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“Can Kosher Match Organic, Free Range Food?” Baltimore Jewish Times, March 1, 2012

“Can Kosher Match Organic, Free Range Food?”
Baltimore Jewish Times
March 1, 2012
By Mary K. Zajac

Can Kosher Match Organic, Free Range Food?Ten years ago, I bought an Empire chicken at Trader Joe’s. It was my first bird from Empire, long touted as full-flavored by Cooks Illustrated magazine, and I was excited to prepare it. While I often try to practice sustainable and mindful eating by buying chicken that is free range and/or organic, this chicken was neither. 

It was kosher, however, and I took that to be a good sign, though of what exactly I couldn’t quite put into words. I’m not Jewish, but I knew enough about kosher practices to realize that rabbis were involved in some level of the production process, and like Uncle Sam in the old Hebrew National hot dog commercial, I put my faith in kosher certified food answering to a “higher authority.”

My chicken is blessed, I naively (and incorrectly) reasoned. It must be good, and even more so, good for me. That the bird turned out to be pretty tasty only reinforced my misconception.

It turns out I was far from alone in believing in the higher authority of kashrut. As San Francisco-based author and journalist Sue Fishkoff points out in her 2010 book, “Kosher Nation” (Schocken), that Hebrew National commercial has become a cultural touchstone in promoting to Jews and non-Jews alike the idea that kosher certification yields a somehow healthier, more moral product, be it baked beans or chickens, even if the reality doesn’t always quite measure up.

Like organic, free-range, antibiotic-free and other specialized ways of food production that support responsible ways of eating, buying food labeled kosher has become a growing trend.

“One-third to one-half of the food for sale in the typical American supermarket is kosher,” Fishkoff writes in “Kosher Nation” before citing the rate at which new products are marketed as kosher — double that of non-kosher food (and in 2007, nearly three times that of organic products). Just over 11.2 million Americans purposefully buy kosher food on a regular basis, but only 14 percent of those consumers keep kosher. The remaining 86 percent comprise a diverse group of eaters, including vegans, who look for kosher symbols as a way to guarantee a product is dairy-  or meat-free; individuals with gluten intolerance who buy kosher-for-Passover products; and even Muslims, who are permitted to eat kosher meat if buying halal is impossible.

In the general population, writes Fishkoff, “62 percent buy kosher because they believe it is of higher quality than non-kosher food, 51 percent because they believe it is more healthy and 34 percent because they consider it safer.”

Of course, kashrut does, in a very real sense, answer to strict authority — of the Torah, of the rabbis and mashgichim (kashrut supervisors) who work for kosher certifying agencies like the Baltimore-based Star-K organization. Food does not become kosher through a blessing; rather, kosher food items are certified to have been produced in a facility that has been kashered and that adheres to kosher laws.

That said, there are also many things that kosher food is not. Kosher food is not inherently “natural,” a mostly meaningless term used in advertising. Nor are vegetables and kosher meat automatically “organic,” a designation levied by the USDA (and not a kosher certifying agency, although the Star-K has seven rabbis who are qualified to certify food both as kosher and organic, according to Dr. Avrom Pollak, the company’s president) that applies to growing conditions, including rules against use of commercial pesticides and insecticides.

And, as Fishkoff points out, with the exception of kosher meat production, which follows strict rules regarding the feed, the humane slaughter and the processing of only healthy animals with no outward or inner flaws, there’s little to suggest that most kosher food in general is intrinsically healthier or of better quality than non-kosher food.

Oreos are kosher; so is Coca-Cola. “We don’t take the position that something certified kosher is necessarily good for you,” says Dr. Pollack. “Our mission is not to tell people what to eat.”

But as the kosher market has grown, so has the nation’s food consciousness level. Since my initial chicken purchase in the early 2000s, Empire Kosher has introduced organic and antibiotic-free chickens and turkeys to its line of poultry products citing the demand for these products in the non-kosher community as impetus for their availability in the kosher community.

