To eat is to live; to keep our physical bodies alive. For without the body, there is nothing. No experience. No memory. No joy, no hardship.
But man, unlike animals, eats to live and to enjoy. So how should a Jew respond when he is challenged as to why he imposes upon himself not just ceremonies dedicated to the enjoyment of eating but even more to the limiting of what he can eat?
Of course, this is a false question. Understanding the rules of kashrut as a restriction is to miss the essential nature of creation and of our relationships with God and what it means to truly enjoy partaking of creation.
Jewish tradition holds that what gives meaning to food – no matter how beautiful the “presentation” – is the presence of God and Torah. Our rabbis teach that it is forbidden to enjoy anything of this world without a blessing. That is, to fail to engage the connection between the physical and the spiritual, the created to the Creator, is to reduce the experience of eating to mere consumption and to blur the distinction between man and animal.
We are more than physical beings. Our bodies are merely temporary shelters for our precious souls. That said, God, who created man “of the dust of the earth,” recognizes that man must eat to sustain his physical well-being. God had created a biological being, one in need of physical nourishment. To make sure that the connection between the base need to eat and the holiness of our deeper natures is maintained, we observe the laws of kashrut.
The laws of kashrut are restrictions but only in the sense that they are restrictions which enlarge us. Despite the weakness of our natures; despite our propensity for evil, there remains within us the possibility of redemption and renewal, of teshuvah. The laws of kashrut define God’s master plan of fusing body and soul within the reality of corporeal existence.
Eating is truly an expression of our essential natures – our physical nature and our spiritual nature. Only when we embrace both can eating be truly and completely ennobling.
The individual Jew observes the laws of kashrut as a spiritual act. But for his observance to be true he must place his trust not just in God but in the agencies that produce, regulate and attest to the food he eats. He must rely on the certification agencies that assure him that the food he consumes and blesses is, in fact, kosher.
It wasn’t so very long ago that such trust was sadly misplaced. Dr. Timothy D. Lytton, in his recently published book, “Kosher – Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food” [Harvard University Press, 2013], notes that kosher certification was not always as reliable as today. At the beginning of the last century, the kosher food industry was corrupt and rife with fraud. The New York City Department of Markets estimated in 1925 that 40 percent of the meat sold as kosher in the city was, in fact, not kosher. Consumer groups and industry associations estimated that figure to be too low and placed the figure between 50 to 65 percent.
Kosher certification suffered from the same financial incentives to cut corners that characterize private food safety auditing.
The decisions, efforts and actions that brought about the reform that allowed independent kosher certification agencies to establish uniform industry standards represent the heart of Dr. Lytton’s observations about the strengths of kosher certification and why it might be a model for improving the even greater failings in the governmental food certification process.
The kosher food market is big business. Kosher foods generate more than $12 billion in annual sales. This market is represented not only by observant Jews but also by health-conscious non-observant and non-Jewish consumers who have come to trust and value that a “kosher” certification speaks to our deep relationship with the food we eat.
Dr. Lytton suggests that the growing popularity of kosher food among non-observant Jews and non-Jews reflects a pervasive anxiety about the industrialization of the food supply. Not only does rabbinic supervision ensure a heightened degree of food purity but it also personalizes a vast, complex and globalized food production system.
By and large, these consumers are right to place their faith in the kosher certification system. Regular, unannounced inspections of kosher food production facilities serve many purposes, not the least of which is a general increase in vigilance. Such vigilance not only prevents any contamination that would render a product “non-kosher” but also serves to prevent the kinds of pest infestations that occur all too often when such vigilance is lax.
A famous advertising campaign proclaimed, “We answer to a higher authority.” Whereas federal regulations allow for a certain threshold of contamination in food – for example, fewer than two maggots per 500 grams of canned tomatoes – kosher certification allows for zero tolerance for any such contaminants.
When our authority is God, there is not the same “wiggle room” that exists in governmental regulation.
While Dr. Lytton praises the kosher certification process as a model for government inspectors, he also notes that kosher certification is not a substitute for federal regulation. He acknowledges that kosher requirements often overlap with food safety standards – kosher inspectors are trained in Jewish dietary law, food chemistry, and food technology – but they do not have the training or expertise to address bacterial contamination or safe food handling practices.
From Dr. Lytton’s perspective, the most valuable contribution that kosher certification offers to food safety might be a model of reliable private certification. The key to this, he suggests, is to yoke market demand for certification with the kind of competitive pressures that minimize corner cutting. That is, utilize the kosher certification model.
In an opinion piece he wrote for Food Safety News entitled “Kosher Certification: A Model for Improving Private Food Safety Audits”, Dr. Lytton lists a number of features of the kosher certification system that make it so successful.
1. Sufficient consumer demand. As we have noted, the kosher food market is significant. In order to succeed in this market, companies are willing to allow kosher inspectors into their facilities.
2. A core of vigilant and active consumers. Ultimately, it is the consumers who hold producers’ “feet to the fire”.
3. Brand competition based on reliability among kosher certifiers vying for food company clients counteracts incentives to cut corners.
4. Interdependence among certifiers creates incentives for interagency oversight.
5. Concentration of market power in the hands of a few large certifiers. This simplifies the development and enforcement of industry-wide standards.
6. Certification agency personnel are motivated by a shared sense of mission that counteracts conflicts of interest and promotes cooperation even between competing certifiers. No one should ever doubt that the kosher certification is a business, a highly competitive business. But it is not just a business. For the rabbis who staff certification agencies, it is a sacred trust.