of touring the factory, Dayan Steiner is taking time out from his inspection to reflect on the importance of the Beth Din’s supervision of this and other food manufacturers.
“The Torah tells us that our food influences our spiritual wellbeing. Thousands of people rely on us to ensure that their food is spiritually healthy. That’s what the symbol on the packet is really about.”