By Leiba Estrin
What is Kosher?
Kosher is a spiritual diet. The laws regarding kosher are outlined in the Torah (Hebrew Bible). The kosher diet operates off the principle that you are what you eat. It is a lifestyle that is supposed to increase sensitivity within the consumer in his or her dealings with others. The laws are fairly complex which you can read more about here, but the basic guidelines are as follows:
We don’t mix milk and meat. Practically, this means that I have never had a cheeseburger nor pepperoni on my pizza. A certain amount of time between eating meat and dairy is mandatory, although after meat most people wait six hours and after eating dairy, the amount of time varies from ten minutes to one hour. The idea is that the food is well on its way to digestion so that meat and dairy will not join together in the stomach.
Animals must chew their cud and have split hooves. That means that kosher observers do not eat pork, bacon, ham, and other meat from non-kosher animals.
All birds that are prohibited are mentioned in the Torah by name. The rest are permitted. Operating off the “you are what you eat” idea, the forbidden birds have one thing in common: they are all birds of prey. The assumption made is that we are supposed to eat peaceful animals to increase the sense of peace within ourselves.
Sea creatures must have fins and scales. That leaves out lobster, crab, eel and all shellfish.
All reptiles and insects are not kosher.
Fruits and vegetables are kosher, but must be washed and checked for bugs.
Blood is not kosher. The term kosher salt comes from the koshering process where coarse salt is used to thoroughly absorb the blood from animals. We also check all eggs for blood spots.
Kosher for Passover is a completely different category. All leavened products in which wheat came in contact with water for more than eighteen minutes before baking or cooking is forbidden. Strict observers of kosher use separate utensils, pots and pans for Passover. They re-kasher the entire kitchen from top to bottom in a long and involved process.
The kosher kitchen requires that all utensils for meat and dairy remain completely separate. This includes pots, pans, dishes, silverware, cups, sponges, ovens, stovetop burners, sinks and dishwashers. A third category, pareve, does not contain either meat or dairy. Some kosher observers choose to make a third part of their kitchens pareve, but it is not a necessary practice.
The kosher Industry
The kosher industry has become extremely successful over the years. More than six million people consume kosher products, but only a small percentage, about 14%, actually keep a kosher home. Around 60% of supermarket products are kosher. Kosher provides an added level of inspection because it adds to the quality of a product, there is no room for mistakes, and is seen as generally more trustworthy to many consumers. In 2008, kosher was the top reason for purchasing food items. “All natural” came in second place, and “no additives” came in third.
Debunking Popular Kosher Myths
It never fails to surprise me when myths regarding the kosher diet persist. “Kosher style” does not always turn out to be kosher. Anyone can learn how to make matzah ball soup, and if prepared in a non-kosher kitchen, then it is not kosher. Similarly, foods from other cultures and ethnicities can be prepared according to the laws of kosher. A rabbi does not bless the food to magically make it kosher (it would appear as though the witches in the cartoon below did not receive the memo about this). A mashgiach (“one who watches over”) is a trained expert on kosher and supervises the preparation process in order for food to be considered kosher. The third myth regarding kosher is that it is kept for health reasons. Although kosher has numerous health benefits, the reason why kosher observers choose to keep it is to become closer to G-d, and because it is good for the soul.
Israel is one of the top sustainable leader of countries in the world looking to increase healthy food, sustainability and conservation of resources. The country has founded many organizations dedicated to finding better ways to conserve energy during production processes, to yield healthier crops and to conserve natural resources such as water. The Agricultural Research Organization (ARO) is involved with finding new ways to save water, improve soil conditions and the quality of produce. Agam Greenhouse Energy invents and produces energy-conserving and environmentally friendly systems that heat, cool and dehumidify products in the agricultural industry. Agron Limited is a company that develops, produces and sells organic, environment-safe pesticides and insecticides that are not harmful to humans and animals. Innovations such as the above three are just a few organizations that are growing within Israel currently. These methods will be able to benefit the entire world, both kosher and non-kosher industries, and contribute to saving countless amounts of energy while producing healthy and sustainable food.
