Eco-kashrut supporters turn attention to kosher meat

On Thanksgiving, New Yorker Linda Lantos didn’t have to compromise her Jewish or ecological values: She served free-range, organic, nongenetically engineered turkey that was also kosher.

“In the last few years, it’s become important to me to find meat that’s organic and kosher, and that’s hard,” said the 27-year-old chef and nutrition teacher, who has kept kosher since childhood.

The two turkeys Lantos bought last month from Kosher Conscience, a year-old kosher meat cooperative based in New York that promotes sustainable agriculture and humane slaughter methods, weren’t cheap. But that doesn’t bother her.

“I’d rather eat meat less frequently and know where it comes from,” she said. “Frankly, meat is too cheap. It’s a living thing and should be valued more highly.”

For 30 years, the eco-kashrut movement has promoted back-to-the-land values of sustainable agriculture, organics and local, seasonal farming. Now, a growing number of those Jewish foodies are trying to apply the same values to their meat, demanding that the animals be raised and slaughtered in an ethical manner.

“If I’m going to eat meat, I have to do everything possible to make sure the process is as humane as possible,” said Simon Feil, Kosher Conscience founder.

Caring for animals is deeply ingrained in Jewish law. The Torah provides for “tzar ba’alat hayim,” the need to protect animals from unnecessary pain. That’s why kosher slaughter must be done by an observant, trained shochet, or ritual slaughterer, who uses an extremely sharp knife to kill the animal as painlessly as possible with one cut across the jugular vein.

Many Jews believe that because of this extra religious concern, the kosher meat industry is exempt from the more egregious practices of nonkosher slaughterhouses. But controversies last year at Agriprocessors, the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, buried that myth amid media stories alleging sloppy, cruel killing methods and underpaid, badly trained workers.

The Agriprocessors case was a Jewish wake-up call. It spurred the Conservative movement to start developing a hekhsher tzedek, a certificate given to food produced according to certain standards of workers’ rights and environmental concerns. The certificate was announced at the Conservative movement’s recent biennial in Orlando, Fla.

It inspired Feil, a Brooklyn-based actor, to procure, slaughter and process 24 turkeys using humane practices last month. He found buyers among young New York Jews and dropped off the turkeys two days before Thanksgiving at an Orthodox synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

It put meat on the agenda of last year’s food conference sponsored by Hazon, a nonprofit dedicated to Jewish environmentalism and food sustainability.

Much of the impetus for the socially just kashrut movement comes from Conservative circles, but there’s interest within Reform Judaism, as well. A committee of Reform rabbis is working on standards for socially just food production along the same lines as the Conservative hekhsher tzedek initiative.

Gersh Lazerow, a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, hopes to become a shochet to combine his liberal values with Jewish tradition.

“I think kashrut has value to modern progressive Jewish practice,” he said.

“A lot of people are faced with the decision, ethics or kashrut,” said Devora Kimelman-Block of Washington, a Hazon activist and longtime supporter of sustainable agriculture. “Or they just decide to be vegetarian.”

Kimelman-Block eats meat, but had cut down in recent years.

“I don’t feel it’s ethically a problem to eat meat,” she said, “but I have a problem with the unethical raising and processing of meat.”

Last year, she decided to enter the business herself. Kimelman-Block said she “knew nothing” about the kosher meat industry when she started.

Doing it all herself, from finding a local farmer with pasture-raised cows, to negotiating with a shochet, to lining up buyers from 14 area synagogues, was a daunting task. But she wanted to teach her daughters to respect the food they ate and understand the Jewish values underlying its production.

“The closer you are to your food, the more holy it is,” Kimelman-Block said.

It’s easy to be pious when you’re talking about fruit, but most people would rather not think about where their steak comes from. That’s true, particularly, in eco-kashrut circles, which are dominated by vegetarians.

In one session at last year’s Hazon conference, the group’s executive director, Nigel Savage, asked audience members to raise their hands if they ate meat but would not do so if they had to kill it themselves. A “good number” raised their hands, he recalled. Then he asked those who were vegetarian to raise their hands if they would eat meat they killed themselves — and a different set of hands went up.

Savage found the second response more telling. He said those people were indicating that taking responsibility for killing the animal one eats, making sure it is done humanely and with respect, is the only way to eat meat with integrity.

