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January 25, 2012

Can we afford kosher lettuce?

http://www.jewishjournal.com/cover_story/article/can_we_afford_kosher_lettuce_20120125

Yossi Asyag is an entrepreneur trying to grow bug-free kosher vegetables. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

Yossi Asyag is an entrepreneur trying to grow bug-free kosher vegetables. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

On a Monday morning in November, two men sat on the edge of a field in Carpinteria, 85 miles north of Los Angeles. The older one, middle-aged, wiry and bareheaded, had the face of someone who has served in the military, worked in agriculture or, in his case, both. Alongside him was a younger man who wore a black kippah and looked, from his complexion, like he spends his days indoors.

Between them, a young head of romaine lettuce sat on a table. It was cracked open, the small leaves splayed outward to reveal a few flecks of soil.

“Did you see anything moving?” the older man asked.

“No,” the younger one replied. “No, this looks very good.”

Yossi Asyag, 45, is an Israeli-born agricultural entrepreneur and the founder of a small farming operation that grows kosher-certified fresh lettuce and herbs. Yosef Caplan, 27, is assistant director of the kashrut services division at the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC). Every Monday, Caplan drives from Los Angeles to Carpinteria and then to another site nearby for his job as Asyag’s farm’s mashgiach, or kosher supervisor.

That nothing was moving in the lettuce on the table on this day left both Asyag and Caplan hopeful that no bugs inhabited the other 5,000 heads of lettuce growing in the greenhouse a few dozen yards away.

Harvest time would come two weeks later. Through a combination of careful monitoring and judicious application of pesticides, Asyag said, the lettuce in the greenhouse stayed bug-free. That week’s haul of romaine lettuce from the farm was certified as kosher.

Worse than a cheeseburger

The presence of even one whole bug, dead or alive, can render an entire vegetable treif — unkosher. On this matter, Orthodox rabbis are unequivocal.

“From a Torah perspective, eating a Big Mac or eating a salad with insects in it, the salad is worse,” Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, who runs the nonprofit Kosher Information Bureau, told me when I met him at his home office in Valley Village.

With stakes like that, it’s no wonder some kosher-observant Jews are willing to pay top dollar for kosher-certified produce. At one store in Los Angeles earlier this month, an RCC-certified head of romaine was selling for seven times the per-ounce price of one without the kosher designation. For East Coast consumers, who buy the majority of Asyag’s produce, most of the lettuce is first pre-cut and bagged as processed salads, and then sold at an even higher markup.

Greenhouse-grown, bug-free kosher lettuce is an Israeli innovation. First pioneered in 1990 in the then-occupied Gaza Strip, the growing technique is still often referred to as the “Gush Katif” method, named for the now-dismantled Jewish settlement where it originated.

Over the past five years, California has become home to the largest North American bug-free-growing operation, and it’s about to get bigger. Asyag, who has been selling RCC-certified lettuce under the brand California Kosher Farms since around 2008, is about to embark on a major expansion, aiming to double his farm’s output over the next 12 months to more than 1 million heads of lettuce a year. He’s looking to buy more land in Oxnard and has already started using Israeli-designed hydroponics to grow more lettuce in less space.

But while the equation “lettuce minus bugs plus rabbinic approval equals good returns,” might seem simple, the reality is anything but. This nascent industry is fraught with disputes, not just over what Jewish law requires, but over what price consumers and businesses should have to pay in order to keep their salads kosher.

Through dozens of interviews with growers, rabbis, local kosher caterers and staff from one local kosher supervision agency, a complicated picture emerges of a niche business that illustrates the complexities and the unusual financial challenges of the modern kosher marketplace. One thing is certain: It is the RCC supervisors who hold most of the cards.

The RCC does not have an ownership interest in the operations of the farm that grows the vegetables it certifies; nevertheless, the farm would not exist without RCC certification and support. In aiming for the absolute highest standard of kosher, the RCC — widely considered the most stringent and broadly accepted kosher certifying body in the region — has chosen to certify just one grower, granting him a monopoly and even privileging his interests over those of the caterers the RCC also certifies.

“These ladies were scrubbing the lettuce with soap.”

Unlike, say, the prohibition on eating pork or shellfish, few non-Orthodox Jews today know about the “no bugs” kosher requirement. A section about insects from the fourth edition of Eidlitz’s book “Is it Kosher? An Encyclopedia of Kosher Food, Facts, and Fallacies” suggests that even as recently as 1999, the author’s largely Orthodox readership wasn’t paying as much attention to keeping bugs out of their food as he thought they should.