Last year, the company launched a new ad campaign, promoting itself on its website as “Green Kosher.” “Empire Kosher is the best option for any consumer who wishes to eat healthy and safely, buy responsibly, promote worker and animal rights, protect the environment, and support local farmers and their communities,” reads a statement on the company’s website.

Making Kosher More Kosher

The past decade has witnessed a growing awareness in the Jewish community, as well as in the general population, about issues that affect the nation’s food production and consumption, from the humane treatment of animals and workers to the effect of food production on the environment, to the myriad ways that choices in the ways food is produced (use of antibiotics and growth hormones, for example) affects the health of those who consume it.

While part of this awareness stems from news-making headlines, like the federal raid of the Agriprocessors kosher food factory in Postville, Iowa, for violations of labor laws in 2008, and the work of writers like Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (Penguin), New York Times columnist and author Mark Bittman and Eric Schlosser, whose book “Fast Food Nation” (Harper Perennial) gained further notice after being made into a film, another wave of awareness comes from Jewish organizations and individuals dedicated to challenging both kosher eating habits and the kosher food industry itself.

On a certain level, the attempt is to make kosher food more kosher in the most basic sense of the word: right, fit and proper.

A new kosher food consciousness had its genesis in the mid-2000s when the Jewish environmental organization Hazon spearheaded the “New Jewish Food Movement” to promote food justice; it even launched a food blog, The Jew and the Carrot, to provide an ongoing, online conversation about Jewish food customs and sustainability.

In 2009, Uri L’Tzedek, an organization supporting Orthodox social justice founded in response to the immigration raid at Agriprocesors, created Tav HaYosher, an ethical seal designating restaurants that provide their workers with fair pay, fair time and a safe work environment (Restaurants in eight states including Maryland have been awarded the seal.)

In 2012, the Magen Tzedek Commission, a nonprofit organization founded by the leaders of Conservative Judaism, hopes to see the first implementation of the Magen Tzedek Standard, an ethical “Shield of Justice seal” certifying best practices concerning the environment, workers and animals that can be applied to products already receiving a traditional hechsher seal from an authorized kosher certification agency.

“What Magen Tzedek is trying to do is to be unique,” says Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner, a representative of Magen Tzedek and the spiritual leader of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation in Northwest Baltimore.

“The seal is not replacing the kashrut seal,” he explains. Rather, Magen Tzedek offers “an assurance to the consumer that beyond the technical rules of kashrut, other ethical standards have been met in this product.” The seal becomes a complement to kashrut, ensuring that the act of keeping kosher is holy in content and in outward form. Says Rabbi Reisner: “It allows the consumer who wishes to be a mindful eater a way to do that.”

That kashrut itself is a mindful eating practice, is the underlying argument behind the Magen Tzedek seal and other manifestations of the “New Jewish Food Movement.” As Rabbi Reisner explains, “Not only are we instructed by God to observe kashrut eating, we are commanded not to repress a laborer … [or to] despoil nature, [or to] cause harm.”

To put it another way, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, director of the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network (and Rabbi Reisner’s wife), poses this question: “How can you rest comfortably, making yourself aware of your place in God’s earth, when the workers who prepared food for you are mistreated, animals are mistreated?”

To Jakir Manela, founding director of Kayam Farm at the Pearlstone Center in Reisterstown, understanding the issues surrounding the production of food is an imperative and a natural part of Jewish identity.

“When you learn how to plant, harvest and grow, it engages you,” says Manela. Food becomes “not just an object we eat three times a day, and our blessings at every meal take on much greater meaning.”

Kayam has kosher-slaughtered farm animals for meat   in order “to understand where our food comes from and take responsibility for our sustenance,” says Manela.

“It was very intense and very hard,” he admits. The experience was intrinsically complicated and difficult, he says, as it should be.

“Many people say they don’t want to know [about how their meat is produced],’” says Manela. “Instead of avoiding the truth about where our food comes from, we want to participate in the process, learning how it feels and what it means to form closer connections to that which sustains us.”

