I talked to a rabbi the other day about meat.
My goal was not to convince him that pork is awesome. Nor was it to get the Orthodox community’s endorsement on my pig-centric meat hobby. No, enough friends have mentioned the potential conflict of a guy named Pearlstein working so intensely with pork. Sometimes I wonder why pigs, Jews, and charcuterie can’t just get along better? I’m not interested in writing about my religion, much less anyone else’s. This is a blog about one pig leg, and some real stories about meat; not religion…I promise.
But, for a long time, I have wanted to understand the rules of Kashrut (kosher dietary law). There are a lot of people out there eating a very precise and restrictive kosher diet; never mixing dairy and meat in the same meal, never eating shellfish, and of course, not consuming pork. In fact, eating kosher meat requires that the animal (chicken, cow, or goat in most cases) is killed by a religiously trained schochet who has all the training of a rabbi with some knife skills thrown into the mix, ensuring that the animal will in fact become dead and edible….not just blessed. I thought it was time to talk to an expert and understand exactly what it means to be kosher on the production side of the food chain.
I don’t keep kosher (obviously… or I’d need to change the name of this blog to “Cluck-Moo”), but there are a lot of people who do eat only a kosher diet. This means that all their food (meat and packaged food included) has to be “blessed” by a council of rabbis and formally stamped with a big bold “U”. The kosher hechsher, this little stamp put on foods, is controlled completely by the Orthodox community. And the Orthodox community is the major purchaser of kosher goods. Small farms (organic or not) can almost never justify the extreme costs and procedural hoops that stand between the farmer, the council of rabbis, and the marketplace. When there is a demand for a product, and a very high cost of entry into the marketplace, guess what happens? Factory farming and giant food processing operations dominate the production of Kosher meat creation in the United States today today. They are the only ones who can afford to reduce their quality and efficiency at the same time.
Wouldn’t it be nice if a small farm and perhaps an ambitious salami maker could work together to produce locally grown, well fed, responsibly processed, and thoughtfully made charcuterie for the Kosher consumers who certainly have a right to eat food that traditionally (in the US) is simply not very interesting or good.
There is plenty of information about how to eat, cook, and consume kosher foods and keep a kosher home. But who are the farmers who raise the kosher animals? Who are the people that slaughter the cows, lambs, and chickens for kosher consumption in this country. How does somebody learn to do this work? Based on the quantity of Hebrew National Hot Dogs on the shelf at our local grocery store, there must be a pretty solid supply chain of meat that can be used for Kosher foods. But I needed to learn more.
Challenge #1: How do I find an expert or someone experienced in Kosher slaughter and Kosher certification?
My first challenge was figuring out just who would be willing or able to answer some of these questions. I know that there is a big “U” stamped on “certified kosher” foods sold in the store; like salt, hot dogs, matzah, etc. The list goes on, and in general, the foods stamped “certified Kosher” are highly processed, very salty, and not particularly tasty. In the case of jarred gefilte fish, I often hear comparisons to the odor and texture of cat food. So, what makes these foods worthy of the religiously sacred “U” stamp? I really didn’t want to stop at the letter “U” on packaged food. Getting specific about the whole rulebook from the farm to the kitchen had to be part of the story.
After a bit of research, I found three individuals who have unique experiences with Kosher food. I’m keeping everyone’s names out of this blog for now, since I did not tell them I’d write about our conversations.
- Expert #1 is an Orthodox Rabbi in New York City who has over 20 years of experience consulting and assisting groups get Rabbinical approval to process and sell Kosher food of all kinds. If you want that “U” stamped on your food, you need a counsel of Orthodox rabbis to approve your work. Whether you are a farmer, butcher, chef, grocery store, and anyone involved in preparing food, this rabbi can help get your operation setup “properly” and get yourself certified by the counsel of rabbis.
- Expert #2 is , a Jewish farmer/restaurant owner in Wisconsin who grew up in the Chicago suburbs. He moved away from the city and is working ten times harder, but living the dream of growing a lot of his own food, and selling much of it on the menu of his restaurant. He is interested in raising some farm animals, keeping things kosher, and putting that food on him menu so that his family could eat local responsibly farmed meat, but still keep within their dietary laws.
- Expert #3 is a rabbinical student studying to be a schochet (kosher butcher). This individual grew up in a reform Jewish home (the least restrictive “flavor” of American Judaism, where kosher diets are not followed as rigidly if at all.) This guy is a foodie and a conscientious consumer of locally and responsibly raised food. He wants his family to eat high quality food that he has had a hand in preparing. Going to Rabbinical school seemed to be part of his plan.
Not a bad list of individuals to get started.
So far, I’ve talked with two out of three of these guys. And what I’ve learned is that the world of kosher food production is not very transparent to outsiders.
