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Jewish Journal

Can we afford kosher lettuce?

by Jonah Lowenfeld

January 25, 2012 | 12:35 pm

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.

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