Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Always (Kosher) Coca Cola!

I’d bet you never heard of the Pemberton Medicine Company! Perhaps you have heard of the company into which it was incorporated on January 15th, 1889? That would be the Coca Cola Company of Atlanta, GA.

As Coke became a household name nationwide, those who keep kosher sought to learn if they too could enjoy the refreshing taste of Coca Cola. Enter Rabbi Tobias Geffen (1870-1970), the rabbi of the Orthodox Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta, who, in the early 1930s, innocently called the Coca Cola Company requesting a list of their ingredients. Rabbi Geffen, born in Kovno, Lithuania, was unaware of the fact that the ingredients of Coca Cola are one of the most closely guarded industrial secrets in American history. Rabbi Geffen’s inquiry, however, was discussed at the highest levels of the beverage company and, despite the fact that only a handful of the company’s executives knew the ingredients, they agreed to disclose the ingredients to him, as long as he would keep them confidential. Rabbi Geffen agreed, and was given the list, without knowing the amount of each component of “the formula.” One of the items in Coca Cola, although only included in one part per ten thousand) was glycerin made from (non-kosher) beef tallow. Since the glycerin was added on purpose, under Jewish law, one could not rely on nullifying it even when it was present in a ratio equaling 1/60 or less, and Rabbi Geffen informed the Coca Cola company that kosher observant Jews could not drink Coke. The company however endeavored to find a suitable substitute and learned that Proctor and Gamble sold a glycerin from cottonseed or coconut oil, which was kosher. Once the change was made, Rabbi Geffen certified Coca Cola as kosher, however, due to traces of alcohol that were a byproduct of grain kernels, he was unable to certify it during Passover when grains are prohibited. Coke’s chemists learned that they could substitute sweeteners produced from beet sugar and cane sugar with those made from grains. The company agreed to begin using the alternative “sugars” weeks before Passover.

Decades later, it became clear that Proctor and Gamble’s pipes that were used to manufacture the kosher glycerin, were also being used to manufacture its non-kosher parallel version. Proctor and Gamble spent $30,000 to create a second piping system so that the kosher glycerin would not pass through the pipes used for the non-kosher version. As industrial kashrut grew in the United States, with kosher supervising agencies, such as the OU (Orthodox Union), certifying millions of products, teams of experts with years of experience are able to ensure that large and small factories and products are fully kosher. This all began with individuals, such as Rabbi Geffen, who blazed the kosher trail.

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