Why is Sustainably Produced Kosher Meat Hard to Find?

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Naftali Hanau of Grow and Behold Foods
Naftali and Anna Hanau with their backyard chickens.

Many people ask me why is it so hard to find sustainably produced kosher meat. I asked Naftali Hanau – shochet (ritual slaughterer), m’naker (ritual butcher), farmer and professional horticulturist – to explain the difficulties of  producing kosher meat outside of the conventional model.

A Growing Demand for Sustainably Produced Kosher Meat

There is growing interest for kosher, sustainably produced meats. Much of this came in the wake of the scandals that broke out in Iowa a few years ago. A growing number of kashrut observant Jews are also concerned with the health and environmental effects of eating conventional meat and want the same access to “farm fresh” meats as their non-kosher friends.

Buying meat directly from the farmer or farmer’s market is not a viable option for most of the kosher observant public. The laws and regulations governing kosher meat production make it impossible for any given farmer to easily bring kosher certified meat to market.

What Makes Meat Kosher?

It all begins with the species of animal. Only certain animals are kosher. Mammals must chew their cud and have split hooves (no pigs) and birds must be specific birds that Jews have a tradition of eating.

After establishing that an animal is of a kosher species, it must be slaughtered and processed according to kosher laws and under kosher supervision. The slaughter is performed with an extremely sharp knife by a trained and licensed shochet (slaughterman). The training is extremely rigorous. The laws of the slaughter have the effect of minimizing the pain and suffering of the animal.

After the kosher slaughter the animal is inspected to make sure that it is healthy and fit for kosher consumption. For birds, this involves an inspection of the intestinal tract and various joints. Most poultry (99%) is found to be kosher. For mammals there is an additional inspection of the lungs. The bodek (inspector) checks the lungs for places where there are adhesions between the lungs and the ribcage. These adhesions develop as a result of colds, pneumonia, and other health problems in the animal’s history. While factory farmed animals generally have a much lower kosher rate (~30%), the kosher rate for pastured and grass-fed animals can be highly variable and often quite low.

But wait, there’s more!

In North America, only the front half of the red meat animals are used for kosher consumption – due to the presence of forbidden fats and nerves in the rear of the animal that are very difficult to remove. After the separation of the forequarter from the hind, the forequarter must be deveined, soaked, and salted to remove as much remaining blood as possible (kosher laws prohibit eating blood). Finally, the meat can be butchered, packaged, and labeled as kosher.

So why is it impossible for “Farmer Joe” to sell kosher meat?

It’s not impossible, it’s just very very difficult and expensive. Most kosher slaughter in the United States takes place in few very large plants. Kosher slaughter takes more time and special equipment to do properly. Most small slaughterhouses are not equipped or inclined to take the extra time and make the investment to perform kosher slaughter.

Combined with the risk of not knowing how many animals will “go-kosher”, this creates a very uncertain environment for a farmer, who could kosher slaughter 5 animals and see them all ruled non-kosher. Even if none are kosher, someone still has to pay the shochet. And now there are 5 cows that are non-kosher that have to be sold.

In addition, the cost of kosher supervision is quite high. In addition to the shochet, modern day realities dictate that kosher meat be produced under the supervision of a reliable hoshgochah (supervision agency). These agencies charge for their supervision and it is not cheap. When you add in the cost of the shochet, the cost of hoshgochah, and the added cost of the deveining, soaking and salting you get very expensive meat. Kosher meat is generally twice the price of non-kosher meat because it’s twice the work, plain and simple.

So what is a kosher observant person to do if they want good meat?

There are a few options out there for kosher observers who want sustainably produced meat. One of them is Grow and Behold Foods, founded by me and my wife Anna Hanau. (Check out Naf and Anna in the New York Times last week: To Revive Jewish Dishes, Some Cooks Look to the Shtetl). We currently offer pasture raised kosher poultry and are hard at work trying to bring red meat to market, despite the difficulties presented above. We work with small farmers and take care of all the kosher arrangements so they can do what they do best, growing pastured raised meats.

For a more in-depth answer to the question: “What makes it kosher?”, please visit our website’s (Grow and Behold) kosher section.

Naftali Hanau grew up around the corner from the kosher butcher in Rochester, NY, and has been a carnivore from a young age. After spending a summer at Adamah and learning more about the ethical and environmental issues surrounding modern meat production, Naftali realized he had to change his lifestyle a bit. He learned shechita with R’ Yehuda Ben Shemchoun in Crown Heights, NY, and Scranton, PA, and has studied at butcher shops and slaughterhouses across the country with many experts in the field of kosher meat production. Naftali earned a Degree in Horticulture from the New York Botanical Garden School of Professional Horticulture and spent a year as Greenhouse Manager at Adamah, a Jewish environmental farming program in northwest Connecticut; he has also worked on several organic farms and owned his own landscaping firm.

This post is linked to Food Renegade | Fight Back Friday.

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