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Kosher, beyond its obvious religious significance, also stands for healthy and safe in consumers’ minds. Now, a new study has made the unsettling discovery that kosher chicken may be harbouring more pathogenic bacteria than conventionally reared and slaughtered birds, not less. This is not the first time that the safety of kosher food has been called into question. The kosher industry needs to tackle this before its reputation ends up in tatters.
In October 2013, F1000Resarch published a study carried out jointly by four institutions, including the Northern Arizona University, which assessed the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant E coli in retail chicken. The aim was to compare the frequency of these bacteria in four types of chicken – conventional, organic, raised without antibiotics (RWA) and kosher. For this purpose, 213 samples of raw chicken sold in the New York City metropolitan area were collected and analysed.
The results were surprising. Organic chicken meat had the same incidence of antibiotic-resistant E coli as conventionally raised chicken. RWA chicken meat was only slightly less affected, while kosher emerged with nearly double the frequency compared with conventional. The researchers had no plausible rationale to explain these baffling results.
Meat is not the only context in which kosher foods have come under fire in a food safety/public health context. A year ago, the (Israeli) Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar removed “extra strictly kosher” (“mehadrin”) vegetables from the list of kosher foods. The decision was made on the basis that excessive quantities of pesticides were being used in the cultivation of these vegetables. Insects are not kosher, and some of the companies marketing this “bug free” produce were employing questionable marketing claims, implying that it was impossible to completely clean leafy vegetables of insects.
The rabbi took issue with farm workers’ and consumers’ health being compromised by exposure to excess pesticides and pesticide residues, citing that, according to the Torah, avoiding threats to health and life overrode any individual biblical commandments. Consequently, he recommended that kosher shoppers should buy conventional vegetables and inspect them carefully before consumption, rather than succumb to an obsessiveness that was counterproductive to health and wellbeing.
According to the USDA-funded Agricultural Marketing Resource Center (AgMRC), 44% of the global market for kosher foods is accounted for by Jewish consumers, and 19% by Muslim consumers (kosher and halal laws are very similar, although not identical). The remainder is accounted for by consumers who have no investment in Jewish religious dietary laws but who prefer kosher for other reasons, among which quality, healthfulness and food safety rank highest.
What appeals to virtually all consumers is that kosher meats come from animals which have not been administered drugs, including hormones and antibiotics. Kosher law stipulates that, at the point of slaughter, the animal must be pronounced “free of disease or flaws” by a rabbi.
The presence of the kosher label seems to reassure consumers that a close-up inspection was carried out, and by someone with a strong moral and spiritual commitment in executing the task correctly, rather than by a random inspector just awaiting the end of their shift.
However, the common assumption that kosher production automatically ensures superior standards when compared with other production methods is not really warranted. The strict observance of ancient dietary laws may have very little positive impact when it comes to microbiological safety. After all, in the days when these rules were originally drawn up, there was no inkling of the existence of pathogenic bacteria. Visual inspection of a carcass, even if done carefully and extensively, does not protect the end consumer from potentially infectious food.
This latest study involving retail chicken is a warning sign that kosher is not synonymous with “safe”. As the kosher food industry grows, it will come under increasing scrutiny, and we may see a lot more investigations culminating in the conclusion that kosher foods are no safer than other types, and may, indeed, be a public health concern.
The “extra strictly kosher” vegetables are a case in point, where the original intention of protecting human health has been totally corrupted, resulting in produce laden with potentially dangerous pesticides for the sake of killing off insects, which never constituted a threat to human health in the first place.
At present, kosher foods continue to enjoy the reputation of being of high quality, healthy and safe, exerting appeal over a very wide consumer base far beyond those adhering to the Jewish faith. If the kosher industry wants to keep benefiting from this state of affairs, it must step up its game and sharpen its focus on microbiological safety, as well as engaging in pesticide reduction strategies.