This editorial was co-authored by Timothy D. Lytton and Joe M. Regenstein, Ph.D. Lytton is a professor of law at Albany Law School. Regenstein is a professor of food science in Cornell University’s Department of Food Science.
A recent study found that kosher-certified chicken contains more antibiotic-resistant E. coli than non-kosher chicken, a result that the study’s authors suggest “belies the historical roots of kosher as a means to ensure food safety.”
The study concludes that the higher prevalence of E. coli in kosher chicken suggests that the use of antibiotics in the kosher production chain “may be more intensive” than in conventional production, but that it “is not immediately obvious where in the kosher chicken production process antibiotic use might be more prevalent, or where exposure to antibiotic-resistant organisms is more likely.”
Kosher production, the authors explain, “is inherently predicated on religious requirements. For kosher meat, the major requirements are that it must be from animals that have split hooves and chew their cud, it must not be mixed with dairy products, and all equipment used must be used exclusively for kosher food. Animals must be slaughtered ‘humanely’, and meat is typically salted to remove blood rapidly, a practice that has been shown to reduce the microbial load. Unlike for organic and RWA [raised without antibiotics], kosher poultry is not regulated by Federal laws but rather by private certification organizations, and thus the specific practices vary.”
Although this study raises important questions about food safety that merit further investigation, it does little to advance understanding about kosher poultry production or kosher certification.
To begin with, kosher poultry production is subject to the same USDA inspection under the Poultry Products Inspection Act as all other forms of poultry production. Although it is true that the kosher status of poultry is certified by non-governmental agencies, this does not in any way exempt kosher poultry production from the federal food-safety regime.
Second, the kosher status of poultry is determined by whether the particular species of bird is permitted by Jewish law, slaughtered according to carefully prescribed religious procedures, passes a religious post-slaughter inspection of the carcass for signs of any illness that would render the meat non-kosher, and has blood removed through soaking and salting. This is all in addition to government inspection. (For obvious reasons, the restrictions cited by study’s authors concerning split hooves and chewing cud are not relevant to kosher poultry production.)
Although there are few restrictions on kosher poultry production prior to slaughter — except rules that require that handling be done in a manner that does not cause serious physical trauma to the animal — there is no reason to believe that antibiotic use is more intensive or exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria more likely in the production of chickens for the kosher market. Moreover, most kosher poultry processors purchase chickens on the open market. While a few processors have custom strains raised by contract growers, the largest of these processors specifically indicates that their birds are raised without antibiotics.
A more likely explanation for the elevated E. coli levels lies in feather removal. The most efficient and common way to remove chicken feathers is to soak the carcass in scalding water, which makes the feathers easier to pluck mechanically. Kosher restrictions do not allow for any form of cooking a chicken — which includes immersion in scalding water — until after the meat has been soaked and salted to remove the blood. As a result, kosher production requires chickens to be dry plucked or soaked in very cold water to firm up the flesh so that it survives an automatic plucking process. Immersion in scalding water prior to plucking of non-kosher poultry production reduces microbial load, by either washing microbes away or by killing them, which might account for differences between kosher and other production methods. This merits further investigation.
Finally, the “historical roots” of kosher dietary practice have more to do with religious concepts of ritual purity, ethical treatment of animals, and Jewish identity than with food safety. (There have been attempts dating back to the Middle Ages to explain the prohibitions against pork and shellfish on the basis of health concerns, but these generally do not hold up to critical scrutiny.)
Historical roots aside, there is a widespread belief that kosher-certified food is safer. According to Menachem Lubinsky, a leading kosher market analyst, of the more than 12 million U.S. kosher consumers — individuals who purchase kosher food because it is kosher certified — only 8 percent are religious Jews who eat exclusively kosher food. Most kosher consumers buy kosher food because they believe it is healthier or safer.
The growing popularity of kosher food in America is a response to a more general cultural anxiety about industrialization of the food supply. Like the movements to eat organic, local, or ethically produced foods, the turn toward kosher is, for many consumers, a way to personalize food production. The image of a rabbi overseeing production and hand-slaughtering the animals — motivated by a deep religious commitment to the ritual purity of food — diminishes the unease many feel about eating food produced in large-scale industrial production. While kosher certifiers have celebrated the fact that consumers associate kosher certification with food safety — and emphasized it in marketing their services to food company clients — strictly speaking, kosher certification only provides assurance that any food labeled as kosher conforms to the religious dietary norms prescribed by Jewish law, as interpreted by the certification agency.
Recent findings that kosher poultry might pose a higher risk of foodborne illness because of the presence of antibiotic-resistant E. coli may raise food safety concerns. However, the exact implications of this research with respect to either kosher or non-kosher poultry merits further research. That research will be better informed if it is based on a better understanding of kosher poultry production and regulation.
Dr. Regenstein is a professor of food science in the Department of Food Science. He also has an appointment in the field of global development and serves as an adjunct professor in the Department of Population Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine. In 2010, he became a member of the Program of Jewish Studies. Dr. Regenstein heads the Cornell Kosher and Halal Food Initiative. He is an adjunct professor of food science at Kansas State University, where he teaches his kosher and halal course, and has been accepted to the graduate program to supervise distance learning M.S. students.
Timothy D. Lytton is the Albert and Angela Farone Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School, where he teaches torts, administrative law, legislation, and regulatory law and policy. He has taught and written extensively on food safety and labeling. His most recent book is “Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food,” published by Harvard University Press (2013).© Food Safety News