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.
Health is one reason why vegetarians disdain meat; humanitarian concern is another. Although inhumane treatment of animals does not pertain specifically to kosher laws, Jewish law prohibits it. Animals from large herds, penned in feedlots, often suffer mishandling that causes lacerations, bruising, or broken limbs, all of which invalidate the animal's kosher standing. It makes more sense for kosher slaughterhouses to draw from smaller or free-ranging herds in which the animals are treated better and are in better shape. Pen-fed veal is prohibited outright by almost all authorities because of the gross mistreatment of the calves, which are tightly confined and often force-fed to develop the tenderness that makes veal distinctive.
Along the same lines, ritual slaughter, or sh'chita, involves severing the animal's throat with a single, swift cut from a perfectly smooth blade, believed to inflict no pain. Animal-rights activists have long held reservations concerning the conventional stun method, which leaves the animal alive, if unconscious, even as it is butchered.
Simple reflection on the world of difference between the respective processes that bring meat to the kosher and nonkosher counter is allaying a growing number of meat consumers' apprehensions about both health and humanitarianism. Although animal treatment concerns may remain, healthier livestock processed under more humane conditions conjures up images less repellent than those Sinclairian descriptions imprinted on our national consciousness. Perhaps knowing this, and faced with yet another veggie burger, the broad-minded leaf-eater may return to the real thing.
From Troika (Fall 1997). Subscriptions $10/yr. (4 issues), Box 1006, Weston, CT 06883.