Kosher as an Ethical Practice
In order for meat to be considered kosher, additional ethical practices must be observed. Owners must treat their workers well, pay them on time and not overwork them. Animals must be raised in a healthy, wholesome environment and treated with respect and compassion when it is time to be slaughtered. Eco kosher is a movement through the Conservative Jewish movement that seeks to maintain and increase the ethical standards of kosher, while not necessarily focusing on actual kosher standards and practices. In America, land of the free, this is not a problem in itself. As long as the process is USDA approved, people are allowed to practice their religion and change laws as they see fit. Problems arise with labeling, when organizations such as Eco Kosher label their meat as completely kosher, but do not specify which standard they hold. Magen Tzedek, the seal of approval that belongs to Eco Kosher, shows that a product was produced under the ethical principles of the organization. Magen Tzedek is not approved by the Orthodox movement of Judaism that follows Jewish law, rules that were derived from the verses regarding kosher in the Hebrew Bible.
Going back to kosher meat, I have a hard time with the concept of veal. Veal is meat that comes from a calf, usually three months old or younger, who was raised on milk or formula. The calves are caged up without light and not allowed out. The practice of raising calves to become veal meat disgusts many meat consumers. Technically, veal is considered a kosher meat, but many Jews and kosher observers do not eat it for ethical reasons.
Within the kosher lifestyle, there is a movement of vegetarians who choose not to eat meat. The kosher diet gladly supports those who wish to live as vegetarians, vegan, gluten-free and so on. There is a Biblical verse that suggests vegetarian lifestyle as the ideal way of eating. “And G-d said: Behold, I have given you every herb yielding see, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed – to you it shall be for food” (Genesis 1:29). While I love to eat meat and do not see myself giving it up anytime soon, I will always try to bear in mind that the compassion and respect for animals must always be a priority.
Kosher has not escaped its share of scandals. In 1996, two meat storeowners who were part of the Conservative Jewish movement, sued Rabbi Luzer Weiss and various departments within the state of New York for actions they considered unconstitutional. The brothers complained that they didn’t hold certain standards for kosher production and they had been cited for neglecting to clean, salt and label their meat according to Orthodox kosher standards. The meat owners felt that it was unfair of the state to enforce the kosher standard, a standard the Conservative movement as a whole did not keep. They won the lawsuit, but the problem I saw with their victory is that they are now not required to label the level of the meat in a clear enough way that will show potential customers that it was approved according to the Conservative movement standards. When transparency in labeling is not required, it is a big problem for customers who get confused about what they are purchasing.
Details of another scandal emerged in 2008 when the owner of Agriprocessors kosher meat company in Postville, Iowa was arrested with other members of the company and convicted for violating underage and illegal labor laws as well as committing financial fraud. The event received quite a bit of publicity in the news, and it was extremely embarrassing to the Jewish community. All kinds of rumors and accusations were flung, some of them true and others that were completely false. It proved to be an unfortunate event that others in the meat business learned a lot from.
Issues of trust in every area of the food industry are a huge deal. When owners in the food business become corrupt and engage in unethical behavior, they violate the responsibility they carry for their customers. The now former owner of Doheny Meat Market, a kosher meat store in Los Angeles, is currently being sued after he was caught on videotape to be sneaking in meat that he falsely labeled as “Glatt kosher,” a term used to signify the highest quality of kosher meat. The news came out a day before Passover started, when countless kosher consumers in and around Los Angeles had already purchased and prepared their meat for the Jewish holiday. The feelings of shock, betrayal, anger and anxiety plagued the Jewish community hours before the holiday was set to begin at sunset. They were furious that their food had fallen into the category of questionable standards. The Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) banded together in an emergency meeting to figure out what Jewish Law would dictate in this awful situation. The Rabbis searched within the Code of Jewish Law for a way that would allow many of the Jews in Southern California to partake in the food they had prepared for Passover. The RCC withdrew the kosher certification but announced that any meat already purchased would be considered kosher. The reason for this is because most of the meat in Doheny Meat Market was Glatt kosher and labeled properly. Jewish law dictates that in special circumstances, if the majority of the food is kosher, then the rest of it can also be considered kosher. It was unclear after the fact to customers which meat they had bought. Even though the law saved the Passover holiday, the Jews were furious at the meat owner.
