The high prices of kosher foods plague observant Jews. Indeed, the high cost of observing dietary laws may be among the reasons that it is so challenging to entice people to observe the mitzvah. There remain things customers can do to lower costs, but the question remains: how much of this kosher cost is artificial and our own doing?
In Columbus, where the Jewish community is relatively small in size, the issue is particularly telling. In our fair town the largest provider of kosher meat and goods is the Kroger on Broad and Maplewood in Whitehall. It offers fresh and frozen meats and is under the supervision of the Columbus Vaad HaKashrut. All meats sold in the kosher department are glatt. Some Hebrew National products are available with the non-kosher, prepackaged delicatessen. As the only major store to offer a full line of glatt kosher meat, sadly prices tend to be high, at times above manufacturers’ suggested prices.
If not concerned with the glatt custom, buyers can get their beef products at several Trader Joes locations. As the meat there is not glatt, it is lower priced. In addition, meat packages are reasonably sized, which is an important asset to some.
Others seeking bargains on meat are encouraged to order on line. While their prices recently rose a bit with a recent change of their suppliers, bargains remain to be found at www.kckoshercoop.com. Membership is free. Deliveries of case size lots of a wide varieties of items are made monthly at Beth Jacob Synagogue. Orders must be placed and paid for in advance. They offer mainly glatt meats, but some non-glatt meat as well. For case lots, as an alternative consider a local businessman by checking out his website, www.columbuskosher.com. Usually there is nothing listed on the site, but leave a message there. See what the site owner can do for you.
Weeks ago this column lamented the loss of kosher meat from Meijer’s fresh meats department. It is unclear if readers contacted Meijer’s. Meijer’s has yet to resume selling fresh kosher meat.
Aside from finding local sources of affordable food, the issue remains as to whether all possible is being done to make kosher food affordable.
Among factors that most rapidly raises prices on meat is demanding that all kosher meat be glatt. Glatt had been a Hassidic custom that in the past two decades become increasingly prevalent among supervisory organizations and hence across the Jewish spectrum. It is easy to tell why it caught on. It takes a good bit of knowledge to know whether a piece of meat is kosher or not. Specialists in this matter are well honed in Yoreh Deah, a volume of the Shulchan Aruch, the major code of Jewish law. By comparison, to identify meat as glatt kosher, one just needs to check that there are no blemishes on lungs after animals are slaughtered according to Jewish ritual law. Here is the rub, with the increased need for glatt kosher meat there is a shortage of cattle that are completely perfect and unblemished. So today, glatt meat requires knowledge of Yoreh Deah as well. Put another way, except in limited situations, today’s glatt kosher meat is not glatt kosher, just higher priced. As for non-meat glatt foods, the use of the term glatt kosher is well placed foolishness. The term is properly applied only to meat. Glatt kosher fish, dairy, poultry and dry goods are items no different from similar kosher items in terms of Jewish rules. They are termed glatt to benefit from Jewish advertising hyperbole.
Sadly, the glatt matter is not the only cause of rising costs. Another major contributor is the model upon which foods are labeled as kosher or not. Generally, kosher supervision is paid by companies by assigning a cost to every kosher label. Larger corporations may pay fractions of a mil per label. If an item is not labeled as kosher, that does not make it non-kosher. Indeed there may be many fine, strictly kosher products on supermarket shelves. When in doubt, observant Jews exercise great care.
Indeed, one nearly needs to be a chemist to understand if chemical additives are kosher. Food colorings and additives frequently derive from sources that are absolutely treif (not kosher): whales, insects and what have you. Careful exploration of kosher food producers reveals some sad but true situations.
On October 19 my aunt, Barbara Hurwitz passed away. For most of her life she worked as a food chemist at the factory near Rochester, NY where numerous Italian, tomato products are produced, canned or bottled. Among the items she saw on the line was the Franco Rinaldi- line of spaghetti sauces. It is not considered kosher. Yet on the same line, from the same vats, she also saw unbranded tomato products that had the approvals of the Orthodox Union and other supervising bodies. The packaging was different but the contents identical. The approved products were kosher by all standards, the Franco Rinaldi were not. Yet, the kashrut of an item is not dependent on someone blessing a can; it is strictly determined by the state of contents.
Had there been only the Franco Rinaldi case, it may have been dismissed as the anti-Orthodox leanings of my late aunt who had been raised in an Orthodox Jewish home but abandoned her devotion to observance while a young woman.
Yet there are similar instances made known time and again throughout North America. I personally encountered a most bothersome example while I lived in Calgary. A Canadian producer of cheese had decided to put in a kosher line. The CRC, Canada’s largest supervisor of kosher laws, made arrangements with Calgary kashrut authorities to supervise. Dutifully a representative traveled to a plant several hours outside of town to supervise a monthly run of kosher cheese production. He was there to push a button and get each run started after assuring that only kosher milk and additives were used.
What was interesting about this cheese was that in interviewing the supervisor I learned that the ingredients in the kosher batch were the same as those used in the non-kosher cheeses produced in the same plant. The company did not store any non-kosher ingredients. The difference was that a Jew pushed the button.
There is a well known story that decades ago the Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik agreed that all Kraft cheeses should be considered kosher. He asked for a time delay in order to get the political steps completed before making a pronouncement. With his reputation for Torah knowledge and adherence, any statement on the issue would have been granted wide credence. Sadly, other parties were unwilling to wait, and Soloveichik never did anything about this issue.
We need to reevaluate how kosher items are identified. New paradigms need to be established so that the kashrut depends less on individual labels and label fees than on the steps to assure the compliance of manufacturers. Perhaps master lists of all kosher goods need to be maintained so that interested individuals can find lower cost items. That way the cost of all kosher goods can be lowered and placed within the reach of consumers. Perhaps kosher labels should be relegated to persons seeking greater convenience. This is just one example of thinking outside the box. If anything can be done to make kashrut more affordable, it would be a boon to extending the observance of the dietary laws.