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12 May 2005

Some thoughts on food

Over the past five years, I've become increasingly focused on the sort of food I eat and cook, this has coincided with living in places where swinging a cat has become a reality.

For me, ingredients are the key.  I appreciate this is neither new nor revolutionary and that this is the choice refrain for virtually any chef (and don't get me wrong, I am by no means trying to give the impression I'm a chef).  By cooking more and more myself  I've realised how correct these chefs are.  But, it's not always as simple as just going out and getting great ingredients, what if they're totally inaccessible?  Some people will argue that it is always possible to get fantastic produce, there's always a niche supplier somewhere.  This is usually true, especially if you're a trade purchaser as opposed to a retail consumer.  However, there is one example where this is singularly untrue - the supply of quality kosher meat.

When it comes to the quality of food there has tended to be a race to the top, whether we’re talking Jamie Oliver’s Feed Me Better campaign or even the fast food industry in the wake of Super Size Me.  Kosher food – and meat in particular - has been the exception.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has made much of his desire to “promote a better understanding of the nature and origins of what we eat” and his book The River Cottage Meat Book was a real attempt to convey the importance of excellent animal husbandry being the key to fantastic tasting meat. However, such revolutions have missed kosher meat.

An essential element to kosher food is that the animal has to be in good health immediately prior to its slaughter or shechita.  Unfortunately there are many interpretations of good health and generally it is taken to mean that the animal has to be disease free, with no broken bones or other health defects.  As such, it does not forbid the rearing of animals destined for the shochet, to be treated in a particularly humane way.  Therefore, in the UK at least, there is no regular supply of organic or free-range chickens, they are all raised in factory-like conditions.

In my view there are two reasons that there is no supply of good quality meat: the first is that the demand isn’t there, the second is because the market for kosher meat is too price sensitive.  I think the demand doesn’t exist because there is an assumption of quality: most people who buy kosher food believe the meat they are buying is of the highest quality because they know that the animal needs to be in good health when it is killed, the consumer is therefore blissfully ignorant.  The butchers and kosher food suppliers are happy to maintain this ignorance because of the difficulties around securing the certificate to provide kosher meat – a hechsher.  To cut a very long political story down to its essence, there are several different rabbinic authorities in the UK (and numerous in the US) that all certify meat to be kosher.  This gets more confusing because each authority can require different criteria to certify kosher meat, and consumers choose the rabbinic authority they accept, according to their own religious beliefs.  The upshot of this is that there's politicking and bureaucracy - and that all leads to higher costs.

In the UK for a large kosher meat supplier they pay the certification boards in the region of 30p/kg of meat.  If you're a smaller supplier and don't have the economies of scale, it can be over 40p/kg.  Now consider how that impacts on the retail cost.  If you go in to Waitrose (one of the better regarded UK supermarkets) and buy a whole free range chicken it will cost in the region of £4.20/kg, if you choose a pretty ordinary bird, that's not free range or organic it can be as little as £2.36/kg.  If you go to a decent kosher butchers it will cost anywhere between £3.20 - £4.80/kg.  And this is for a bog-standard factory reared chicken - no green pastures, no organic certification, no provenance.  If you try to add in the costs associated with organic or free range animals, it begins to be prohibitively expensive and consequently the kosher consumer gets turned off.  Given this, it is unsurprising but deeply unfortunate, that there is virtually no opportunity to buy kosher organic or free range chickens.  If these are the problems one has in getting hold of the most ubiquitous of kosher foods, you can imagine the difficulty in getting hold of other high quality kosher meat.

Therefore, I'm in a bind.  On the one hand I crave the best ingredients to produce the best results, on the other, its virtually impossible to get hold of them.  So, during the Month of Sloth one of my goals is to go in search of the best produce I can get my hands on, even if that means going abroad, and if I can't buy it, then I'll produce it myself.


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