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29 July 2008

Yankee superiority?

This is cross-posted on The Jew & The Carrot a food focused blog written by the team at Hazon - a US based organisation that has the stated vision to "create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community -- as a step towards a healthier and more sustainable world for all."  The website and blog have some great content.  I strongly recommend you read it.

Earlier this year, Leah asserted that Great Britain could claim "foodie superiority" over the US thanks to the work of Jamie,  Hugh and Gordon.  But while television shows are good indicators of the cultural zeitgeist, what interests me is the quality of food and in particular, the  quality of kosher food.

And it's there that I believe we in the UK are the laggards.

There is much the US cannot be proud of: Agriprocessors and additives  are two good examples.  But when it comes to ethical, good quality food, the US is  miles ahead.  We need look no further than The Jew and the Carrot.  Hazon is an organisation that has around it a thriving community and has received national recognition.   It's an organisation that asks bold questions of its members.

In the UK, not only is there nothing comparable, there's not even a conversation, not a murmur of discourse about what we as Jews should be eating.  One week I  try to convince the readers of the Jewish Chronicle (the leading  British, Jewish newspaper) of the sheer awfulness of much that we consume in the name of our religion, and the very next week the editors are extolling the virtues of kosher food, just because it's kosher.

British kosher consumers, in particular kosher meat consumers, seem to have a total disregard for what they eat.  How can I justify such a sweeping statement?  Because all the facts point to it being the case.   There is no call to arms.  Not a single religious leader has pointed out that the quality of our food is appalling, nor have the community screamed for it.   Equally, the butchers haven't dragged us into the modern era and imposed high quality food upon us.  Instead, there has been a collusion of silence from consumers, religious authorities and those selling our food, and everyone, bizarrely, seems quite content with the  situation.

Here are a couple of examples of what we have to put up with:

- The London Beth Din, one of the largest British certification authorities, only allow battery farmed eggs in kosher shops. (see update below)  The reason, as far as I can tell is because chickens that grow in small cages and rot in their own faeces tend to  breed eggs that are sufficiently unnatural that they don't have blood spots - or  at least blood spots are easier to identify in factory farmed birds.

The LBD, the  body we look to for spiritual guidance, prefers abnormalities to nature.  It's an interesting choice from the agency that  says (scroll all the way to the bottom) The motto of every Kashrut agency should be the words of Rashi at the end of the Parsha of Kashrut: (Shemini Chapter 11 Pasuk 16) "To distinguish between the impure and the pure".  I suppose if one is being fair they can't be faulted.  They are as good  as their word, they've distinguished between pure and impure, it's just a  surprise which one they prefer.

- Kosher, Organic Meat, until very recently, it was impossible to get a kosher, free range chicken in London.  In fact, it was possible, from the right supplier, but protectionism got the better of the London Beth Din and they decided their butchers needed their pound of flesh.

So why the parlous state of affairs?  I reckon it's a combination of naivety, protectionism and a good dose of embarrassment.

Naivety on behalf of many consumers who assume that kosher food is good to eat, because 'it's  religious, so it must be good'.  Yet I guess that many of these consumers are the same people that are driving sales of organic produce in the leading supermarkets and doyens of the various box schemes (similar to CSAs).

Complicity on behalf of religious authorities who benefit financially from their very uncompetitive existence.  In the US there is an interminable roll-call of authorities that dole out heckshers.  In the UK, there are barely a handful.  Any high-school economist can tell you that a lack of competition means the consumer loses out.

That same economist will also fully understand the implications of supply and demand.  As I wrote in a  recent article in the JC, there is a race to the bottom when it comes to kosher food in the UK.  Not enough people buy kosher meat which understandably makes it more expensive.  But is collusion the inevitable outcome of that?  To me the religious authorities and meat processors are embarrassed by what they do, they seem to obfuscate at every turn.  They imply kosher meat is healthy, but the uncomfortable facts tell the truth.

Am I being unfair to my fellow consumers, the religious authorities and those selling us our meat? If I am, I have yet to see proof to the contrary.

So Leah, right back at ya.  Things might be  bad in the US, but cheer up, you don't have to eat kosher food in the UK.

UPDATE: I was delighted when I spotted a poster tonight in the window of Menachem's, my preferred kosher butcher, announcing that they are now selling free-range eggs.  Maybe I should cut the LBD some slack? No, not yet.

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maybe things are better in australia

Deva - maybe they are. Can anyone shed any light on the situation in the Oz?

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