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Vegetarian Food and Kosher Meat in a Kosher Nation

Sue Fishkoff’s Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority (Schocken Books) doesn’t come out until October, but I was lucky enough to get a galley in advance. Frankly, what I enjoyed most about the book were topics I don’t have any particular reason to blog about: the true meaning of kosher wine, the globalization of kosher certification, how far people will go to make sure that insects aren’t in their food, and the life and times of a mashgiach. Fishkoff also has a great deal to say about the connections between vegetarianism and kashrut as well as kosher meat.

I might not agree with everything Fishkoff has to say, but she didn’t write an opinion-based eater’s manual. She’s a journalist who presented a very compelling, enlightening look at the scope of kashrut in 21st century America, and it’s a must-read for anyone interested in Jewish connections to food issues of any kind.

Vegetarianism and Kashrut
Prior to reading Kosher Nation, I generally felt that my vegan diet was kosher by default, despite some possible exceptions that people might point out. By learning more about how far people go to adhere to kashrut, I realize that the list of “exceptions” is greater than I previously realized. At the same time, I feel more confident in my own stance. Fishkoff explicitly says that “most Conservative Jews” “consider all vegetarian food kosher,” and as a Conservative Jew, I thought that felt right and and that she’d affirmed what I’ve long suspected and pieced together on my own. Fishkoff explains that prior to the tipping point of monumental growth of kosher certification in the 1980s, many Orthodox Jews in the U.S. kept “kosher by ingredient.” This means that if all the individual ingredients in a food were kosher in nature, then the product would be considered kosher even if it didn’t bear a hechsher. Fishkoff notes that this system “fell out of practice among Orthodox Jews” but “continued among Conservative Jews.” It’s what intuitively seems right to me.

Despite my personal stance, I now appreciate just how instrumental kosher certification can be for vegetarian foods. Fishkoff recounts that the country’s first food to be certified kosher on a national level was Heinz Vegetarian Beans in 1923. Eighty-five years later, in 2008, Jelly Belly sought national kosher certification, with the company’s president quoted as saying that this would bring in business “not just from Jewish consumers, but vegans and others who look for a kosher symbol.” I personally don’t think that too many non-Jewish vegans look for kosher symbols, especially considering that pareve foods may contain fish or eggs, but Fishkoff claims that the kosher market includes “vegans who look for the pareve, or neutral, kosher symbol, indicating food that contains neither dairy nor meat.” I’m sure Jelly Bean and Fishkoff are right that kosher certification does make a difference to some vegans, even if it’s to a very limited extent.

My favorite part about Fishkoff’s passages on connections between vegetarianism and kashrut comes in the prologue: “How we sow, how we harvest, how we slaughter, how we prepare our food, how and when we eat—Jews are hardwired to link our food choices to moral and political beliefs, which is probably why so many Jews are active in the organic, locally sourced, and vegetarian movements. What we put in our bodies has a lot to say about who we are and what we value.” This drives home the point that being Jewish and vegetarian are not utterly distinct identities but rather interrelated, consistent facets of a person’s outlook on food.

Kosher Meat
I learned a few tidbits of information I hadn’t known about kosher meat production, but I think that Fishkoff by and large left out a big piece of the puzzle: what it means for animals. In an entire chapter about AgriProcessors and its downfall, only four sentences dealt with the PETA investigations at AgriProcessors and the Rubashkins’ Local Pride plant and AgriProcessors’ multiple violations of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.

Furthermore, when Fishkoff did present information I didn’t know, I was left to connect the dots myself. Fishkoff notes that animals who do not meet kosher standards at slaughter, as well as the back halves of kosher animals (at least in the U.S.), are sold as non-kosher meat. I knew that, but I was blown away by the statistic: Fishkoff says, “Up to 85 percent of the meat produced in a kosher plant ends up being sold as non-kosher.” Separately, Fishkoff says that the shochet will check his knife for nicks (the idea, at least in theory, is that a knife with no nicks will make the sharpest cut and end an animal’s life more quickly and less painfully, as is required by kosher law) “between every large animal, and every fifteen to twenty minutes when slaughtering poultry.” Fishkoff explains:

There is no law prescribing this; it’s purely a financial consideration. If a nick is discovered in the blade, every animal slaughtered since the previous check is no longer kosher. Fifteen or twenty minutes’ worth of chickens is a lot less expensive than losing even two head of cattle.

The implications here are startling. Defenders of shechita contend that when it’s performed correctly, it’s humane. But in practice, kosher meat plants are producing meat that is not consistent with correctly performed shechita on a massive scale. Up to 85 percent of the meat produced in kosher facilities isn’t kosher, and it’s no big deal (and “purely a financial consideration”) if “up to twenty minutes’ worth of chickens” are deemed trayf. It’s one thing to have a high ideal that aims to look out for animals’ welfare, but in far too many cases, that ideal is not being met in practice.

