More people are turning to kosher foods despite their higher prices—not for religious reasons but because they think these foods are safer, healthier, and of better quality. In fact, only 8 percent of people who eat kosher food are religious Jews, according to Timothy D. Lytton, author of Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrialized Food.
Kosher foods are produced in accordance with strict religious dietary laws, at specialized facilities under rabbinical supervision, but does this make them better for you (or the animals) in any way? Here we confirm and debunk some of the claims.
Claim: Kosher poultry and meat are safer because the salting process, used to remove blood from the flesh, kills disease-causing bacteria, such as Salmonella.
Reality: Salt has some antibacterial effects. And kosher salt, which is used in the processing of kosher poultry and meat, has a larger grain size compared with regular table salt, so the salt adheres to the surface of the carcass longer. A study in Poultry Science in 2012 found that salting significantly reduced the level of microbes, including generic E. coli. In an earlier study, in the Journal of Food Safety in 2008, salting, followed by rinsing, reduced Salmonella on chicken much more than rinsing alone (which suggests that the salt also reduces attachment of bacteria to the carcass surface, so they are easier to rinse off). But salting is not a sterilization process. You still have to handle the meat as carefully as any other meat. Salting also increases the sodium content.
Claim: Kosher foods are safer because they undergo more inspections.
Reality: Kosher inspectors, who must be allowed to visit plants unannounced, make sure that kosher laws—such as no mixing of meat and dairy foods—are followed and that foods are accurately labeled (“parve” or “pareve” kosher, for instance, means the food contains neither meat nor dairy—good for people with severe dairy allergies or lactose intolerance, and for vegetarians). They may also check the animals for signs of disease. But the inspectors do not perform tests designed specifically for food safety.
Claim: Kosher beef carries less risk from mad cow disease.
Reality: Kosher slaughter methods—which prohibit use of a stun gun—ensure that no brain tissue (where most prions, the infectious agent of mad cow disease) spreads to other parts of the animal, thereby decreasing the risk of contracting the human form of this disease, called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. But there have been no known cases of this brain-wasting disorder in the U.S. due to infected American beef anyway, according to the CDC, and FDA (which regulates animal feed) and USDA regulations help ensure that beef is safe from mad cow disease.
Behind the kosher label
There’s little published research comparing the safety of kosher and nonkosher foods. But a 2013 study in F1000Research, which tested 213 samples of raw poultry, suggested that kosher foods may even be worse in some respects. It found a substantially higher frequency of antibiotic resistant E.coli in kosher chicken compared to chicken marketed as conventional, organic, or raised without antibiotics. Similarly, a study in the International Association for Food Protection in 2007 found a higher prevalence of Listeria in kosher poultry (though less Salmonella and Campylobacter).
One possible reason why kosher poultry fared worse may relate to how the birds are defeathered, according to an editorial in Food Safety News in 2013. Nonkosher meat is commonly immersed in scalding water to make it easier to remove the feathers, and this also helps kill bacteria. This step is prohibited in kosher production (rather, the chickens are dry plucked or are soaked in very cold water so the flesh is firmer and can better withstand automated plucking). But it’s not clear if there’s really a direct link between kosher slaughter and bacterial concentrations. Nor is it clear if these results are linked with a public health concern.
According to the CDC, an outbreak of Salmonella in 2011 was traced to kosher chicken livers. But it’s believed that because the products were labeled “kosher broiled chicken livers,” consumers ate them thinking they were ready-to-eat when, in fact, they were partially cooked and needed further cooking to be safe for consumption.
Keep in mind also that just as there are food-safety violations in conventional food production, serious violations have occurred in kosher operations, too. AgriProcessors, once the nation’s largest kosher meat producer and now operating under a different name, was repeatedly cited for a range of abuses—including unsanitary conditions and not properly sampling for E. coli contamination (as well as accusations of animal abuses, see below).
What kosher is not
Kosher foods are neither purer nor more wholesome than other foods. They are not necessarily more nutritious or flavorful, and they have just as much sugar or fat as non-kosher foods. And unless the label indicates so, they are not automatically “organic” or “raised without antibiotics.”
Kosher foods are not necessarily produced more humanely, either. Though animal welfare is part of Jewish teaching, animals may be raised under factory-farm conditions, with limited space, fresh air, and exercise. Moreover, though kosher slaughter involves cutting the animal’s throat with a knife to result in a quick death, if this ritual cut is not done correctly, the animal may remain conscious for some time afterward, as shown in this undercover video taken at AgriProcessors in 2008. (Warning: the video content is disturbing to watch.) Critics also contend that the practice of slaughtering the animals while they are still conscious (that is, not stunned, as is done in conventional slaughter operations) is stressful and cruel.
Bottom line: The kosher symbol is no guarantee of safety. You must handle kosher foods at home as you would other foods. That means cooking meat and poultry to proper temperatures, separating raw foods from cooked to prevent cross-contamination, refrigerating perishables within two hours, and—despite what your mother or grandmother may have done—not leaving chicken soup out overnight to cool.
Also see Do You Handle Poultry Properly?