That’s why Hazon performed a ritual slaughter of three goats at this year’s conference, held Dec. 5-8 at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut.

“For three years, Hazon has enabled Jewish people to learn where their vegetables come from, to develop a relationship with the farmer,” Savage said. “Now we’re taking it a step further.”

Not everyone in the eco-kashrut movement favors the plan, as evidenced by the heated discussion on, Hazon’s The Jew and the Carrot blog. Among the 60 responses to Savage’s announcement of the plan were those who applauded it, those who were appalled by Hazon sponsoring a slaughter at all and one Hazon board member who said he would not attend if the shechitah, ritual slaughter, went forward.

“People should understand what it means when you eat meat,” said Feil, who organized the event. “Seeing an animal killed and then eating it yourself is a very important educational experience.”

So far, the eco-kashrut meat activists are a fairly rarefied bunch: It’s pretty much just Feil and Kimelman-Block. But they say the market is growing for what they offer.

Trader Joe’s Pulls Empire Chicken

The battle for the lucrative kosher consumer market took a strange twist last month. Shortly after the end of Passover, Jewish shoppers were shocked to find Trader Joe’s markets had eliminated their selection of Empire kosher chicken, substituting instead the company’s own organic, nonkosher chicken.

"The Empire chicken people are no longer able to supply our needs," said Pat St. John, vice president of marketing for Trader Joe’s West Coast corporate office. "We don’t want to be out of kosher chicken, however, so we will be replacing Empire with other kosher chicken, probably within the week."

St. John said the new supplier for the West Coast will be Rubashkin’s Aaron’s Best out of Iowa.

Managers at the Trader Joe’s in West Hills and West Los Angeles attributed the change to Empire short-weighting their products. One manager said that packages Empire marked as containing 3 pounds of chicken were found, when weighed at the store, to contain only 2.5 pounds.

"There were some instances where Trader Joe’s had received some misweighed product," said Harry Deedy, vice president of sales for Empire Kosher, adding that the problem was caught and corrected immediately. He said that the incident created some product shortages at West Coast stores, but that "it was not his understanding" that Empire products were going to be pulled permanently from Trader Joe’s.

"We are still in Trader Joe’s stores in the Midwest and on the East Coast," Deedy said.

Empire Kosher President and CEO Rob Van Naarden said the company would work hard with Trader Joe’s to see that Empire poultry products were reinstated. He said the company has not had any problems with other grocers.

"We ship over 50 percent of the kosher chicken and 90 percent of the kosher turkey in the United States, and you can’t do that unless you are building a lot of customer care," Van Naarden told The Journal.

"I have never had a problem with Empire, and I have not had any complaints [about the brand]," said Daryl Schwarz, owner of Kosher Club and a former distributor for Empire.

St. John said she had not received any direct complaints from consumers, and an inquiry to the Los Angeles County Department of Environmental Health, which handles food issues, confirmed that there were no complaints against Empire posted within the past two years of records for Trader Joe’s markets.

As public concerns over food nutrition and safety grows, kosher chicken producers have found their fowls more and more in demand, not just among kosher-observant Jews. The potentially vast market has prompted increased competition, and increasing focus on the quality — and in this case, the quantity — of the products themselves.

In September, Whole Foods Market stores stopped carrying Empire products because of its use of antibiotics and animal byproducts in the feed, according to Whole Foods meat coordinator Mike Hacaga. However, according to Empire’s Web site, the company’s chickens are grown "naturally, without any growth promotants, such as steroids, hormones or artificial ingredients."

Deedy said that, while not "free range," Empire poultry is raised as "free roaming" within a climate-controlled space, and not confined to cages.

Empire products can still be found at Southland Gelson’s, Ralphs and Vons. Fresh chicken at these locations are weighed by the stores themselves.

Empire Kosher, located in Mifflintown, Pa., was founded in 1938 and is one of the largest processors of kosher poultry. Although it presently faces competition from other kosher processors, such as Wise Kosher (which sells certified organic grain-fed, free-range chickens) and Canada’s Chai Kosher, Deedy said Empire is still the leader in its field.

"There is sharp competition, but competition makes us sharp," he said.