January 22, 2004
Mad for Kosher Beef
Is the Jewish alternative safe enough for non-kosher consumers panicked over mad cow disease?
"Don't Get 'Mad,' Get Kosher. Kosher Meat Is Safe," reads an enormous red-and-yellow banner hanging in front of Santa Monica Glatt Market on Santa Monica Boulevard near Sawtelle Boulevard.
Well, maybe not completely safe, but certainly safer from mad cow disease.
"It's not foolproof 100 percent. It's more that mad cow is incredibly unlikely to be in the kosher food supply," said Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, founder of the Kosher Information Bureau (kosherquest.com) and a leading national authority in matters of kashrut.
The jury is still out on how the kosher beef industry will be affected by mad cow - which turned up in a Washington state Holstein in late December. Kosher consumers have not cut back on brisket or corned beef. And while anecdotal evidence from a few retailers suggests a slight increase in the volume of kosher meat being sold, the paranoid masses do not seem to be turning to ritually slaughtered beef to protect themselves from mad cow.
"My sense is that the one in five Americans who said they are somewhat apprehensive about mad cow are not going kosher, they are going to poultry or fish or vegetarian," said Menachem Lubinsky, president and CEO of Integrated Marketing Services, which tracks the kosher food industry.
That is not stopping purveyors of kosher beef from trying to capitalize on the scare and on the notion that people consider kosher food in general to be more wholesome.
"A lot of people want somebody to watch over their food. They don't trust the FDA, they don't trust the government, so they are trusting the Jews," said Eidlitz, explaining why about one-third of the products on supermarket shelves are certified kosher.
The idea that kosher food is more wholesome may or may not be earned for products like Coors or Oreos, but there might be something to it when it comes to beef.
No kosher beef has tested positive with mad cow, as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is colloquially called, even during the epidemic in England in the 1990s. One cow with the disease was found in the Golan in Israel in 2002, but it never made it into the food supply. An infected cow can transmit the disease to humans as the variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a highly debilitating and always fatal brain-wasting disease.
Cattle for a kosher facility are purchased on the open market, and thus may have consumed feed contaminated with bovine protein, thought to be the primary transmitter of BSE. Although including cow parts in cow feed is now illegal in the United States, there are many loopholes through which the banned matter can slip.
While Jewish law technically permits cattle destined for a kosher slaughterhouse to feed on bovine protein, there are several factors that make it highly unlikely that an infected cow would end up in the Shabbos cholent.
Cows must be in excellent health if their beef is to be kosher. Even in a healthy herd, only about 40 percent of the cows end up being kosher.
"There are 24 things that we check for that could make meat nonkosher," Eidlitz explained. "The primary objective is a very healthy steer, and to get a healthy steer it has to be raised right."
Kosher cattle are slaughtered young -- 18 to 24 months -- before they can acquire any illnesses or blemishes that would render them treif (nonkosher). All cases of mad cow have been discovered in cattle over 3 years old (though the prions -- the abnormal protein that cause BSE -- might be present in an incubative state in younger cattle).
Dairy cows -- where most cases of mad cow have appeared -- are not used for kosher beef, because during their milk-producing years they have been subjected to lactation-increasing procedures that make them more likely to have a health issue that will disqualify them as kosher meat.
"Downers" -- animals that are too sick to walk to the slaughter -- have never been considered kosher. The Department of Agriculture's new regulation banning downers from slaughter for beef (the infected cow in the U.S. herd was a downer) was a moot point for the kosher industry.
Kosher slaughter precludes the use of stun guns to the head, a preslaughter procedure that could loosen and spread brain or nerve matter -- where BSE is most likely to reside. The stripping devices used in nonkosher meat processing make it likely that spinal chord or other nerve tissue will end up in ground or processed beef, while kosher processors do not use such mechanisms.
While parts most likely to harbor BSE -- such as the brain, sciatic nerve and spinal chord -- could technically be kashered, they aren't in the United States, because the labor and costs are just too high.
"It is not the intent of kashrut, but there are all these ancillary benefits that are incredible," said Rabbi Asher Brander, who was present at a news conference on the topic held Jan. 12 at The All American Sausage Co. in The Grove.
In another boon to kashrut, the mad cow scare has exposed just how many grocery products have beef in them, even when it is not listed in the ingredients. If something is marked as kosher-pareve, however, you can be certain there is no trace of beef in it.
It's something those who are severely intolerant of dairy, wheat or gluten have known for a long time, as they look for products that are pareve or kosher for Passover.
"We're allowed to eat a lot of junk in kosher food -- oils and sugars -- but at least a person knows what's in it," said Eidlitz, who is also the director of development at Emek Hebrew Academy in North Hollywood.
So far, that idea seems to have had only a small effect on the beef industry following the mad cow scare.
A handful of local kosher butchers and markets polled said they had not seen an increase in nonkosher consumers seeking out kosher products.
One exception is Marty Katz, owner of The All-American Sausage Co. He said sales have increased over the past couple of weeks.
"Our hot dogs are pricey compared to a regular hot dog that you can buy for $1.50, but I think people realize that if they are buying a kosher hot dog they are getting something for their money," Katz said.
Katz estimated that about 90 percent of his customers do not keep kosher, a figure that has been a key to his success.
In fact, business has been so good that Katz is opening up a stand this month in The Village at Moorpark in Thousand Oaks, next month in Fashion Square in Sherman Oaks and soon in Century City. He hopes to have 20 gourmet sausage stands, all certified kosher, in the next few years.
Of course, if the mad cow furor gets any worse than it is now, people who have gotten a quick and not-so-pleasant education in the meat industry might opt for something even safer than keeping kosher -- vegetarianism.
The Orthodox Union will present a new kosher awareness program on Feb. 7 at Congregation Mogen David, 10:45 a.m., and at Shaarey Tefilla Synagogue, 8:15 p.m; and on Feb. 8 at the Yeshiva of Los Angeles, Sephardic Beit Midrash, 10 a.m. For more information, please call (310) 229-9000 ext. 3.