“Although eating insects is strictly forbidden by the Torah, we find this concern often overlooked,” Eidlitz writes. In the 1950s and ’60s, Eidlitz said in an interview, when the application of dangerous pesticides, including DDT, ensured that very few bugs could be found on American produce, leading rabbinic authorities gave permission to kosher-observant American Orthodox Jews to “overlook” these laws.

Not anymore. In the last 20 years, Orthodox rabbis in general, and those involved in kosher certification in particular, have been working hard to introduce — reintroduce, they say — practices of checking fresh vegetables for bugs in observance of the laws of kashrut.

Blanket bans have been issued on the most bug-friendly and hardest-to-check produce: raspberries, blackberries, whole artichokes and more are entirely forbidden because they’re too complex and fragile in form (the berries) or too tightly closed (artichokes) to inspect. And the Web site of every major kosher certifying agency includes guidebooks, instructional pamphlets, even videos outlining a labor-intensive regimen designed to rid other vegetables of insects.

Such extreme cleaning and checking can seem unusual to an outsider.

“I was in Crown Heights last week doing a demonstration where these ladies were scrubbing the lettuce with soap,” I was told by Geila Hocherman, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef based in New York who co-wrote the cookbook “Kosher Revolution,” published last year.

But the insects they’re looking for are tiny — and seemingly everywhere. Arugula leaves and asparagus tips are potential hiding spots for thrips — 1-millimeter-long insects that can be seen with the naked eye but are easier to spot with a magnifying glass. Pinhead-sized aphids can lurk in and around the florets of broccoli and in bunches of fresh parsley. As for spider mites, which, despite their name, are not related to spiders, the minuscule creatures (less than 1 millimeter in diameter) can seem impossible to eliminate.

“When a spider mite gets into the lettuce, even if you wash it, it doesn’t let go,” Asyag said. “It’s like the leg gets in.”

This new vigilance has changed some observant people’s diets, too: Hocherman, who describes her own Jewish observance as “very Modern Orthodox,” included in “Kosher Revolution” a number of recipes that run afoul of the vegetable-related rules instituted by the Orthodox rabbinical establishment.

The main ingredient in Glazed Brussels Sprouts With Chestnuts, for example, “should not be used,” according to the RCC, as the sprouts’ tight leaves could hide bugs. Broccoli florets, an important part of Hocherman’s recipe for Cold Sesame Noodles With Broccoli and Tofu, must be parboiled before they can be checked, according to the Orthodox Union (OU), and if three or more bugs are found, the whole head must be thrown away.

And consider the situation facing green asparagus. “What they’re asking us to do is to cut off the tips and shave the sides,” said Errol Fine, explaining why the vegetable is no longer on the menu at Pat’s, the upscale restaurant in the heart of Pico-Robertson he owns with his wife. Pat’s restaurant and catering business both are certified by Kehilla Kosher, a Los Angeles kosher certification agency run by Rabbi Avrohom Teichman, and Fine said he can’t remember when Pat’s last served asparagus.

“We should’ve had a farewell party,” he said, ruefully.

And it’s not just homemakers in predominantly Chasidic or “black-hat” neighborhoods who are washing their lettuce with soap, shaving and circumcising their asparagus spears and keeping their fruit platters free of raspberries and blackberries.

“I think by now the Orthodox Jewish community has been well educated that there is, or can be, an infestation problem, and that they need to check,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, a large Modern Orthodox synagogue, also in Pico-Robertson. Muskin was president of the RCC for five years in the 1990s, and he said that in those days people worried they might not be thorough enough in checking. Today, however, Muskin said his congregants are more comfortable with the task.

“It’s pretty straightforward,” Muskin said, noting that although the RCC’s guidelines recommend that people use lightboxes, in his community most people have stopped doing so, an indication of their increased comfort with the process.

“You have to wash [the fruit or vegetable] with a food detergent,” Muskin said about checking non-certified vegetables. “You have to wash it and rinse it once or twice.” The water must then be checked for insects. If none are found, the fruit or vegetable must be checked as well.

If there are any bugs, the washing must be repeated. “If there aren’t,” Muskin said, “then you know you’ve got a good head of lettuce or strawberry.”