Is Kosher a Healthy Lifestyle?
The big issue that many people ask about and others assume is certainly the case, is whether kosher is a healthy lifestyle. The answer, as in most cases with questions regarding Judaism, is of course, that it depends. Kosher animals must be well fed and treated well during their lifetime. When it is time to slaughter them, the process must be quick and painless, requiring the use of a knife so smooth that a shochet (slaughterer) can run his or her nail across it without encountering the slightest nick. If the animal is found to be sick, if the slightest blemish is found on the lung, the animal is considered not kosher. A side benefit that I found when growing up in North Carolina, was that there were no kosher restaurants. Being forced to make all of our food at home was an added health bonus.
Only a few organic kosher meat companies exist with the proper kosher standard. There is still a long way to go in developing more options for organic meat. Here are some of the kosher organic meat companies that I discovered: The Kosher Express, Mitzvah Meat, Wise Organic Pastures and Kol Foods. Aaron’s Gourmet offers organic meat although it doesn’t exclusively sell it. It is possible that more of these kinds of meat companies exist, but these are the only ones I could find.
Is Kosher Food Good for the Environment?
An article by Emily Gertz explains that kosher meat and fish as a whole produce more greenhouse gases per year than non-kosher meat and seafood, although pork produces more carbon than chicken, so does shrimp when compared to salmon, but lobster produces less carbon than Chilean Sea Bass. The diet that produces the least amount of carbon is the vegetarian diet.
I started an email correspondence with Rabbi Reuven Flamer, director of Natural Food Certifiers, a kosher company that services organic, non-GMO products as well as vegan and gluten free products. He was impressed with my interest in his company and stated that until now, it is pretty rare for a young woman with my education and religious background to contact him with questions about the kosher industry relating to the environment. Rabbi Flamer went on to give me some insights into how kosher organic companies operate. He told me that kosher companies have the same reasons for wanting to use healthy ingredients and sustainable processes as other non-kosher companies within the food industry. As far as research and information, he referred me to Rodale.com, an organization dedicated to improving awareness about the environment and promoting a healthy way of living for as many people as they can reach. Rabbi Flamer’s biggest point was that more people should do research and get involved in issues such as lobbying for organic, non-GMO products in the kosher world and sustainable practices in food production.
Suggestions for Improvement
As I continued researching the kosher industry, I came up with suggestions both on a smaller level as well as on a large scale. It’s important for kosher observers like myself to stay up to date on all the latest health news and scientific innovations. Second, we all need to create a dialogue with others about these issues to raise awareness and create a team of people who want to make changes both in the kosher and non-kosher food industry. This holds true whether you keep kosher or not (meaning that anyone can act to make changes). Third, we should send letters and make phone calls to people in power about the health issues that we are concerned about. Additionally, I think those of us who are connected on the inside to kosher experts need to talk to them about encouraging healthy and sustainable changes within factories involved in food production.
Bruce, James A. “What is Veal and Why the Controversy?” Article source: http://ezinearticles.com/?What-Is-Veal-and-Why-the-Controversy?&id=5641980
Epstein, Adam, et al. “What’s Kosher To You, Is Not Kosher To Me.” Journal Of The Academy Of Marketing Science 31.1 (2003): 99-100. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 8 May 2013.
Fried, Heather. “Organic, GMOs and GMO Guard.” Natural Food Certifiers. 16 April, 2013. http://nfccertification.info. Web. 7 May, 2013.
Gertz, Emily. “Is Keeping Kosher Good for the Environment?” Scientific American, 25 September 2008. Web. 8 May 2013.
Hebrew Bible. Mechon Mamre, ed. Web. 13 May 2013. http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0101.htm
Regenstein, Joe M., and Carrie E. Regenstein. “Looking In On Kosher Supervision Of The Food Industry.” Judaism 39.4 (1990): 408. Academic Search Premier. Web. 30 Apr. 2013.
Silberberg, Chaya Sarah. “Where can I get Kosher Organic Meat?” Chabad.org, 2013. Web. 8 May 2013. Accessed from http://www.chabad.org/library