We attended Hazon‘s (New Jewish Food Movement) food conference at Walker Ranch in Petaluma, CA last week and I’ve been greatly affected by the discussion of “beyond kosher,” is it “fit to eat?” Rabbi Marc Soloway started the session by exclaiming that the rabbinic tradition had never imagined what our agricultural food production of the last 50 years would look like. The issues of Kashrut are limited to the time from an animal’s arrival at the slaughterhouse to the delivery to our tables. In the last 50 years dramatic and disturbing trends have radically changed how ‘food’ is produced before it is slaughtered. What’s missing is a new tradition of what product is delivered to the slaughterhouse, and how it is slaughtered, and is the system within the realm of what Jews would consider ethical, healthy, or clean. Because this is a REALLY large issue, I’ll focus on only chickens and I’ll address beef and veal another time.
As documented in Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, chicken production in the last 30 years has become an industrial process that is out of our frame of reference. Chickens have been moved off the farm, their species has been reduced from hundreds of commercial breeds to less than 10, placed in poultry factories, stacked in small cages, given no fresh air or exercise, fed corn (usually the bi-product of making high fructose corn syrup), and bred for extremely large breasts (which make them unstable). Their lives are miserable even for chickens. Often times, they cannot even turn around in their cages and they are despoiled with the feces from the chicken in the cage above. Chickens kept in such close quarters tend to attack other chickens, so the poultry industry solution is to burn their beaks off so if they attack their adjacent cage mates, their attack is now ineffective. So much waste is produced from these factories that they would be considered Superfund sites, except farm production is exempt from regulation. And yes, these farms are kosher! Kashrut is a certification which starts with the shochet at the slaughterhouse, and does not consider how the chicken is the raised.
Just to remind all of us what well-managed chickens do on a farm: they graze a little on grass but mostly scavenge for bugs in the grasses, they poop, and their poop helps fertilize the field (because the poop is in scale it adds dramatically to the fertility of the soil, eliminating the need for oil-based fertilizer). New, innovative methods of sustainable agriculture use chickens in small paddocks moved every day to eliminate pests (Michael Pollan’s example was farmer Joel Saladin’s use of chickens to follow cattle and ‘disinfect’ their droppings). This type of farming is called intensive rotational grazing and its practitioners proudly call themselves grass farmers, because the farmers grow the grass and let the animals live and grow themselves. In this scheme, the chickens are on pasture, they forage for 40-60 percent of their food and their diet is augmented with feed, scraps, refuse, etc. Chickens raised in fresh air in this manner are extraordinarily healthy. Producers of these kinds of chickens call them ‘Pasture Raised’ or ‘Pastured’.
While these words are important, we are in the process of losing two other words that we’ve used or heard; the words are ‘Organic’ and ‘Cage-Free’. An ‘Organic’ chicken is one that is most likely a factory chicken as described above with the exception that it was fed corn and other feed with an organic certification. ‘Cage-Free’ is another word that you thought you understood. The definition of ‘Cage-Free’ includes ‘access to the outdoors for part of the time of the chicken’s life’. In practical terms this means that producers raise chickens in extremely crowded barns where a door to the outside (where there is no food or water) is unlocked for the last 3 weeks of the chickens’ lives. This is hardly the pastoral vision most of us have for cage free.
When we factor Kashrut on top of this we find that outside of a single slaughter-house in Scranton, PA, all Kosher slaughter is performed for factory farms. The reality of being a shochet (a person trained in kosher slaughter) in the US is that all work is concentrated on the major Kosher producers. As far as I know, there are no working shochets in the western US except for 1 in New Mexico.
Because chicken technology has become so standardized, chicken processing from a small-scale on a farm to a very large-scale is now uniform and non-kosher. Chickens are killed and then scalded in boiling water, their feathers are removed, they are cut open and their organs are removed then they are chilled packaged and sold. Kosher chickens CANNOT be scalded, since you are potentially cooking a chicken with its blood intact. So the method of kosher slaughter is first, to have a shochet slice the throat in one quick movement without nicking the throat bone. Next, the chicken needs to be de-feathered either by hand (as Shochet Naf Hanau says by channeling our inner polish grandmother) or by a dry plucking machine (which is dramatically less efficient than its non-kosher counterpart). After the chicken is fully plucked, an incision is made and it’s eviscerated (its guts are removed) and the viscera are investigated to make sure its healthy. Once the chicken is eviscerated, it is soaked in water, then salted to remove the last blood, then it’s iced.
Chickens can be farm raised, a traveling shochet can occasionally be found to slaughter chickens, but farm raised, locally slaughtered chickens are not USDA inspected. Most institutional kitchens do not allow non-USDA meat to be served.
Now that I’ve described the problems with raising chickens, kashrut, and actual heathy chickens versus factory chickens, the question is: what is Kosher Meat? Is it fit to eat? Should we redefine kashrut in a way to accommodate a more ethical method that includes the heath and diet of the actual chicken? Should we add a certification like the Magen Tzedek? We each need to decide for ourselves what is fit to eat.
Our family has decided to eat only kosher pasture raised chickens. For the last few years that meant not eating chicken. Two recent additions to the Kosher world have recently launched in the east with shipping US wide. Kol Foods and Grow and Behold each provide pasture raised chickens that are kosher. Both companies have contracted with Amish farmers who raise their chickens on pasture. The farmers use their own grain to augment the diet of bugs and grass; this grain has not be certified organic, so these chickens and turkeys are not organic. Joel Saladin calls this kind of chicken ‘beyond organic’ and I agree. I’m hoping to arrange for a small run of local kosher chickens to be produced on the west coast. In the meantime, I’ll order chicken from these two eastern producers. If you live in the Palo Alto area and are interested in learning more about local sustainable kosher chicken production, or if you want to join in on a shipment of chicken from one of these two eastern producers, let me know. Just email me!