The checking regimen has provoked some criticism, however. Sue Fishkoff’s recent book, “Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority,” dedicates an entire chapter to the war on bugs. For an outside academic perspective, she consulted with David Kraemer, a professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary.

Although Orthodox officials today present the bug rules as rooted in the Bible and a centuries-old tradition of Jewish law, Kraemer said the sanctioning of certain fruits and vegetables is actually a recent phenomenon. It is, Kraemer said, one more step in a long process in which Jews throughout history have adopted ever-stricter regulations on their eating, a process he calls “humratization,” derived from humra, the Hebrew word for a stricture that goes above and beyond what is required under halachah — Jewish law.

Orthodox rabbis dispute this characterization.

“This is not a humra,” Muskin said. “This is real halachah. You’re not allowed to eat these insects. If you’re a kosher-observant Jew, this means something to you. Just like you have to worry about other kosher laws, this is part of the kosher laws.”

“It’s not more kosher. It just makes life easier.”

While checking for bugs is described by Orthodox rabbis as a non-negotiable religious requirement, kosher-certified lettuce offers convenience to individual kosher-observant consumers who like salad.

Americans spent $3 billion on all bagged lettuce in 2008, a sum that includes a small number of kosher-certified varieties. Dole produces bagged products that are supervised by the Baltimore-based Star-K kosher certification agency. Even Trader Joe’s has been offering kosher-certified bagged lettuce products for more than a decade, according to a company spokeswoman.

As is the case for all kosher products, rabbis and consumers trust some certifications more than others. But regardless of who will — or won’t — rely on them, these products are considered kosher by virtue of the industrial washing they undergo, a process that, the certifying rabbis say, can remove all bugs from some types of lettuce.

Romaine lettuce is different, because to be certified by the RCC it has to be bug-free from day one. But even though rabbis see the product as a beneficial innovation — “a car that didn’t have to be recalled is better than a car that had to be recalled and you fixed the issue with some sort of an update on it,” Eidlitz said — many were careful to add that, for the home cook, checked romaine lettuce is as kosher as the variety being grown bug-free.

“It’s not more kosher,” Muskin said of the RCC-certified lettuce. “It just makes life easier. You’re paying for a convenience. You’re paying so that you know that you won’t have to wash it.”

But the cost of the kosher-grown lettuce is markedly higher. In late January, Glatt Mart, an RCC-certified supermarket on Pico Boulevard, was selling an ordinary head of romaine lettuce (1 pound, 6 ounces) for $1.19, while a much smaller head of romaine from Asyag’s farm (10.3 ounces) was priced at $3.59, seven times as much per ounce. By comparison, a pre-washed — but not kosher-certified — 10-ounce bag of romaine lettuce packaged by Ready Pac sold for $2.99, just under six times the price per ounce of the ordinary head of lettuce.

Buyers on the East Coast pay even higher prices. In 2009, Asyag began selling lettuce to Bodek, a 20-year-old company whose products are certified by three separate Orthodox authorities. Today, some 90 percent of Asyag’s lettuce is shipped to Bodek’s processing facility in Toronto every week.

In mid-January, a buyer ordering a 5-ounce bag of Bodek romaine paid $3.89 at allinkosher.com, a Web-based retailer headquartered in Monsey, N.Y. An 8-ounce bag bought from the New York City-based allfreshkosher.com cost $5.19.

Clearly, consumers are willing to pay the premium for Asyag’s produce — happy, even. Otherwise, Asyag said, “A lot of people simply won’t eat lettuce. I receive so many phone calls from Jews saying, ‘Hey, thank you, because the last time I had lettuce was 20 years ago.’ ”

“That’s not the bug we’re worried about.”

With the possible exception of the strawberry, the Holy Grail of kosher-certified produce is romaine lettuce. Not only are its leaves, with their soft, folded surfaces, hard to inspect, but romaine is generally very popular (who doesn’t like a good Caesar salad?) and is also the bitter herb of choice for many Jews on Passover.

But if, for families that observe the strictest level of kashrut, the lettuce grown at the RCC-certified farm is an optional convenience, for RCC-certified businesses, it has become a requirement.

The most recent edition of “The RCC Home Guide to Preparing Fruits and Vegetables,” published in November 2010, outlines a nine-step procedure for cleaning and checking “open-leaf” lettuces like romaine, bok choy and Napa cabbage. The process includes first soaking the lettuce in a soapy solution, then in fresh water and then checking — first the water, then three handfuls of the lettuce leaves, “preferably over a lightbox.”