I’ve only had a significant conversation with my new friend the New York Rabbi / kosher supervisor. After a disappointing initial email interaction with the rabbi, where I received a very brief, vague, and rather useless responses to my very specific questions (“What takes place during a kosher slaughter that is different from a non-kosher slaughter?”, and “Where can I learn the details and possibly study to be a kosher butcher?”, and “What must I do to help a local organic farm set themselves up to raise, slaughter, and sell KOSHER meat?”), I pushed back and told him that “I still had questions. Being told that this work “takes a lot of training”, and “is very difficult” was not giving me anything to work with.
The rabbi then agreed to spend some time with me, and we set up a phone meeting, talking for an hour, where he did a nice job of explaining the complexities, costs, and some of the specific procedural details involved in getting an animal from the farm to the dinner table of a Kosher house. It became clear that this work is performed by, and monitored by, and intended for the benefit of the Orthodox Jewish Community of the US. They are after all, the biggest consumers of Kosher food in the United States. And they are the primary participants in the Kosher meat processing in the US. This is not a bad thing, but it does lend itself to a sense of mystery and exclusiveness; sometimes even secrecy. This is a closed community that does a lot of religiously critical work for themselves. No one else out there is providing this service, so the Orthodox community has built an infrastructure to produce kosher food by themselves and for themselves. Not a bad thing, but if you are not part of the community, it can be extremely difficult to learn the trade, or create Kosher food without engaging the counsel of an Orthodox Rabbi food consultant….just to get a fancy “U” stamped on a food label.
Interestingly, there is a movement among non-Orthodox Jews called “Heksher Tzedek”, which creates complementary certification for food produced in a way that meets more comprehensive standards for animals and for the workers in the meat industry. Animal welfare during the slaughter and the employee welfare at the plant doing the slaughter are the focal point of this new “Heksher Tzedek” designation. This may be a step in the right direction, but still, nobody is giving much formal attention to the critical elements of raising healthy animals: access to pasture, good quality feed, and the humane treatment for the whole life of the animals.
Without documenting the entire Kosher slaughter process (which I do not fully understand yet), I did learn some interesting facts about Kosher processing:
- An animal’s health is inspected while alive, and also post-slaughter, when internal organs must be inspected and approved as healthy in order to be considered kosher.
- 40%-50% of cows that are killed are not deemed kosher because of lung, liver, or other organ diseases.Animals that are not approved are sold to non-kosher meat plants and sold to the non Kosher public.
- Chicken health is much easier to predict while inspecting a live chicken. They grow to full size very quickly compared to cows, and they are much less monetary risk to farmers hoping to raise Kosher meat.
- Kosher slaughtering practices changed dramatically about 15 years ago due to pressure from animal rights groups in the US. The practice of “Hanging Slaughter” is no longer performed in the US. This was challenged by animal rights groups as inhumane, and the Orthodox Counsel of rabbis made changes to accomodate.
- Holding pens are now a requirement (about $40,000) for beef processing. This wasn’t required before.
- Only 20% of organic cows are approved as acceptable as Kosher. (This is not because organic farming creates non-kosher meat, but rather because the organic dairy cows are older than their non-organic counterparts, and the older cows have a much greater chance of having “unacceptably” worn organs. If organic cows were made available at the ideal age for slaughter (rather than spending their prime as dairy cows), they would certainly be inline or better than the current numbers show.
- Daily involvement as a “killer” makes the rabbis very cautious about who they allow into the trade. Judaism prides itself on celebrating life, and to train someone to be a professional “killer” brings risk and extra challenges to the religious job. Rabbis are concerned about “questionable people” who are not fit for the role.
- Only the fore-quarter of a cow is used for Kosher meat in the US.
- Kosher slaughter must be performed by a schochet. Nobody else may perform the slaughter or the butchering.
The specific rules of kosher farming, slaughtering, butchering, and food production are much more detailed than this bullet list above. I just included a few things that were particularly interesting to me. After looking into this area of meat production, I want to know more. There is no reason why religious people hoping to do the “right thing” by supporting and eating a specific kind of meat should be stuck eating factory farmed, overly medicated, and tier-2 quality kosher meat. But that is the case. In order to qualify as Kosher, the thoughtful “small farmer” and engaged food production professional can not participate in the game. This doesn’t have to be the case forever, but it is now.
There is a kosher slaughterhouse being built in Portland, Oregon. My goal is to talk to those folks and hopefully do a site visit to their facility to see and learn what the whole thing is about first-hand. Expect a report sometime in the spring of 2010 when I hope to visit, observe, and hopefully get a better picture of what goes on at a kosher slaughter house.
As for Herschel, the prosciutto-to-be: he’s been drying for seven days now. Everything’s looking good.