Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Kosher food is catching on

n the "meat room" just a few steps from the busy counter at Kohn's Kosher Meat And Deli Restaurant, Leonard Flaks counts the ribs in a side of lamb — and reaches the 13th.

According to Kosher rules, no ribs past the 12th can be consumed unless biblically prohibited fat and veins are removed. So Flaks rejects the offending piece of meat, placing it on a nearby rack for butchers Mario Smith and Yuza Kiknadze to remedy.

Flaks moves on, carefully inspecting each piece for bruises and flaws, eventually earning it the seal of the Vaad Hoeir, the local kosher authority. From that point, the meat is sold — and could go virtually anywhere in the country.

But the seal — a black "V" surrounded by a circle — tells a person just how the meat has been handled. And, increasingly, that mark and other kosher seals have become more important to American consumers, including more non-Jews.

"People come in and say I'm not Jewish, but I'd like a kosher meat," said Lenny Kohn, owner of the store at 10405 Old Olive Street Road in Creve Coeur. "I don't really ask why, but the implied reason is that they're doing it because of safety; because they know there are more eyes on kosher food."

Kohn said he has seen more non-Jewish customers in his store and on its website, and sales, particularly of kosher meat, have gone up.

The store's experience follows a nationwide trend in which sales of kosher food have risen 15 percent in the past decade, mostly among non-Jews. Last year, the number of new kosher products introduced to the market topped 4,400 — more than double the number of products in the fast-growing organic category — up from just under 400 in 2003.

"There have been so many meat recalls, food recalls, that people are worried about the integrity of the food supply," said Marcia Mogelonsky, an analyst with Mintel, a Chicago-based consumer research firm that released a study earlier this year looking at kosher food. "As far as consumers are concerned, kosher meats have that extra level of cleanliness and care."

A kosher facility can be inspected at any time, and authorities, usually rabbis, can look at anything from packages of food to pipe connections.

"Inspectors are unannounced, and they have the right to open anything in a plant," said Joe Regenstein, a professor of food science and head of the Kosher and Halal Food Initiative at Cornell University. "They can come once a month, twice a year. There are certain operations that have them 24-7.

"The rabbinical sense of eyes and ears is marvelous. It's much more extensive than any government audit."

Particular care is given to meat, Regenstein said.

"Unlike the USDA, if there is a problem, the entire animal is removed from the food supply," Regenstein said. "With the government, they can fix it. With the rabbis it's yes or no."

For a meat to be certified kosher, it can't have any diseases or flaws. So, in theory, sick cattle, like those at the source of the nation's largest meat recall in February, would not have made it into the food supply under kosher supervision. In the February case, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recalled 143 million pounds of beef after an undercover investigator videotaped workers at a California plant using electrical shocks to force sick cows to stand.

Last week, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer announced that the department would ban sick cattle to instill public confidence in American beef.

Kosher-certified meat also can't come from animals that have consumed other animals, alleviating concerns over mad cow disease, which is linked to animals that have eaten feed containing infected meat and bone meal.

In the Mintel survey, researchers found that more than half the consumers of kosher food make their choices based on perceptions of safety rather than for religious or ethical reasons.

"The major driver is not Jewish people," Mogelonsky said. "It's people in general concerned about food."

But food safety may just be one component of the rising demand. Vegetarians use the label to identify products that don't contain meat. People who are lactose-intolerant rely on kosher labels to tell them a product doesn't contain dairy products.

Kosher rules require that meat and dairy can't be mixed, so for example, kosher yogurt cannot contain gelatin, made from animal hooves.

"The kosher mark is used by consumers in the generic sense," Regenstein said. "It's used by vegetarians, people with allergies, Muslims, Seventh-day Adventists."

Food labeled organic or all-natural, both growing categories, often is kosher as well.

"I think there are customers, regardless of religion, who perceive kosher foods as being healthier and more stringent in labeling standards, and at one time, they were drawn to kosher products for those reasons," said Cindy Helton, the buyer for kosher, natural and organic foods for Dierbergs grocery stores. "In our stores, health-conscious customers are now finding those options in large selections of natural and organic products."

Kosher-labeled vegetables also may have an advantage in the marketplace in the wake of recent contaminations, such as the E. coli-tainted spinach recalled in 2006. Under kosher law, vegetables and fruits may not bear visible insects, which means kosher vegetables are often heavily washed or sprayed with chemicals.

"I like to say, jokingly, that I work with a group of stakeholders that actually like pesticides," Regenstein said. "The rabbis do love all those modern, heavily washed vegetables."

Regenstein said he would not be comfortable making a claim that kosher food — meat or vegetables — is necessarily safer. But he acknowledged that consumers clearly are starting to believe that.

"The fact is the (government) gets in some of these plants once a year," he said. "The fact that the rabbi comes once a month appears to be a value-added mark."

For some Kohn's regulars, though, safety isn't a huge concern.

Matt Flanagan and Lewis Bernstein, neither of whom keep kosher, have eaten lunch at the deli four times a week for decades.

On a recent afternoon they sat at a round table, polishing off the remains of their sandwiches.

"We just like it because they give us such big portions," Bernstein said. "We've been coming for years."

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