We have no reason to be smug

By Clarissa Hyman, March 1, 2013
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In my mother's kitchen there was a sign: "Dish of the Day - Take It or Leave It". Dinner menus were limited, the food chain was relatively contained and it was only a short step from shochet to saveloys via the butcher's block. As long as it was kosher, and the shomer got a living out of it even if nobody else did, that was all that really counted.

Kosher meant what it said on the label - slaughtered and prepared according to the religious laws of kashrut. It had not acquired the rather amorphous halo of purity it has taken on recently, especially in the US where sales of kosher produce to the non-religious keep on rising in the belief, rightly or wrongly, a hechsher implies safe, unadulterated eating.

In the wake of the revelations about horsemeat in burgers, cottage pies and other processed dishes, there seems to have been something of an outbreak of smugness in the Jewish world. Our rather self-satisfied communal response has been to suppose that nothing like that could happen to us, that we can eat our meat with a clear conscience - a spiritually clean bill of fare, if you will.

Fraud and mislabelling can never be condoned; we all have a right to know exactly what we are eating. Yet while rigid supervision makes it unlikely Shergar could ever be substituted for brisket, that regulation does not extend to the period before a beast of the field meets its maker. The reality is that kosher certification does not guarantee fowl or animals have been raised with ethical concern for either welfare or the environment. Nor does it necessarily exempt processed meat products, whether from home or abroad, from containing fat, salt, preservatives, artificial colours, thickeners or - who knows - even mechanically separated meat.

Shergar could not be substituted for brisket

Although agricultural standards have undoubtedly improved, kosher meat and poultry are as likely as their treif counterparts to have been given growth hormones, graze on pesticide-packed land, confined to cages or fed a non-vegetarian diet. Even unblemished animals, rabbinically certified, may still have been fed antibiotics or kept in dark, overcrowded conditions. Battery chickens are often fed fish meal - cheap but full of protein- that has contributed to damaging fishing policies. They reach their full weight at half the age of organic chickens. It's unnatural, even if it is totally kosher.

Of course, cost is critical. Downward pressure on prices has played its part in the current crisis. Intensively reared meat is cheap; organic and free-range is not. Add on the cost of supervision, and reach for the smelling salts. Without turning vegetarian or wanting to preach, my answer would be to eat "better" meat less, be less wasteful, and more inventive with a wider range of cuts - not every cow is composed of prime steak alone.

The UK Soil Association does not accredit organically reared animals that are killed by shechita. But they are not the only source of certification, and the kosher organic pioneers in this country have found another. Both the London Board for Shechita and Manchester Beth Din have a supervised service to supply organic kosher produce. It's now even possible to buy certified organic chicken that is kosher for Pesach and has had a chametz-free diet.

The debate surrounding organic food is complex; the case is stronger perhaps over welfare and the environment than it is for health. As for the taste… that's something you have to decide for yourself. For the Jewish community, however, the issue surely goes beyond green grass, blue skies and a low carbon footprint. Organic produce is in the spirit of tikkum olam. Eating is a sacred act, and humane rearing of beef and poultry should be an intrinsic part of Jewish law on food preparation, as should respect for a sustainable environment. Complacency should not be on the menu.

Clarissa Hyman is author of The Jewish Kitchen (Interlink Publishing Group 2003)

Last updated: 10:45am, March 1 2013