January 25, 2012
Can we afford kosher lettuce?
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“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.”