There’s The Beef

That there is more interest in a renewed mindfulness regarding food and kashrut is evident around the region, from Sue Fishkoff’s recent appearance before a full house at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in conjunction with its “Chosen Food” exhibition to Kayam Farm’s Morris Panitz’s applesauce demonstration given to young people at the JMM’s November “Brews &Schmooze” event. “Being a responsible steward of the planet,” Panitz told the group before handing them apples and peelers, “in my opinion, is part of my Jewish identity. One way to express yourself [in Judaism] is being connected to food, connected to land and the world we live in,” he continued as heads nodded in agreement. “This is a beautiful, beautiful world. It really is. It is a Jewish ethic, a Jewish value to take care of the land. A covenant of sorts.”

In Silver Spring, Devora Kimmelman-Block, founder of KOL (Kosher. Organic. Local.) Foods, offers kosher observant Jews another way to eat responsibly through the sale of grass-fed, pasture-raised kosher beef and free-range poultry with no antibiotics or added hormones.

“My core mission is to allow people to be able to maintain their Jewish values, their values around kashrut, alongside these other values that they have,” she says. “There really isn’t a lot of access to meat that corresponds with both of those.”

Kimmelman-Block, who kept a vegetarian kitchen for 15 years and calls herself “a meat minimalist,” began the company in 2007 motivated in part by a desire to not support an industrial meat system and an interest in the health benefits grass-fed beef purports to have. The beef is lower in fat and therefore easier to digest. It’s also higher in calcium, magnesium, potassium and Vitamins B and E and, she says, it tastes better. “It’s just a more memorable, deeper, richer, flavor,” she says. “It packs a much bigger punch.”

The company, which contracts with local farmers, sells its products nationally through its website (kolfoods.com) and through local buying clubs. It is not inexpensive. Broiling chickens average $8 per pound; boneless rib-eye steaks run to $20 per pound. Kimmelman-Block acknowledges the disparity, pointing out that while KOL meat is “pretty different from conventional meat,” the prices of industrial meat are also artificially low.

Like author Michael Pollan — who advocates a vegetable-heavy diet via his mantra, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” — Kimmelman-Block is all for reducing the amount of meat in a kosher diet.

“Meat should be a treat,” she says. “And it used to be until not that long ago.”

That expense is one factor that keeps recent Goucher College graduate Ari Witkin’s weekly Shabbat potlucks vegetarian.

“I’d love to eat meat, but the meat I want to eat I can’t afford,” he says of kosher meat, which can cost up to three times the amount of non-kosher beef, according to a 2008 report by the USDA.

Additionally, since returning from six months in Africa — the majority of it spent with Uganda’s Abayudayan Jews, who raise their own vegetables and animals for food — Witkin, 24, feels a greater responsibility for making sure the meat he eats is raised and processed humanely. “I don’t want to eat what I haven’t slaughtered,” he says matter-of-factly.

Of course, keeping mindfully kosher in Baltimore presents a different set of issues than keeping kosher in Africa. Witkin’s solution is to be vegetarian, or as he puts it: “The combination of religious dedication and feasibility and availability results in vegetarianism.” While not opposed to eating meat, he believes “it’s important to eat meat that is not only kosher but raised humanely.”

On a late November Friday evening, the front room of the slender Maryland Avenue rowhouse Witkin shares with roommates is filled with song as eighteen people, most of them recent graduates of Goucher College, many (but not all) of them Jewish, circle a long row of tables, arms tucked round each other’s shoulders.

Gabriel Pickus, with the dark curls of a Biblical prophet, announces to the group, “Let me teach you ‘L’cha Dodi’, ” as he sings a melody, demonstrating how to swing and sway to the chorus.

