The zen of kosher

Involved, complex, spiritual but is there any place for kosher food in business? Nicci Piggott reports

It is said that kosher food is good for the soul but is it good for business? What is certain is that kosher is not merely a business proposition but a complex and involved system of belief, steeped in ancient Jewish laws set out in the Bible. The kosher way of life means 'conforming to religious law with regard to the preparation and consumption of food (Kashrut) of the Torah (as laid down in Deuteronomy and Leviticus) and the Mishnah'. According to the Kosher London Beth Din (KLBD), a leading UK authority on Jewish dietary laws, "just as a healthy diet is good for the body, kosher is good for the soul".

KLBD says the main principles of Kashrut are laid down in the Five Books of Moses and are classified as 'statutes'. Although no reason is given for keeping the statutes - other than that those following the Jewish faith are commanded to do so - rabbis stress their essential role in preserving the Jewish way of life. It is also believed that eating non-kosher food, "reduces your spiritual capacity by clogging up the pores of your soul".

BASIC RULE

When it comes to meat the basic rules about which animals, birds and fish are kosher are set out in Leviticus chapter 11. Red meat must come from animals that have cloven hooves and chew the cud - such as goats, sheep, cattle and deer, pigs on the other hand are considered 'trefah' or forbidden food.

"Venison is no longer available for kosher tables," says the KLBD, "only because, according to agricultural regulations, deer must be shot in the open field, not brought into an abattoir. The Torah lists only the birds which are forbidden to eat, such as ostriches, owls and vultures". By tradition, poultry such as duck, chicken, goose and turkey, along with pigeon, pheasant and partridge can be eaten. To be considered kosher, meat and poultry must be prepared by the method of shechita - slaughtering by a swift cut with a razor-sharp knife - which Jews believe to be the most humane means of killing the animal. Following this the animal then undergoes thorough inspection (bediko) to check if there are any blemishes, which according to Jewish law render it 'unkosher'. The lungs of cattle and intestines of chickens are always checked.

GLATT KOSHER

KLBD explains: "This is where the term 'glatt kosher' comes in. In the case of cattle, if the lung is free of adhesions, it is termed 'glatt' - smooth. If there are adhesions, the animal may still be kosher - though not glatt - provided they leave no hole when they are taken off." This can make sourcing for butchers diffcult as although an animal maybe slaughtered by the shechita method there is no guarantee that it will pass as kosher.

Before the meat reaches the shop counter, it must undergo further process 'nikur, porging', this is the removal of a number of veins and forbidden fats. "Because porging is so tricky in the hindquarters of an animal, it is not carried out in most Diaspora communities and this part of the animal is sold to the non-Jewish market," says KLBD.

The hindquarters also contain the sciatic nerve, which must also be removed because the Bible mentions it was shunned by the Children of Israel because it was where Jacob sustained an injury while wrestling with an angel. Richard Hyman of kosher food business Titanics, explains: "We don't eat the hindquarter in the UK because it contains a vein down the thigh and the sciatic nerve which we do not touch. It takes a highly skilled butcher to remove this without damaging the surrounding meat. Because it is a very difficult and time-consuming procedure, it is not cost-effective for kosher butchers to undertake." Finally, to be fit for kosher use, the meat must be drained of any remaining blood (melicha) - the consumption of which is strictly forbidden by the Torah. All meat has to be soaked and salted before food preparation. While most meat today is koshered before sale by the butcher, products with high blood content, such as liver, usually need to be koshered at home.

BE YE SEPARATE

"Central to maintaining a kosher lifestyle is the separation of meat from milk," the KLBD adds. "The prohibitions against mixing them are very strict. So while Jews are allowed to work as chefs in non-Jewish restaurants (provided of course they don't taste the food), and can even cook burgers, they are not allowed to cook cheeseburgers." The injunction against eating milk products and meat together stems from Exodus 23:19, which states that 'you must not cook a kid (young goat) in its mother's milk'. In fact, this stringent separation means it is necessary for those preparing kosher food to use different sets of cutlery, crockery, cooking utensils and washing-up-bowls for meat and dairy products, to the extent that a dishwasher can be used either for meat or milk dishes but not both.

