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15 June 2006

Man of Letters

The Jewish Chronicle is the UK Jewish community's most high profile newspaper.  There are others, but they tend to be geographically focused (such as The Jewish Telegraph in the North) or targeted at particular Jewish groups (such as The Tribune for the frummers).

Generally it is a pretty conservative paper.  It gives faithful listings of who has been hatched, matched and dispatched and it notes which members of the community have received honours from Her Maj. Every once in a while it rocks the boat.  Its scathing coverage of Richard Desmond's appointment of Chairman at family charity Norwood was picked up widely in the mainstream UK media.  On other occasions, it looks like it's about to rock the boat, but in fact is merely shuffling it's bum on the seat to get a better grip on the oars.

A front page 'Investigation' in last week's paper (9 June 2006) was one such bum-shuffling event.  Above a photo of a dozen or so fluffy yellow chicks, the front page screamed "These chicks will be going to kosher and non-kosher butchers".  As headlines go it really isn't that snappy and it was stating the bleeding obvious.  It's a bit like having a headline screaming "Cars need fuel."

Anyway, the thrust of the front page article and the seven related articles on an inside double-page spread, was that kosher food is more expensive than non-kosher food and the charges levied by the Shechita Boards are the main reason.  To me, this totally missed the point and I wrote a letter to the paper explaining what I thought.  My argument essentially was that if we were paying more for a better quality product it would be fair enough.  But we're not, we're paying more for crap.

My letter was published in this week's edition.  The only problem is, they have heavily edited it and even added in the odd word here or there.  So, what you see below is the full unexpurgated letter I sent in.  The bits in bold are what made it into the paper, the bits in square brackets are where they added in words.

Interestingly, the only other letter on the so-called 'Investigation' is from the owner of Menachem's, the one kosher butcher I rate.  Their letter is at pains to say that at Menachem's you get good personal service and the meat is of high quality.  The first point is undoubtedly true, the second is true, within the context of the limited quality of kosher meat on sale.

Dear Sir

Your ‘Investigation’ (9 June 2006) into the kosher meat industry entirely missed the point.

Virtually all kosher meat available for retail consumers is of appalling quality.  If it was excellent quality and expensive then we would be getting value for money and no-one would complain.  This is not the case, it is extortionate and rubbish in equal measure.

Those of us that eat kosher meat, accept standards that much of the non-kosher world has long turned its back on.  Not only is our meat generally flavourless but animals raised for the kosher dinner table often live bad lives.  As anyone with an understanding of food will tell you, the better the quality of life, the better the animal tastes on the plate.  As anyone with an understanding of kashrut will tell you, good animal husbandry is supposed to be a fundamental tenet of our dietary laws.

I fail to understand why one of your articles breathlessly notes that kosher and non-kosher chickens come from the same farm, but ignores the fact that when it is sold by Tesco or Sainsbury’s, it is in their value ranges.  When it is sold by a kosher butcher, it is presented as the highest quality.

Some kosher butchers have become lazy selling low quality, high margin products.  They seem to have lost any sense of pride in selling the best quality meat.  All too rarely do kosher butchers do any butchering.  They receive their meat in handy cuts that at most they need to trim and pack.  They seem to have no interest in the provenance of the food they sell.  Their attitude appears to be "Why should we?  It’s kosher, so it’s fine."  Afterall, with margins so tight on fresh meat, they can make far more profit from value-added products, like ready-meals.

This sort of wilful ignorance is matched by
the Shechita Boards, [seem] obsessed with the letter of the law and seemingly ignoring its spirit.  If they did not take such a narrow view of their role, they would not countenance chickens spending their lives in ‘humid sheds’ and ending up as flaccid, fatty, pale birds on our Friday night dinner tables.

One of the most ridiculous examples of the Shechita Boards’ closed-minded attitude is their ban on porging.  Not only does it cut-off a valuable revenue source for butchers, it actually results in higher prices for the meat we can eat.  Half of every slaughtered cow or lamb is useless to a kosher abattoir [and this too puts up prices].  Consequently, the half destined for the treyf table, has to be sold at a heavy discount, suppliers know the kosher abattoirs have no choice but to dump it.  As a result, the half of the animal we can eat has to priced-up, to off-set the losses made on the hind quarters.  It is a vicious cycle thanks entirely to the Shechita Boards’ refusal to allow a process that has been practised, under rabbinic direction, for centuries.

I would hazard a guess that a large proportion of consumers buying kosher meat, are far more discerning when making their other food purchases.  The only explanation for this aberration is that consumers have fully bought into the trope that kosher equals better.  Consumers have forgotten that there was once a meaningful difference between dark and light cuts of their chicken.  They have also seemingly forgotten that their Friday night roast chicken did not always render as much as half a litre of fat.

I am unclear who is more to blame for the parlous state we are in, but that is almost irrelevant because the situation is so bad, the quality so low.

It is instructive that kosher restaurants and caterers in London often buy their meat from France, a country where they would never allow standards to collapse in this way.  In the Marais, you will have no problem finding home made pates, sausages or porged legs of lamb in butchers supervised by the strictest rabbinic authorities.  In the UK, you have more chance of finding gold at the end of the rainbow.

I am disappointed that you failed to address the real subject that requires investigation, hopefully next time you will consider broadening your remit.

Yours faithfully,

Anthony Silverbrow

I'm uncertain whether this will get any response in the letters pages next week.  It is possible it will rock the boat, then again, it might well die like a damp squib.  If there is any follow-up, I will post it here.


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If for any reason I edit a comment, I explicitly say so. I only edit comments if they are rude, abusive etc. I reserve the right to delete comments if I think they're unduly offensive or constitute spam.

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It's a pity the JC didn't publish more of your letter. Hopefully there will be a good response or two in next week's paper (although let's not hold our breath).

I think the situation is made worse by the refusal of organic certification bodies to allow meat that is not pre-stunned to be classified as organic even if it has been reared on an organic diet and otherwise led a good life. Kosher consumers are effectively denied the right to buy organic products, which is a huge pity and reduces the incentive for competition among kosher meat retailers.

I agree with your comment that it's a shame kosher meat can't get organic certification. Although, if the Shechita Boards - our own food standards authority - is doing such a poor job of advancing the cause of high quality products, what hope is there for external bodies to do any better?

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