Witkin, the evening’s host, spiky-haired and perpetually grinning, invokes a blessing in Hebrew and English, after which Pickus thrusts a loaf of challah at everyone in the circle after first pulling off a hunk of bread himself.  Guests pass plates of spanakopita and butternut squash stuffed shells around the table, pausing as each guest shares something meaningful about their week — a teachable moment with 3-year-olds, planting a tree. Everyone leaves room for dessert; Sylvia Murray has made five pumpkin pies.

While most of the guests share Witkin’s commitment to responsible eating — several folks work for community farms or have taken part in the humane slaughter of poultry at area farms — not all guests share Witkin’s commitment to keeping kosher. Like many Jews, the guests’ dietary practices reflect a spectrum of adaptive kosher practice. Most refrain from forbidden foods like pork and shellfish, and mixing meat and dairy, but few restrict their food intake to strictly kosher products. Even fewer keep akashered kitchen. Still, many call kashrut an important part of being Jewish.

“Keeping kosher is an integral part of my Jewish Identity” says Dan Samuels, a production assistant for the National Council for the Traditional Arts. That Samuels’ vision of kashrut is inextricably intertwined with environmental concerns is a way, he says, of keeping the tradition alive and contemporary.

“To me, kashrut represents a code that my family and people have followed for generations as a guide to consuming the resources that we need responsibly,” Samuels explains.” It’s about being considerate to the life in the environments and ecosystems from which we take; it’s about coexistence.”

Shiah IrgungLaden, the teacher of 3-year-olds at the New Century School, a Montessori school in Fell’s Point, does not keep kosher (“but I often think I should”), he admits.

To IrgungLaden, kashrut is a potent reminder of Judaism that becomes visible every time he sits down to eat. Like the singing at Shabbat, he says, kashrut becomes a way to connect with tradition, cultural memory, other Jews.

For Pickus, 24, a vegetarian who wasn’t familiar with kashrut until he attended summer camp, the practice is more complicated. Pickus would rather self-define kosher as “legitimate,” a term that carries weight in both Jewish and non-Jewish communities, than see kosher in terms of halakha or lawfulness, a term he associates with promoting exclusivity. To Pickus, designating something as kosher means that there is “a moral integrity informing every step of the process.”

The conversations at the Shabbat dinner remind me of some of the very personal statements about kashrut used in the “Chosen Food” exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, in particular, one by Brian Dentz of New York, who says: “Organic is my kashrut.”

It’s an intriguing premise, substituting one practice of mindful eating for another, but it’s a premise that Rabbi Cardin cautions against.

While kosher identity supports ethical eating, she says, replacing or confusing kosher identity with ethical eating is not an even swap. “Organic is an expression of contemporary kashrut, an expansion of contemporary kashrut,” she explains. “But kosher is an expression of identity, an awareness of purpose that connects you to people and traditions … 365 days of your life. …

“Ethical eating can do that, but there’s no shul you can go to for ethical issues,” she says. “When you’re sitting shiva, are the other ethical eaters aware of you sitting? Kashrut comes with a built-in community that is glued together. … It’s not either or.”

In the end, she says, kashrut and ethical eating “need to be bound together.”


A Glossary

Ethical eating — An approach to food consumption that takes into account the ethical treatment of animals, of human workers, and of the environment in which the food is produced.

Organic — According to the USDA, “organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled ‘organic,’ a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.” Consumer Brochure, Organic Food Standards and Labels: The Facts, published by the USDA National Organic Program.

Sustainable agriculture — Farms and farming systems that provide long-term usefulness and productivity through ecologically sound, resource conservation practices.

For Further Reading:Fishkoff, Sue “Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority” (Random House)
Pollan, Michael “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (Penguin Press)
Schlosser, Eric “Fast Food Nation”  (Houghton Mifflin)

Mary K. Zajac is a local freelance writer.

Photo captions:
1. Chicken coop; 2. Ari Witkin (left with spoon) and Rosemary Liss (smiling and pointing) with other friends at Ari’s Passover seder; 3. Devorarah Kimmelman-Block is the founder of Silver Spring’s “KOL,” which stands for “kosher, organic and local.” (Photography by Justin Tsucalas)