"We not only avoid mixing meat and milk at the table," explains KLBD, "we also abstain from eating dairy foods after meat until some time has elapsed. The Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish law, actually records two traditions, one of waiting for one hour (which the Dutch still adhere to) and one for six. The prevailing Anglo-Jewish custom is to wait for three."

The rules also state that fish and meat must not be eaten together, but for different reasons. "It is simply that the Rabbis believe it is physically harmful," says KLBD.

"It's perfectly okay to eat meat immediately after fish and vice versa, but it is the custom to cleanse the palate first by having some bread or a drink. But using Worcestershire Sauce, which is made from anchovies, in the preparation of a meat dish for example would not be allowed."

THE MARKET

The kosher market is affected by the same trends as the wider food industry; the increase of single households, more working women and changing consumer tastes, with convenience a particular driving force for sales in the sector. David Rose, executive director of the London Board for Shechita, comments: "We have a changing market, there are more pre-packed and pre-cooked kosher products on the market today, which are sold in more retail outlets.

"We have seen a dramatic increase in the availability of pre-packed product and the supermarkets are spending money to advertise their kosher ranges in the Jewish press. Retail operators are always looking for niche markets and kosher products can provide that. We are also seeing smaller chains growing that source their food from one supplier."

Lionel Kelman of Kelman's Kosher Products, which produces kosher ready-meals, pre-cooked and pre-packed meats as well as a range of sausages, agrees: "Today's consumer, whether kosher or not, is looking to buy most of their goods under one roof. It's all about convenience and that is where the biggest opportunities lie for kosher foods."

ONE OBSTACLE TOO MANY

Larger manufacturers like Kelman's, who own their own factories, will no doubt thrive in the market, but for smaller manufacturers the strict processes set out for kosher food production are an obstacle too many. Processed kosher foods are subject to strict scrutiny, which means each ingredient and food additive has to be individually checked to ensure it does not derive from a non-kosher source. The KLBD says: "Many seemingly innocent products, such as yoghurt - which may contain gelatine, spices - which may contain stearic acid salts, or even breakfast cereal - which may contain glycerine, are ingredients of animal origin.

"Even where the ingredients are fine, the product may still be non-kosher because of other unlisted agents used in its manufacture - such as release agents used to grease the production line." Richard says he would love to develop his own range of ready meal recipes en masse, but cannot see a cost-effective way to do this. "While we produce some ready meals for our own business it is hard to do this and make a real profit unless you can do it on a large scale," he states. "To do that I would need to hire a factory for the day, but because of kosher restrictions we would have to do a full wash down of all equipment before any product could even go in.That would mean several hours downtime for the factory itself and what business would want to do that? Downtime means loss of earnings. It is therefore hard to mass produce kosher goods unless you have dedicated premises."

BEHIND THE TIMES

Looking at the opportunities in the convenience sector of kosher foods, Richard argues: "What we really need in the industry is real innovation, revolutionary thinking. I think the Kosher eating community is slightly behind the times, in that we are only just getting certain kosher products on the market that have been in the non-kosher markets for several years. There are around 250-300,000 Jews in the UK today and just like most other consumers they want convenience, but there simply aren't enough good quality Kosher ready meals available."

Ray Silverman managing director of Ivor Silverman, a chain of three butcher's shops in the London area, says that while it is difficult to predict whether the market is expanding for kosher products there is growing demand for easier access to kosher foods. "We have been in business for 35 years. There are less kosher butchers in the UK today but serving the same amount of people. The businesses themselves are expanding because people are demanding easier access to kosher products, but business is not expanding in terms of numbers."

CONTRACTING MARKET?

Some, mainly those in the independent sector, however, feel that the market is decreasing rather than expanding. Jeffrey Glass of D Glass & Co, Watford, is the fourth generation of butchers in his family, he says: "I don't believe the kosher market is an expanding one and I think, that of those following the Jewish faith, only about 65% follow the strict kosher rules these days. Our business has, like many butchers in the UK, been hit by the supermarkets."

And while supermarkets source their kosher products from businesses like Ray,'s, he argues that in reality it shouldn't really be allowed. "This is a bone of contention among kosher butchers," he states. "How can you have any guarantee that the product you are buying from a supermarket is kosher? You can't police that sort of thing so there can never be a 100% guarantee."

Ray adds that realistically there are not as many Jews who follow the kosher regime as was once the case, especially in younger generations.

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