A Cut Above

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

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

From Troika (Fall 1997).
Subscriptions $10/yr. (4 issues), Box 1006, Weston, CT 06883.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.