Kosher canola oil catastrophe — Minneapolis rabbi to the rescue

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Rabbi Asher Zeilingold received a rather unusual request from the Canadian Pacific Railway last week. They wanted the rabbi of St. Paul's Congregation Adath Israel to recover spilled canola oil.

Randy Hansen, CPR damage prevention and claim service specialist in Minneapolis, enlisted the help of Zeilingold after a tank car derailed Feb. 8 near Thief River Falls, in northwestern Minnesota about 290 miles from the Twin Cities, spilling more than 185,000 pounds of kosher salad oil-grade canola oil.

Zeilingold, the chief administrator of United Mehadrin Kosher (known as UM Kosher), a kosher certification group that works with about 150 food companies, assigned Rabbi Yosef Grossbaum of St. Paul to travel March 6 to the spill site.

Specifically, the Orthodox rabbi had to certify a food-grade pump and hoses as kosher before they were used to transfer Ontario-based CanAmera Foods' canola oil from the derailed kosher tank car into another kosher tank car.

The process took several hours to accomplish, Zeilingold explained, since the derailment happened about one month earlier and the oil had turned to a gel-like consistency in the subzero weather. The tank car had an insulated tank, so steam was piped in between the inner and outer jackets to warm the oil before it was transferred to another tank car.

Grossbaum supervised the warming operation, watching that the oil temperature did not rise above 115 degrees. If it became hotter, the oil would tend to "draw out flavors" from the tank car and hose, defiling its kosher character, Grossbaum told a Grand Forks Herald reporter.

It had taken several weeks to bring in the replacement kosher tank car. The canola oil, which was bound for Los Angeles, was returned to CanAmera's kosher plant in Altona, Manitoba, for re-processing.

At the time of the derailment, CPR's Hansen suspected the oil might be kosher and knew unusual steps must be taken to recover the derailed loads. The kosher emergency wasn't a unique happening for Hansen. In 1998, he called-in a rabbi from Fargo, N.D., to help transfer another load of kosher canola oil from a derailed tank car around the same area of Minnesota. That rabbi had since moved away, so Hansen turned to Zeilingold.

Zeilingold said CPR officials told him they found his name in a 1993 Pioneer Press story about the Koch Refinery in Rosemount, Minn. The refinery was producing carbonated gas for soft drinks. "They were doing it for Pesach," recalled Zeilingold, "and they had to make sure that it was not corn-based, because if [the gas] was corn-based it wouldn't be kosher for Pesach. There was a front-page story in the St. Paul paper.

"Someone remembered it — how they remembered it, I don't know. They made reference to that when they called me."

For their part, the rabbis at UM Kosher are used to traveling to remote locales for kashrut supervision. "We do a lot of traveling. In two weeks I'm going to Europe," said Zeilingold. "Actually, just for a day." He explained that he would be checking on a plant in Germany that produces casein, an ingredient in baked goods.

Zeilingold has also traveled to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska to inspect a plant owned by Louis Kemp, a food entrepreneur from Duluth. Louis Kemp Seafood Co. processes pollock — a kosher fish, according to Zeilingold — for use in its prepackaged surimi seafood that is made into mock crab and lobster meat. Crab and lobster, of course, are never kosher, but Zeilingold noted that he certifies the surimi as kosher — "whatever they do with that, they do with that, it's their business,'' he said.