At one time, RCC-certified vendors were able to pay a mashgiach to take the lettuce through this very involved process. That is no longer the case — indeed, it hasn’t been an option for years.

“On a restaurant or catering level,” Rabbi Yaakov Vann, the RCC’s director of kashrut services, said, “my responsibility is to ensure that all 250 people being served are eating kosher. And the problem is that the reality of the amount of time that it may take to take a head of lettuce from A to Z is just not realistic given the circumstances of the environment.”

Vann, who began working at the RCC in 2007, was recruited because of his earlier experience with food service and kosher supervision. Originally from Monsey, N.Y., Vann worked as a young man as a waiter in a cafe and started paying attention to bugs in vegetables when he was hired as a mashgiach by the OU in a kosher Chinese restaurant in the Catskills.

Today, every RCC-certified kosher retailer — caterers, cafes and restaurants — has to abide by its vegetable policy. One RCC contract obtained by The Jewish Journal included a clause that explicitly stated that the vegetable policy “may require abstaining from some vegetables and/or the purchase and use of vegetables that are grown in a fashion that reduces infestation rates.”

Although Vann declined to share a copy of the vegetable policy for businesses, he said that it is similar, though not identical, to the “Home Guide.” A six-step process to ensure the kashrut of fresh strawberries outlined in the “Home Guide,” Vann said, is not part of the vegetable policy because the RCC does not allow this process to be used in the commercial establishments it supervises.

Kosher certifying agencies regularly require the businesses they supervise to adhere to more stringent guidelines than those that apply to home cooks. But no regulation has provoked more complaints from RCC-certified restaurants and caterers than the agency’s requiring them to buy their lettuce and other produce from Asyag’s farm when it is available.

In interviews conducted over the past few months, many RCC-certified caterers said that in 2009 they were informed that if they wanted to buy romaine lettuce, they would have to purchase only products grown under RCC supervision to keep their RCC certification.

Nearly all of the owners of RCC-certified businesses interviewed said they had been affected by the change — particularly because Ready Pac brand bags of romaine lettuce had already lost their certification from the Vaad Hoeir of St. Louis, in 2006. Rabbi Zvi Zuravin of the St. Louis agency told me that the certification issued to Ready Pac Spring Mix was also rescinded at the same time, leaving the RCC-certified caterers with very few options.

Randy Fried, a co-owner of R House Foods, a catering company that began providing the food at the Modern Orthodox Shalhevet School at the beginning of the current school year, remembers exactly when the change happened. He was working at another RCC-certified catering company when the first package of RCC-certified romaine lettuce arrived.

“We open it up, we pull back the first leaf and there’s a slug sitting on the leaf,” Fried said. “And we all started laughing. This is what we’re paying two and half times [as much] for?”

So they called the RCC. “The answer we got is,” Fried said, “That’s not the bug we’re worried about.”

Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

Brenda Walt, owner of Catering by Brenda, started her business in 1987 under another kosher supervision agency and became RCC-certified in the 1990s.

Like many of those who agreed to be interviewed for this article, Walt, who lives a Modern Orthodox lifestyle and is Shabbat-observant, said she follows the policies of the RCC, even if she doesn’t always understand them.

“I’m pretty much one of those who do as I’m told — at least here in my business,” the South Africa native said. She said it’s been about six years since she last bought an ordinary head of romaine lettuce, and over that time, she has been following the RCC’s increasingly stringent guidelines.

Walt said she knew of another RCC-certified caterer who was so dissatisfied at being restricted to buying from the RCC-certified farm that he undertook his own lettuce comparison.

“He went up and bought Ready Pac, which he washed like one would wash,” Walt said, “and then he bought some [RCC-certified] kosher romaine lettuce, and then he sent it to an authorized laboratory.

“It turned out,” she said, “that the RCC lettuce had far more bugs than the one that he’d washed.”

The farms’ products might be “ridiculously expensive,” Walt said, but she felt the quality has improved. What bothered Walt most, however, wasn’t the added cost; it was what she saw as unnecessary waste.

During weeks when the RCC supervisors declare the harvest from the farm too bug-infested to sell, Walt said, she has to scramble to buy bags of Ready Pac lettuce. 

“Even though we buy the triple-washed lettuce,” Walt said, “we have to rewash it with soap.

