Kosher Meat: In Depth
What sort of farms does kosher meat come from? How are the animals reared? How does the trade compare with the organic and free-range market?
Many kosher meat-eaters are not only aware of wider trends towards organic produce, but feel excluded from the improvement in quality and choice that they perceive in non-kosher meat.
Gaby Brown, a mother-of-three from Stamford Hill, said: "Keeping kosher is fine but I find that I don't have as much choice about sourcing origins and we don't get meat or poultry from special or historic breeds, which can be particularly good. It feels to me like we're looking on from the sidelines; the non-kosher trade has all this variety while we can only sit and gaze from afar.
"The choice of cuts and varieties is much less, while the prices, for what is on offer, are ridiculous. A non-kosher chicken in the big supermarkets is half the price of kosher; a kosher duck will cost more than £20. I also think the presentation of the products in shops around here is horrible.
"I know about both sides because I was brought up non-kosher. The quality of the kosher meat is quite poor, particularly the mince, which tends to be salty. If you want to eat kosher, you have to make compromises and eat meat maybe only once or twice a week."
Diane Goodkind, a counsellor from north west London, said: "The kosher consumer is kept very much in the dark about where the meat and poultry comes from, what the animals are fed on, and why it costs so much.
"There is nothing on the labelling to tell you where the chicken or cow was reared. Why can't we have that?
"The other big question is why we pay so much for our meat. I am fussy about the beef I buy and I get only ball of rib from my butcher. Just around the corner is a non-kosher butcher who sells the most wonderful meat. If I had the choice I would go somewhere that sold organic beef, where I could choose a whole animal if I wanted and do various things with it."
Chickens destined for the kosher market are housed in large sheds where they can run around and are not battery reared, says Stephen Grossman, who runs Anglo-Jewry's biggest abattoir, LewcoPak, in Bedfordshire.
By the end of the year, EU regulations mean that all chickens will be housed in similar conditions.
"Ninety per cent of what we sell is either housed or kept in barns," said Mr Grossman. "We audit our farms and the standard density is 15-20 per cent below the industry standard permitted by EU legislation. In return, we get a bird that is able to roam and develop its leg muscles properly. That can be one of the problem areas if the tendons become inflamed and the bird is then not kosher.
"In the non-kosher market, 100,000 birds are put into a house. They are then subject to 'thinning', removing birds at intervals as they grow and take up more room. They will finish up with about 70,000 birds. In the kosher market, that's the number we would start with in the same housing, so the birds can grow in space, the need for 'thinning' is obviated and we finish up with more or less the same number.
"Commercially, that costs more; the more you breed, the cheaper it gets. But it's absolutely critical for the kosher trade to have quality, not quantity."
Any bird damaged or ill will be deemed not kosher by the shochet, said Rabbi Yehuda Brodie, chief executive of Manchester Kashrut Authority. This is why, at one day old, all chicks are given either antibiotic injections or their food is sprayed.
"If any grower has an eye to sell their animals to the kosher market, it's in their interests to make sure they are kept in the best condition, right the way through to the abattoir," he said.
Daisy the cow is not yet 24 months old. She has led a fairl y mundane life, chewing the cud or munching feed. When the time is right, she will be taken to market, where she will be bought by an abattoir. If it is for the kosher trade, the abattoir will sell the rear part back to the non-kosher market. She will not pass into the ownership of a kosher butcher until it has been shechted (slaughtered).
All animals, whether destined for the kosher or non-kosher market, eat the same food. Rabbi Brodie explained: "Thankfully, we live in a country where there is a wealth of legislation that binds poultry dealers and abattoir owners and we buy only from those comply with all the laws. We are part of a legal system which is the greatest guarantee that our meat and poultry is protected by the law."
He said up to 40 out of every 100 animals are given back to the non-kosher trade, adding: "There is a meticulous check carried out on the animal, with the vast amount of problems in the lungs caused by adhesions. If there are no adhesions and the rest of the animal is sound, it can be passed as glatt (without blemish). Some adhesions make the animal treif straight away; there are others which don't make it treif but it can't be called glatt.
"It all depends very much on how the animal has been cared for. If it is left in a drafty enclosure overnight at the abattoir, it can develop pneumonia and that's that. With poultry, you have to look at the legs for the tendons and sinews, the lungs and whether the wings are broken."
Richard Hyman at Titanics in Manchester said that every animal, both sheep and cattle for whatever market, are tagged on the ear with what is effectively a "passport".
He said: "Every animal comes with a bar code which contains its date of birth, where it was born, where it was reared, if it had any medication, every single bit of information."
He said the kosher trade did take the concerns of the healthy eating lobby into account ,"but it's really all to do with people eating a balanced diet. I would never say people should eat meat seven days a week. You have to be sensible and I think the majority of British Jewish consumers are. Generally people are more careful about what they eat now."
ORGANIC AND KOSHER
VNo kosher meat is certified as organic because the ten bodies with the power to certify produce as organic insist that animals for slaughter must be pre-stunned, which is not permitted under the laws of kashrut and shechita. Only the single action performed by a shochet, who has trained for five to seven years, is allowed, explained Dayan Yisroel Lichtenstein.
"A shochet makes his own knife and then checks it for any damage after every animal [he kills]. A shochet also has to be a person of moral standing as there is a strong religious aspect to this work as well as being a job."
A spokesman for the Soil Association, the biggest certifying body, said: "We accept that poorly handled stunning can cause distress, but that doesn't change the basic fact [of the requirement for pre-stunning]."
VDavid Rose, chief executive of the London Board for Shechita, insists that prices for kosher meat and poultry are on a par with, or even lower than, the best non-kosher equivalents.
"Like-for-like, it is not more expensive. Go to a specialist, quality, non-kosher butcher and find out what properly sourced meat costs; there is no valid comparison between kosher and mass-produced supermarket poultry. The Jewish customer is now getting much more for their money, and can only wonder at the huge amount of time, effort and mess that their grandparents had to cope with. Plucking, eviscerating and cleaning the meat and poultry - all with cold water and with special utensils - then soaking and salting and waiting while it all drained, without contaminating any of their kosher kitchenware, and then rinsing off - never mind the special salting and roasting of livers, again with special equipment. The change has come about because of centralisation and rationalisation by shechita authorities. The LBS cut its shechita fees; the total cost of providing shechita, examination, koshering, supervision and security-sealing of a chicken is now under 90p.
"You're hard-pushed to find a slim, fit-looking frum man," says Sam Joseph, "which is testament to a heavy meat diet. The problem with meat is that the fat metabolises into arachidonic acid, which helps to feed the inflammatory elements in the body."
Ms Joseph believes that the Sephardi diet is healthier than that of Ashkenazi, because it contains more pulses "and is generally more interesting. In the Ashkenazi diet, more opt for meat.
"People would be better off buying quality produce and eating less. Organic food, for example, is not just about taste but also about not consuming herbicides, pesticides and fungicides on fruit and vegetables, or growth hormones and antibiotics in animals, particularly cows."
One area that caused Ms Joseph particular concern was how poultry was wrapped and presented. "The fat in chicken absorbs the chemicals in clingfilm. Maybe butchers should look at changing to what the supermarkets use for meat, which is a box."
Altogether, she felt: "It would be even better if people experimented more with raw food. If people replaced a third of the food on their plate with raw vegetables, they would be getting much higher levels of anti-oxidants to counter the red meat."
She also condemned kosher stock cubes, saying they contained hydrogenated fat, banned by supermarkets.