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26 October 2007

I demand healthier

I have been known to rant a bit about the state of kosher food in the UK.  Until now, you dear reader and the long-suffering Silverbrowess are the only ones who have been subjected to my moaning and wailing.  Until now.  Because now, I have vented my fury, my wrath and my despair on the pages of that organ of British Jewry, The Jewish Chronicle.

It is my first published article and I'm rather excited.  Many thanks to the paper's editor, David Rowan and Simon Round, editor of the food page, for publishing it.

I hope it will stir things up and start a debate, although given my track-record I'm not holding my breath.

Feel free to comment here, or you can write to the JC's letter page by emailing letters@thejc.com.

You can read the article on the JC's website or for those too lazy to click a link, read on.  What follows is the article in full, as it appears in the paper.

The Food Standards Agency, the UK’s food regulator, recently published a report linking some food additives to hyperactivity in children. The Times and the JC both reported that these additives have a habit of turning up in kosher processed foods. Ingredients such as sodium benozate, ponceau 4R and tartrazine are rather less evocative than cholent, adafina and kreplach.

The laws of kashrut are determined in the Torah, and kosher can be translated as “fit to eat”. According to Nachmanides, a 12th-century Kabbalist, “the birds and many of the mammals forbidden by the Torah are predators… we are instructed not to eat those animals, so that we should not absorb these qualities into ourselves”. So, if we are what we eat, religiously speaking kosher food must not be unhealthy.

Yet as the FSA demonstrated, there is a gaping void between what we expect of our kosher food and what we get.

I have yet to find a kosher butcher in London who can assure me that his chickens are free range, or even tell me the exact ingredients of his sausages.

Similarly, if you ask a kosher grocer for their fresh-food section, your browsing will be brief. Kosher food shops are heaving with processed, packaged and often frozen items. Even seemingly fresh kosher deli products have a shopping list worth of additives.

This is not just a problem for the home cook. There is not a kosher restaurant in the UK that makes a virtue out of where it sources its produce. This is not because kosher restaurateurs are bashful, but because they have got nothing to shout about.

The upshot is that the consumer is not fully informed. Bizarrely, this is occurring at a time when there is an evangelical approach to provenance among producers not targeting the kosher market.

Any half-decent restaurant will name-check the farmer who reared the ribeye, or the river the salmon last spawned in. TV programmes are dedicated to identifying heroic food producers. Visits to farmers’ markets are de rigueur for any self-respecting yummy-mummy. In the non-kosher world, traceability is a growing obsession.

So why the gap between kosher and non-kosher food? There are three inter-connected factors which ensure a race to the bottom: limited demand, the cost of regulation, and complacency.

There are no definitive statistics on how many people keep kosher in the UK, but the number is small. There are under 300,000 Jews in the UK; even conservatively, the most who keep kosher are 150,000, a number that anecdotally seems to be falling. Those who keep “kosher” encompass a broad spectrum of observance of the laws, from those that insist on everything having a hechsher to those who simply abstain from pork and shellfish.

So, as a business proposition, kosher is not attractive. The market is small and comprises a broad demographic. Demand is relatively limited, but, thanks to the rules imposed by the kashrut authorities, so is supply, because only certain foods are deemed kosher. Prices are therefore higher than comparable non-kosher items.

The inflated cost is not helped by the levy kashrut authorities insist on imposing on producers before their products will be certified kosher. As a producer faced with these issues — limited supply, diverse demand, high fixed costs — you will look to maximise your profits by appealing to as many people as possible. You will also try to keep your prices low because things are expensive enough already. Very quickly, it is difficult to remember whether you are a widget manufacturer or food producer.

Underpinning these economic issues is complacency. There is an assumption that because kosher food fits its religious requirements it is healthy. As the FSA has demonstrated, that is frequently not the case. Producers race for the bottom to maximise their returns. Shoppers buy what is on the shelves as they are blinded by the kosher stamp of authority or have no other choice.

Observant or not, it is time those of us who keep kosher returned to the core of our beliefs and insisted on eating food that is fit to eat.

Comments

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Interesting stuff, and congratulations on your published article! I presume the kosher selection is better in America, although I'm only guessing - did you have a chance to look around whilst you were there?

Thanks Chris.

There is more selection in the US but it is not better, as in healthier, in fact much of it is the crap we import here. From my experience, for the best quality, you need to go to France or Italy where good quality raw ingredients are a way of life.

Well done on getting published - even though the flood of response was more of a trickle ;-) You raise some very interesting points - it does seem that people look only at a single aspect of their food, whether this be kosher or something like low-fat. Yes, this product may be low fat - but to compensate it is high-everything-else! So the end result is only good for you in a very very narrow sense. It's only through more informed and more demanding customers that there would be any hope of changing this.

If only the customers were more informed in the right way. Thanks for the comment Cooksister.

I want to go kosher once we move into our new home but I am so put off by the quality of everything that I prefer to stick with local and supermarket organic produce.

Also wanted to say hello - I’ve just discovered your blog and I love it – is there an email list that you send out once you write something? (Mr Shulman alerted me last night over your blog and that is hwere I guess the JT connection comes from). Anyway its brill - well done you!

Jane, welcome to the blog, thanks for coming! As for keeping kosher, we need more people to kick up a stink about it.

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