Rebbe Pollan vs. Rebbe Industry

groceryJust a thought, but could the new food credo of “Eat food not too much, mostly plants,” be a threat to the Kashrut industry as we know it?

I just finished watching a promotional video from the OU. Targeted to the food industry, this video demonstrates the process by which a product receives certification. Using a fictional cake made by Drakes (of Seinfeld lore), the OU rabbi shows how, early in the process the ingredient list of the new cake is sent to the OU to ensure that all ingredients are kosher. Some of the ingredients are found to be problematic, the red sprinkles on top and the emulsifiers that in the words of Rabbi Moshe Elefant “make ingredients mix when they normally can’t.”

According to Rebbe Michael Pollan, food is defined as something your grandmother would recognize. I would bet a big bunch of kale that your grandmother didn’t use emulsifiers to make sure her cake was delicious.

Historically, Kosher agencies only began to spring up when food began to be manufactured outside the home. Before then, there was no need for it outside of meat certification and that was mostly done by local, individual rabbis. In the present age, the reason why Kosher is a multimillion dollar industry is precisely because things like mono- and di-glycerides, yellow #5, and carmine exist, and because food is made by scientists rather than chefs (the Drake kitchen in the video looks far removed from the kitchen I work in. In truth it looks rather like my college chemistry lab), in huge factories. According to Rabbi Menachem Genack, when an ingredient isn’t Kosher, the OU helps them find a Kosher substitute from their database of over 100,000 (!!!) ingredients.

What if we stopped eating those foods, as per Rebbe Pollan? Would the big four kosher supervisors be out of work? I am not calling for mass unemployment of mashgichim (kosher supervisors) worldwide. I also do not think that there is a conspiracy to ensure that manufactured food is a mainstay of the kosher diet to ensure that mashgichim are assured a good pension at the end of a large fruitful (fruit-less?) career.

However, looking at what is required to certify an ingredient list definitely brought home for me the fact that eating many foods means eating a chemistry set. Rather than eating a cake with a kosher butter substitute, or Kosher partially hydrogenated oil, I would rather just not eat that product. I can already anticipate an OU response to this line of thinking: “We’re just responding to the demand of the Kosher consumer” or “Our responsibility is to the Halacha (Jewish law), which states nothing about the Kashrut of trans fats”. To this I would say, What are you doing to prepare for the market shifting? Are you prepared to retrain Kosher supervisors to work in another field? Are you ready to face the fact that there is a Biblical requirement to maintain one’s health? If it would be required, would you certify cigarettes? Now that trans fats are banned in many places are you ready to refuse to certify trans fats?

My vision (natch), is perhaps in addition to calling for a decentralized system of produce and meat, we should be calling for local Kashrut organizations certifying local producers, and refusing to use ingredients sourced from China or South America. At the very least if we know where local food is available we should be voting with our stomachs and buying local rather than mass produced.

Watch the Video Here

Hat tip to Chef Laura for inspiration

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6 Responses to “Rebbe Pollan vs. Rebbe Industry”

  1. bsci Says:

    According to Rebbe Michael Pollan, food is defined as something your grandmother would recognize. I would bet a big bunch of kale that your grandmother didn’t use emulsifiers to make sure her cake was delicious.

    egg can be an emulsifier. Gelatin is an emulsifier (often the source of kashrut problems in emulsifiers). Even mustard in salad dressings can be an emulsifier. Just because grandma might not have used the word “emulsifier” doesn’t mean she wasn’t using them all the time.

    I also don’t get the general point of the post. The eat local movement theoretically could be a big threat to Kashrut organizations, but it’s unlikely that will ever take a huge share of the market. The desire to only buy raw foods and cook everything from scratch is a big threat to the kashrut organizations. As long as food is produced in factories whether they use chemicals or purely “natural” ingredients, there is a profitable role for the kashrut organizations to play.

  2. Eric Schulmiller Says:

    Like the previous poster said, every cook uses emulsifiers (egg, mustard, etc). Otherwise, how would anything stick together??

    This whole “only what grandma did” part of Pollen’s shtick is a little weak. My grandma wouldn’t have known a big bunch of kale from high-fructose corn syrup, and I don’t think she ever ate Ethiopian, Thai, or Moroccan food, either. She used shmaltz (chicken fat), and lots of it. That doesn’t mean that this will be the cornerstone of my cuisine, too.

  3. Rabbi Avi Finegold Says:

    I was using emulsifiers as a rhetorical device. I agree with you that eggs et. al. bind our foods together, they are foods in and of themselves and are not manufactured in a food chemical lab. it is these powders and liquids and goops that I and many others have a problem with. The issue here is that much of the Kashrut industry is predicated on the fact that foods are made from a staggering lit of chemicals each of which needs to have assurance of kashrut. when your grandmother cooked, wherever she lived, or even when we cook from scratch, there is minimal intervention from the kashrut industry and much of what we use does NOT need a hechsher. The food industry is exactly the opposite.

  4. Ketzirah Carly Says:

    See my problem with the whole thing is that they certify foods with Hydrogenated Oils — still. Maybe they didn’t know better at first, but how can that be “pure?”

  5. bsci Says:

    he issue here is that much of the Kashrut industry is predicated on the fact that foods are made from a staggering lit of chemicals each of which needs to have assurance of kashrut.

    I think you have it exactly opposite. It’s the chemicals that are almost always kosher and require minimal supervision. Someone just needs to look at a list. It’s more basic foods animal based gelatin or lard that require supervision. If anything maintaining a list of chemicals is an added expense for the kashrut industry. The profit for these organizations is sending people to factories to make sure kosher and non-kosher products stay separate and that kosher products use the correct foods.

    I get the point you are trying to make, but, in this case, your issue seems to be factory vs. home cooking and this has nothing to do with the ingredients in the factory produced food.

  6. invisible_hand Says:

    the kosher industry is just that – an industry. it looks out for itself, in terms of how much money it can make, and how it can have the market serve its needs.
    and i say this as an (admittedly cynical) strict observer of kashrut.

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