Americans are snapping up kosher food products across the country, prompted by health concerns and a belief that kosher meats and poultry -- prepared under strict Jewish dietary laws -- are a safer choice amid fears of mad cow disease and bacterial contamination.
Kosher laws are stricter than U.S. Department of Agriculture standards when it comes to the health of animals that can be eaten. They prohibit, for example, using cows with broken bones or animals that are visibly sick. The laws strictly dictate how the animals are fed, killed and processed.
Harry Geedey, marketing vice president for Empire Kosher Poultry Inc., the nation's largest kosher poultry producer, said the religious requirements "add another level of safety" to the meat supply. After USDA inspectors at Empire's Pennsylvania plant finish their work, rabbis "trained in veterinary science" and kosher law perform additional inspections, rejecting "about three times more than what the USDA does," Geedey said.
The number of health-conscious consumers who seek out kosher products has been steadily rising. The market has received an extra boost from several food scares, including beef contaminated with deadly E. coli bacteria and December's discovery of a cow in Washington state infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, food industry executives and local butchers say.
Manes Wiezel, the founder of Los Angeles-based City Glatt Inc., a wholesale distributor of "glatt kosher" meats (processed at the strictest level of kosher), has noticed a steady and significant increase in sales. Because the U.S. Jewish population is holding steady, he and others in the kosher industry attribute the extra demand to buyers who are not motivated by religion but by health and food safety concerns.
Among local butchers, Herschel Berengut, the owner of G&K; Kosher Meat Market in Los Angeles, said non-Jewish Filipinos and African Americans recently became first-time customers after seeking confirmation that kosher meat is more rigorously inspected than regular meat.
Like organic meat and poultry, kosher meats and poultry are hormone-free.
Joseph Azizi, a co-owner of Santa Monica Kosher Market in West Los Angeles, said the meat scare had brought new Latino and Japanese customers from the surrounding neighborhood. He said sales had risen about 30% recently, noting that the regional supermarket labor strike, which has sent some people in search of new places to shop, was another possible factor in the upswing in business.
After reports of mad cow disease in Washington, Azizi hoisted a yellow and red banner above the storefront that reads: "Don't Get 'Mad' Get Kosher / Kosher Meat Is Safe." That sign reassured some existing customers and brought in non-Jewish customers along with non-kosher Jews.
Because kosher dietary laws prohibit the mixing of meat and milk products, kosher food labeling is particularly rigorous. Foods are categorized as meat, dairy or pareve -- a neutral category containing neither meat nor dairy. The meticulous labeling has helped drive a steady 15% annual growth in the U.S. market for kosher products, according to market research firms that monitor the kosher food industry. Among the buyers: vegetarians who know that certified products don't contain hidden meat products; people with lactose intolerance who must avoid hidden milk products; Muslims, Hindus and Seventh-day Adventists whose dietary prohibitions overlap with kosher laws; and the growing group of Americans choosing kosher foods as a more healthful alternative.
National supermarket chains, which sell roughly three-fourths of the nation's kosher products, are increasing their kosher offerings to meet this growing demand.
Menachem Lubinsky, editor of Kosher Today, a New York-based newsletter, said the number of certified kosher products had soared from 16,000 in 1977 to 80,000 today, including such well-known food items as Oreo cookies. He said about a third of all supermarket items were certified kosher. In 2003, kosher foods comprised about $170 billion of the $500 billion in U.S. food sales.
"Our non-Jewish customers are seeing the health benefits," said Terry O'Neil, a spokesman for Ralphs Grocery Co. in Compton, which has kosher butchers in eight of its stores, with plans to add more. "As we've expanded the departments to a lot of new stores, we've seen an increase in the cross-section of our customers purchasing kosher."
Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, director of the Kosher Information Bureau in North Hollywood, has noticed the change among people who sign up for supermarket tours that his organization sponsors. The tour groups, which used to cater almost exclusively to Orthodox Jews, now include a lot of people who are not Jewish.
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Strict dietary laws govern certification
To be certified kosher, animals must be raised, killed and processed according to strict Jewish dietary law. Symbols of kosher certification include the letter K, often in combination with other symbols, or a U surrounded by a circle. The word "pareve" on a label means that the food contains neither meat nor dairy products.
Kosher poultry cannot show any signs of being pecked, sick or injured. The birds are killed with a slit to the neck, allowing the blood to drain out. They're never plunged into hot water (a theoretical source of bacterial contamination), but are washed in cold water before being soaked, salted and washed again. Experts in the koshering process say the extensive use of salt helps kill bacteria.
To be kosher, cows must be younger than 30 months. Dairy cows are never used. Kosher laws preclude using a stun gun or a bullet to the brain, which could scatter brain and nerve tissue (a source of mad cow disease). The animal must be hand-slaughtered by slitting its neck. Religious inspectors look for signs of broken bones, disease or scarred or punctured organs, which disqualify the animal. Downer cattle are never used, and about only 40% of healthy cattle qualify as kosher. Meat can be taken from only the forequarters; it is then soaked and salted to draw out the blood.
-- Jane E. Allen