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25 January 2006

Kosher food is good for you, honest guv

Few things rile me as much as the concept that kosher food is by definition good quality food.  Kosher food can be good quality food, but it should not be taken as a given.  Unless, it would seem, you are in marketing for a large food production company or supermarket, as demonstrated in this article from The Seattle Times.

The unfortunate truth is, all too often kosher food is not good quality, if by good quality you mean natural and fresh and of the highest calibre.  It is relevant that the companies in this article, that are seeking to promote their kosher status, are mass producers.  These are just the sort of companies who are finding life difficult as more consumers move away from heavily processed foods towards more natural products.  These companies ignore the fact that what would be really healthy is for consumers to stop buying any processed food, and instead eat natural products, kosher or otherwise.  They need to find new markets to tap into and clearly believe the more they say that kosher food is healthy (or in the bizarre neologism of this article, healthful), the more the consumer can be duped into believing this is true. 

I accept that up to a point, you know what you're getting with kosher meat.  Although, I believe the article is incorrect when it says that for animals to be kosher they can't be given any antibiotics.  I think they can.  What they can't be given are hormones or fed animal by-product. What I think is irrelevant, because as the article shows, 55% of the people who buy kosher products believed the food was better for them, according to research by Mintel.  (The Seattle Times article fails to mention which piece of research they gleaned this from, but this is the latest report written by Mintel on the kosher industry.)  I appreciate there are a whole host of problems with this statistic, such as no mention is made of how many people questioned keep kosher because of their religious beliefs, or where they were questioned.  But, we have to take it as it is presented, at face value.  So let us take the modest chicken, a staple in all kosher kitchens.  Can we be sure that just because it is kosher it is healthy?  Absolutely not.  The vast majority of kosher chickens are intensively farmed.  In the same way that if you go to your butcher or supermarket and fail to ask for a free range bird, you'll be cooking a fatty, flaccid fowl, rather than a well cared for chicken, with muscle definition, not too much fat and tonnes of flavour.

Interestingly, the Mintel research, as quoted in the article, makes no reference to whether the belief of the superiority of kosher food is correct and it actually is better for them.

I get so pissed off about this because those who assume that kosher food is better, should be right.  I should be able to buy well-hung, marbled beef, getting hold of foie gras lobes should not entail a global search, kosher parmigiano reggiano should not cost £10 for a 250g slice.  I've written previously about why kosher food is in such a bad way, especially in the UK.  There are tentative signs of improvement, for example I spotted a new deli that is shipping veal and foie gras (pâté not lobes) from France.  But it is still very expensive and hard to get hold of.  Additionally, those bodies that authorise what is and is not organic in the UK continue to hold their position that all animals need to be stunned prior to slaughter.  Both the shechita and halal methods of ritual slaughter forbid this, meaning you can't get certified organic meat (see the article entitled Organic Kosher Chickens? on pg 3, in this October 2005 newsletter from Organic Farmers & Growers).

Frankly, I'm not too fussed whether the food I eat is organic or not.  I appreciate that for farmers, meeting all the regulations to receive organic certification is a headache.  All I want is to know where my food has come from, that the animals have had a decent life, that it has been prepared with care and that it is going to taste delicious. This should not be too much to ask, but with Big Food jumping on the bandwagon, it will only become harder to achieve.


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