“These are RCC rules, and I follow them to the last letter,” Walt said. “But I can’t tell you that it’s easy, and that I don’t hate the fact that when I have a busy weekend coming up, on Friday the water just pours out of the faucet for four hours without stop, because that’s what it takes to wash lettuce.”

In fact, it’s not just the water from Walt’s sinks that gets dumped during the weeks when the farm’s lettuce can’t be sold as kosher. According to Asyag, any harvested lettuce that isn’t up to the RCC’s standards ends up going straight into the trash.

“We throw away a lot,” Asyag said, estimating that about 20 percent of the previous year’s yield was discarded due to infestation.

Walt, who washes her own parsley to avoid having to buy the kosher farm’s more expensive parsley, does like one of the RCC-certified products, though: the dill, because cleaning the ordinary stuff is a difficult chore.

“It’s very hard to remove the microscopic bugs sticking to the leaves,” she said.

Daniel Javanfard of Sinai Glatt Kosher Catering said he doesn’t buy the farm’s produce because his clients are, for the most part, not observant, and so don’t want to pay the higher costs associated with the strictly supervised produce.

“I cannot tell my clients that this produce is coming from a Gush Katif-type farm,” he said, “because the clients we have in Los Angeles, they don’t care that much, and the economy — everything is up and down, up and down.”

Instead, Javanfard, who specializes in kosher Persian cuisine, uses pre-certified Ready Pac iceberg lettuce mix for his salads. And when he makes Israeli salad, rather than pay the premium, he’s been leaving out the parsley for the last three or four years.

“It’s not a slam dunk,” said Alex Felkai, the owner of Kosher on Location, who uses the farm’s produce when he caters a wedding, but not in the salads he serves daily to the students at New Community Jewish High School. Those are made with kosher-certified iceberg lettuce mix.

However, he said he understands why the farm’s prices are high.

“They are more expensive, but that’s part of providing kosher food,” he said. “We certainly do use it when we can.”

More difficult, Felkai said, is the unpredictability of the farm’s supply.

“Lately they haven’t been producing all the different crops that have been approved by the rabbis,” Felkai added. “I would have to call up on Monday this week, and hear, ‘We have this and this and this.’ It’s just hard to run a catering business like that.”

Kosher Broccoli: $5.50 per head, wholesale

Last October, when I reached Ilan Bender by phone at Bender Farms, his 100-acre ranch in Santa Paula, it was clear he was in no mood to talk about his short-lived stint as a kosher lettuce farmer.

“If you want to talk about kosher lettuce, I can only tell you bad stuff,” he said.

Bender, 75, was now working 12-hour days overseeing the construction of a $1.5 million factory on his ranch that will produce PVC-coated electrical conduit, the kind of wiring used in highly corrosive environments, like sewage treatment plants and offshore drilling rigs.

This project is, for Bender, a return to his roots. Born in Israel, Bender came to the United States in 1959. He studied engineering at what is now California State University, Los Angeles, and came up with the idea of coating electrical conduit while working in his garage.

His venture into kosher agriculture was different. Bender bought the Santa Paula ranch 12 years ago, and sometime around 2007 — he was hazy about exact dates — he said Vann and Asyag approached him and suggested they grow kosher vegetables at Bender Farms.

The kosher business eventually took up about 10 acres of his ranch, but starting out, Bender had some concerns, chief among them the possibility of another grower competing with him on price.

“It’s a very specialized product, and it’s a very small market,” Bender said. The greenhouses are expensive, and he was hesitant to make such a significant up-front investment.

Vann and Asyag put him at ease, though. “They pretty much gave me the assurance that it would be a small operation and protected for price,” Bender said.

For the RCC, establishing a kosher lettuce monopoly wouldn’t be difficult. According to its Web site, the RCC certifies more than 50 kosher establishments in Los Angeles — restaurants, bakeries, caterers — along with nine kosher markets. Because any certified kosher product these businesses use has to be approved by the RCC, if Vann wanted to ensure that Bender Farms wouldn’t face competition, he could do so simply by declining to approve any other producer of fresh kosher produce.

Bender Farms grew mostly romaine lettuce, but also parsley, dill and cilantro.

“We were very successful with broccoli and cauliflower,” Bender said, listing two products Asyag doesn’t currently offer. But even if Bender Farms was offering bug-free kosher broccoli, its asking price was a non-starter. Last week, conventionally grown broccoli crowns were retailing at Glatt Mart for 69 cents a pound, which comes out to less than $2 a head. Bender Farms’ broccoli was priced at about $5.50 per head, wholesale.

