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'Kosher Nation': An Interview with Sue Fishkoff

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There's a shocking statistic in Sue Fishkoff's new book, Kosher Nation: The majority of people who buy kosher products are not even Jewish.

Fishkoff, a national correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, made full use of her journalistic toolkit to deliver what is a fascinating look at a seemingly niche industry. Following the investigative DNA of Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma), Fishkoff shines a light on a national food trend that needed investigation.

I recently caught up with Fishkoff on her cross-country book tour to discuss why rabbis push buttons in cheese factories, positive kosher wine trends and the kosher meat scandal that rocked the nation.

I'm sure you get this a lot. Why would non-Jews read a book about keeping kosher?

2010-11-17-fishkoffhuff.jpgFirst, this isn't a book about keeping kosher. It's about two things -- the changing ways American Jews have looked at kashrut, which may or may not be interesting to non-Jews; and the incredible growth of the kosher food industry, which should be of interest to all Americans because it affects them all.

Considering that up to 40 percent of domestic food sales come from kosher-certified products, and Jews are less than 2 percent of the population, it's clear that most of the people buying kosher food are not Jewish. They might want to know why the ketchup or soup or breakfast cereal they pick up at the supermarket is kosher-certified. They might want to know what makes it kosher, and it's not because a rabbi blessed it. They might want to know the hidden costs behind the global kosher supervision and certification business. They might ask whether kosher meat is safer or healthier than non-kosher. With all the interest today in where our food comes from and how healthy it is, I think these questions are worthy of attention.

What are some common misconceptions about the kosher industry?

The most common misconception is that food is kosher because a rabbi has blessed it. The only blessings going on are those Jews say before and after eating or drinking, not in the factory where the food is produced. There's another exception: the blessing a shochet, or ritual slaughterer, says before slaughtering animals or poultry. But that's about it.

Another misconception is that kosher food is produced for Jews. While that's true of the so-called Jewish ethnic foods like gefilte fish and kosher-for-Passover matzo, even then it's not entirely true. Many non-Jews buy matzo, and sweet Concord wines from Manischewitz and Mogen David are popular among Asians and African-Americans as well as Jews. But the overwhelming majority of kosher-certified food products are mainstream items that everyone buys, usually without even noticing they're kosher. That label is there for the distributors, the supermarkets, and the 11 to 13 million consumers who buy kosher food on purpose for dietary, health or religious reasons that may have nothing to do with kashrut.

What have been the biggest changes you've seen in the kosher wine sector?

It's a lot better than it used to be! Until quite recently, kosher wine meant sweet, syrupy stuff, typified by the Manischewitz bottle everyone's grandparents kept for years in the corner cupboard, dragging it out for Passover and other holidays. The Herzog brothers were taking a big chance when they started making non-sweet kosher wines in the mid-1980s in California. But they were tapping into a growing trend. Today you can buy some excellent kosher wines, notably those from Hagafen Cellars in Napa, not to mention the dozens of great wines from Israel. And Jeff Morgan is making incredible kosher wines under his Napa-based Covenant label.

These wines are not cheap, which is another change.

Another interesting point is that this new emphasis on quality is driven largely by baalei teshuvah, or newly observant Jews. Because many of them know good wine from their non-observant days, they're not willing to accept plonk just because it's kosher. The kosher wine industry no longer has a pliant captive audience.

In your book, you devote an entire chapter to the scandal at the Postville, Iowa Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant. Sholom Rubashkin, who ran the facility, was accused of many things including animal mistreatment, hiring illegal workers and minors and bank fraud, just to name a few. Has there been anything positive that came out of this scandal?

One positive thing that emerged from this scandal is that Jewish dietary practice and the kosher food industry are on the Jewish radar like never before, and in wide-ranging ways. Liberal Jews who have been talking about ethical kashrut for years -- the need to protect workers, treat animals right and respect the earth -- are now exploring the spiritual potential of traditional kashrut. And Orthodox Jews are waking up to the ethical abuses that can be perpetrated in the name of kosher food production, and are talking about their responsibility to ensure it doesn't happen.

Jewish dietary practice is a hot topic of conversation all along the denominational spectrum, and that would not have happened, unfortunately, if not for the publicity surrounding Agriprocessors.

Another positive outcome that has not yet occurred would be if Americans began demanding investigations into every slaughterhouse in this country, and if the authorities and plant owners took seriously their responsibility to prevent abuse of the animals and workers involved. It's time to clean up the meat industry. And if that makes meat more expensive, then let's eat less of it.

What was the strangest thing you learned while researching this book?

I learned a lot of strange things about bugs in fruit and vegetables, and the lengths observant Jews go to get rid of them. Kitchen mashgiachs, or kosher supervisors, spend so much time cleaning bugs from fresh produce that one certifying rabbi said they've become lettuce washers instead of food supervisors.

Factory automation has caused some odd permutations of kosher law. For instance, a mashgiach is supposed to add the rennet in the cheese-making process -- it's a delicate operation that could involve mixing meat and milk if not done properly, at least in the old days when rennet could be derived from an animal. Until recently, rennet was poured into the milk mixture from a bucket. But today, in most factories you push a button and the rennet is added automatically. Still, in order to get kosher certification, a mashgiach has to push that button. I talked to one mashgiach who slept in a room at the cheese factory, and every time his alarm rang -- every 40 minutes -- he'd wake up, push the button, and go back to sleep. He's so far removed from the actual physical process of making the food that the requirement seems a bit extreme.

Many of the laws of kashrut, and the requirements of kosher food production, seem unusual or arbitrary. For a people that enjoys food so much, we sure make it hard to eat.

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