A Cut Above

Kosher meat calms consumer concerns

| March/April 1998

You are what you eat.

This bit of folk wisdom increasingly guides the eating habits of our health-conscious society. Sugar-free, fat-free, all-natural foods have spread through grocery aisles like crabgrass over an anemic lawn. Vegetarians, in particular, wave the banners of animal rights and wholesome eating. But now, even the most enthusiastic carnivore can indulge unapologetically: Kosher meat has arrived.

Actually, kosher meat, a cornerstone of Jewish law, has been around for three thousand years. But over the past few years our taste for it has grown 12 to 15 percent annually. According to Forbes magazine, non-Jewish patronage accounts for nearly all this increase, despite flat food sales overall. Jewish law does not impose dietary restrictions primarily for health reasons, but people equate kosher food with healthy food.

Many national brand products, from ketchup to cream of coconut, carry on their labels emblems testifying to production standards conforming to Jewish law. Observant Jews depend on these symbols, representing varying degrees of supervision stringency, for their daily sustenance. Yet, not only kosher Jews find them relevant. 'Say your party guest list includes friends who are Muslim, lactose-intolerant, and have high blood pressure,' says Rabbi Norman Schloss, an Orthodox Union inspector who oversees much of the southeastern U.S. kosher production. 'An O-U symbol tells you the product is free from pork, which Islamic law prohibits; free from lard and animal oils, which are a problem for people with high cholesterol; and (unless it is accompanied by an additional D for dairy) free from casein, which would cause your lactose-intolerant friend terrible distress.' Many kosher symbols exist; some are regional, while others have specific meanings. P, for example, means approved for Passover use.

For most kosher foods, the cost of supervision, distributed over large production runs, adds less than a penny to the price. But kosher meat typically costs as much as 25 percent more than nonkosher meat. Why, then, do people buy it? 'The main reason is health,' says Kay Diamant, who with her husband owns one of St. Louis' three kosher butcher shops. 'People know that a pound of kosher meat goes into a pound of kosher meat. They're afraid of what else might be going into meat that isn't kosher.'

Studies by the consulting firm Kosher Coordinators show that over a third of the 6 million consumers of kosher food in 1995 bought kosher because they believed it to be better for them. Another third included Muslims, Seventh-Day Adventists, vegetarians, and lactose-intolerant people. Less than one-third of the total were Jews. A study by National Foods, producers of Hebrew National hot dogs and meats, indicates that non-Jews constitute 90 percent of their market, largely because they associate the word kosher on the label with quality.

They may be right. True, the meat industry has come a long way since Upton Sinclair described the Chicago stockyards as places where poisoned rats became tidbits in sausage. Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 1995 that pathogens in meat and poultry cause at least 4,000 deaths and 5 million illnesses annually in this country. Following a 1993 food poisoning outbreak, reportedly traced to fast food restaurants in the Northwest, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed treating all meat with antibacterial sprays. This process was never implemented, but Dr. Bill Kelly, USDA senior supervisor in Jefferson City, Missouri, explains that salting meat (to draw out residual blood, in accordance with kosher law) produces the same benefits. Most kosher meat is salted in large, 30- to 40-pound chunks, so the concentration of salt is minimized by the large ratio of volume to surface area.

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