Fishkoff’s last chapter focuses on the new Jewish food movement, and her last five paragraphs in particular refer to the movement’s leaders and the Orthodox Union’s Rabbi Seth Mandel to drive home a key point: Mandel says that the movement’s few supposedly humane kosher meat suppliers are “valuable as education, but not economical.” As I’ve put it in the past, they “inherently can’t operate on a large enough scale for their meat to be a viable alternative in the kosher market.” So if the practices of large-scale animal agriculture are the chief problem, the likes of KOL Foods and Mitzvah Meat are not much of a solution. Fishkoff concludes, “And it will take more than goat shechting in Connecticut or turkey slaughter on a California farm to change that.”

Note: Quotations used in this blog post were taken from an uncorrected bound galley. When looking to use quotations from Kosher Nation, please refer to the published book, not this blog post.

Cross-posted to heebnvegan
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5 Responses to “Vegetarian Food and Kosher Meat in a Kosher Nation”

  1. Richard Schwartz Says:

    As president of Jewish Vegetarians of America, I want to stress again, as evidently this book does not, that the production and consumption of meat and other animal products violate basic Jewish mandates to take care of our health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources and help hungry people. And that animal-based diets and agriculture are contributing very significantly to an epidemic of diseases in the Jewish and other communities and others and to climate change and other environmental problems that threatens all of life on Earth.

    Shabbat shalom,

    Richard Schwartz

  2. Richard Schwartz Says:

    The author could gain much attention to her book and the issues by engaging in or organizing a respectful public dialogue/debate on “Should Jews be Vegetarians?” It would be a kiddush Hashem in showing how eternal Jewish values are relevant to current issues.

  3. Anna Says:

    Thanks for the article. I want to point out that as a non-Jewish vegan, I definitely rely on the Kosher Pareve certification to confirm the absence of dairy, particularly as ingredients become further distanced from their original sources. (There is certainly an argument to only eat foods if you understand the ingredient list.)

    However, and this may or may not be true of eating Kosher, for veganism being so “purist” can sometimes fog the intent, which is to cause as little suffering to animals as possible. This can also serve to deter others from choosing compassionate food options due to perceived difficulty.

    In any event, it seems intuitive that mercy should be central to not just every religious practice, but as a matter of course as humans.

  4. Michael Croland Says:

    Anna, it’s good to know there’s at least one person out there who does so! :-)

  5. Rabbi Yonassan Gershom Says:

    Regarding keeping kosher by ingredients, I am an over-60 Orthodox vegetarian who pretty much still does it that way with pareve and dairy foods. I will buy with a hechsher when I can but frankly, after the Agriprocessors debacle, I no longer trust that kosher certification is any more reliable (or ethical) than simply checking ingredients.

    The uber-strict rules being imposed on the Jewish community in recent decades have evolved from the chumras (personal strictnesses) of particular rabbis. For example, some Hasidic masters in the past were PERSONALLY very, very careful about meat and only ate glatt kosher.

    “Glatt” means there was nothing questionable about the meat when the lungs and windpipe were examined after slaughter. In the past, the housewife would take her chicken or whatever to the shochet, then take it home and clean it herself — and if there was a question, she would take it to a local rabbi who would determine if it was kosher. So, in effect, the woman of the house was also mashgiach — so much so, that it was axiomatic that if a home was kosher, you could trust her judgement and it was very rude to ever question her about it. And, BTW, it is also halacha that any man may slaughter for his own household (assuming he knows how, of course)– which few people do nowadays, but in cases where Jews live on farms, it still applies. He can’t sell the meat, but he can serve it at his table to his family and guests.

    So in the beginig, glat kosher was a personal practice of the saintly few. It was later adopted by their followers — as is their right to do. But none of these Rebbes back then would have said that non-glatt was not kosher. In fact, there are classical stories of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, determining whether or not a slaughtered chicken or goose was kosher. He himself might not have eaten it, but he did not forbid it if it met the less-than-glatt standards.

    BUT, when the food industry began to take on kosher certification, it went with making everything glatt so that it would accommodate the chumras of the ultra-strict groups and not need “categories” of kashrut certification. This, in turn, means that almost all kosher meat today is glatt — raising the price considereable and leading to much of that waste described above.

    Vegans should also be aware that eggs and fish are considered pareve — neither meat nor dairy — since “meat” is defined as coming from warm-blooded animals, i.e., mammals and birds. Fish also do not require any particular method of slaughter, as do mammals and birds, so the rules are much less strict, being related only to species but not slaughter methods. This may not make sense to modern readers, since fish are living things, but it is how kashrut was set up thousands of years ago, long before Linneaus (inventor of our modern species classification system) and still applies. So “pareve” does not mean “vegan,” it means it can be served with either meat or dairy, but could contain eggs or fish — so always check ingredients also.

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