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Raisin hell

Raisin finds bug rabbis

Raisins may have become the latest fruit to fall victim to an infestation of insects, prompting a New York kashrut agency to warn its constituents against consuming the dried fruits.

Rabbi Moses Edelstein, kashrut administrator at Washington Heights-based Khal Adath Jeshurun, told The Jewish Standard that the organization’s inspectors had discovered thrips, mites, and fruitflies – ranging from the larvae stage to full grown – imbedded within individual raisins. KAJ issued the warning last week after receiving reports about the bugs. On Monday it convened a panel of food experts who examined various brands of packaged raisins from supermarket shelves and confirmed that they were contaminated.

“The question is whether this is a fluke,” Edelstein said. Until KAJ makes a determination on the possible infestation, it has temporarily ruled that the raisins may not be used.

According to KAJ’s advisory, no raisins of any brand or kashrut may be used, no matter if they would be eaten plain or used for baking. Products that have already been baked or cooked with raisins, however, may be used.

“These things happen from time to time,” he said. “They bring it to the attention of the rabbis, and they make a decision whether it’s a problem or not.”

The possible bug problem does not affect the grape crops that are eventually turned into raisins, Edelstein said. The grapes sold in supermarkets, as well as those turned into wines and juices, are selected from larger batches, and damaged grapes are discarded. In the production of raisins, all grapes are used.

There are two ways companies make raisins. The first is to dry the grapes in ovens. The second is to dry them naturally, while they are still on the trees. The latter method is the one that could result in infestations, because the grapes spend more time on the trees, Edelstein said. Allowing the grapes to remain on the vines also causes the raisins to have a darker shade, because of oxidation.

KAJ’s food scientists are continuing their research to determine whether a total raisin ban is necessary. That will depend on whether the infestation starts from within the grape or outside, what stage the bugs are found in, how easily they can be washed off, and how long they’ve been in the fruits.

Edelstein dismissed the notion that the infestation could be the result of where the raisins are stored at the manufacturing plants. He declined to name which brands were tested, but he noted that while some of them have strict quality controls, their raisins were infested as well.

“In that case it had nothing to do with storage or cleanliness,” he said. “We don’t think that’s a factor. Some suggested storing them a long time in a humid place might be a factor, but not only the factor.”

Two of the nation’s largest kosher-certification agencies have declined to follow KAJ’s lead.

“We’ve researched it and we don’t think there’s a problem,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, kashrut administrator of the Orthodox Union and a resident of Englewood.

Rabbi Chaim Fogelman, public relations director at the Brooklyn-based OK, said his organization’s rabbis had investigated the matter and, after “extensive testing,” decided that insects are not an issue for raisins.

“When they’re stored at the proper conditions, they do not require checking for bugs,” he said.

Calls to the Teaneck-based Kof-K and Rabbinical Council of Bergen County were not returned by press time.

The raisin controversy is reminiscent of a similar occurrence this summer with the strawberry crop. Citing an infestation of thrips and aphids, the Lawrence, N.Y.-based Association for Reliable Kashrut issued a ban on the fruit, which was enforced by some caterers and
kosher grocers in Passaic.

At the time, the O.U. issued a warning to thoroughly wash the fruits but did not call for banning the berry. The RCBC followed the O.U.’s lead on the issue, as it is likely to do with the raisins, said one representative of the organization who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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