“The end user loved us,” said Bender, adding that he, too, had received phone calls from satisfied customers. But in many cases, the RCC-certified kosher markets refused to pay his asking price. 

Bender and Asyag’s working relationship dissolved quickly. According to Bender, Asyag asked for a too large a share of the profits from their joint venture.

For his part, Asyag said it was exactly the opposite. “Not only did he fail,” Asyag said of Bender, “he was trying to steal the business. Bottom line, he wanted this whole thing for himself.”

After splitting from Bender, Asyag started California Kosher Farms with another grower in 2008 and, despite the earlier assurances Bender said he’d gotten, began to compete with his former partner. Bender feels particularly burned by Vann’s decision to award RCC certification to Asyag’s produce.

“When Yossi left me, he [Vann] shouldn’t have allowed him to compete with us,” Bender said, “because it destroyed the business.”

But while Bender told a story of a business-killing price war, Asyag said that Bender’s business failed because he priced his produce at a level no consumer would be willing to pay. Even Vann knew as much, Asyag said.

“He [Bender] came to the market and wanted to sell a head of lettuce to the supermarket at $3.75,” Asyag said. “At that point, the rabbi told me there is no business.”

And while Asyag wouldn’t disclose his exact wholesale prices, he said today they are “less than half” of the $3.75 Bender wanted to charge in 2009.

At the retail level, Asyag said, “The prices are right; the prices are cheap. The lettuce is $6.50 [a head] in New York. In L.A., it’s $2.99 to $3.50 a head.”

Asyag said he hasn’t yet made money selling his lettuce, and it is possible that he has been pricing it below cost for the past four years in an effort to build market share. But that seems unlikely. Bender got out of the business in 2009; he sold Vann the truck he bought to deliver produce to Los Angeles each week; the greenhouses have been leased to a grower of organic and conventional herbs. Asyag, now the only grower supplying RCC-certified lettuce to Los Angeles, should have no reason to voluntarily take a loss on his product.

“You have to pray a lot.”

“In general, the council policy is always not to encourage monopolies,” Vann said last week while waiting at a car wash near the Calabasas Shul, the Orthodox synagogue in Calabasas Park where he has been the rabbi since 1995. “Sometimes you need to have assistance to get something off the ground, but, long-term, monopolies are not in the interests of the community.”

Vann even hinted at the possibility that certain developments — improved washing technology, for instance — could spur the RCC to make changes to its kosher program, even in ways that could go against the interest of the farm at times.

“He mentioned that,” Asyag said. And while some new machine might make bagged lettuce an RCC-worthy alternative to his lettuce, Asyag said what would really drive the RCC to change its policies would be if he were unable to provide a reliable supply of kosher, bug-free lettuce.

“Not having it on a weekly basis throws the market off,” Asyag said. Any week when his product isn’t available, the caterers and restaurant owners call Vann, asking him to let them wash the only other kind of romaine lettuce they are allowed to use — the bagged, triple-washed Ready Pac brand.

“What do you think the rabbi says?” Asyag said. “ ‘OK, I’ll let you wash it.’ ”

Even those calls sound pleasant, compared to the phone calls the certifying rabbis from the RCC and those who certify Asyag’s produce for Bodek have gotten in the event a bug is found. After all, unlike, say, non-kosher beef, which might look and taste exactly like kosher beef, a bug found in a bag of kosher lettuce is undeniable evidence.

“If the product is marked kosher, and people check it, and it’s not kosher, then they call,” Asyag said. “They call the rabbi and they give him hell.”

“You can tell afterward whether there’s bugs in it,” Vann said. “That’s why you have to pray a lot. You pray, you do a lot of homework, you do your best, and you ask God — help us. I encourage everybody to do that.”

Asyag hired a new Israeli grower to assist him in October 2011, his fourth in five years, and he’s optimistic about the future. The farm has had a 100 percent success rate in keeping the produce bug-free since I visited in November, and Asyag occasionally talks about possible avenues for the business to expand — like “kosher organic” lettuce or bringing kosher lettuce into mainstream supermarkets.

“My idea was to feed the Jewish people at effective prices,” Asyag said. Even so, he knows that the pressure — from businesses and individuals — on the rabbis who certify his product is intense.

“This is the last chance,” he said.

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