Behind the Scenes of Kosher Meat

Rabbi Seth Mandel

Surprisingly little is actually known about the kosher meat and poultry industry – misconceptions abound.

While meats are arguably the most sensitive products in the kosher food chain, even many rabbis do not understand some of the issues in kosher meat production.  This is not surprising: back in the day animals and chickens were shechted and kashered in small quantities locally and local rabbis were involved, today production is done in industrial-sized plants that are, for the most part, far from Jewish communities and their local rabbis.  Things would be much simpler if only one or two animals/chickens were done at a time, but that would be prohibitively expensive.

It is well known that only certain animals are kosher.  But that is just the beginning of the story.  Even if the species is kosher, the animal/bird itself must be healthy (there are specific rules about this).

There are major differences between the kosher production of meat and poultry, but first let us address the common requirements: the shechita, kashering, and processing.  There are many complex rules involved in shechita, far beyond just a perfectly sharp knife without nicks, and everyone understands that kosher shechita requires a shochet with a lot of training, both in the kosher rules and in the technique, so that the cut is made cleanly and painlessly, and the animal bleeds out quickly.  Furthermore, shechita can be physically demanding in an industrial setup, and so shochtim need to have rest periods.  That may necessitate more than one shochet so that they can rotate.

Some readers may remember their mothers kashering chickens at home, which was the norm in the ‘old country’ and even America, when a housewife would go to a shochet and bring home a freshly killed chicken.  In those days, women learned how to kasher correctly by watching their mothers, just as they learned to cook.  That has disappeared; today most Jews buy their poultry in the kosher store or the supermarket.  But kashering meat is actually a complex process, and requires a knowledgeable supervisor to oversee all the steps and ensure each is done correctly.  Briefly, the meat/poultry has to be first soaked in water for half an hour, then it must be properly salted from all sides and remain in the salt for an hour, and then must be washed off thoroughly so that no trace of the salt or blood remains.  This requires, in addition to supervision to make sure that every step is done properly, a lot of space and equipment, since some of the equipment used for kashering cannot be used for anything else.  Today’s kashering is done either in the slaughterhouse in adjoining rooms or in special facilities.  Long gone are the days when local butchers would kasher meat in “the back room”.

After the meat/poultry is kashered, it has to be cut and packaged, and it must be packaged with a siman kashrut (kosher seal) to insure that what the customer receives is kosher.  The labels with the certification symbol must be brought to the packaging area and handed out by supervisors who track the labels, supervise how they are used and collect the unused labels at the end of the day; labels cannot be left around.

With kosher production of other kinds of food, the first line of control is making sure only approved kosher ingredients go into the plant.  However, in meat and poultry plants, the “ingredients” are the live animals, and only after proper shechita, checking, and kashering is the animal kosher.  All kosher meat and poultry plants, therefore, have non-kosher products in the plant, and an essential element of kosher supervision is how the non-kosher animals, meat and poultry are separated from the kosher.  Therefore, unless the production is very small and slow, many mashgichim may be required.

Kosher poultry production differs from meat production primarily because most poultry is healthy.  In a chicken production, only 1%-3% of the birds are usually found to have broken bones or pathologies in their intestines.  Sometimes other problems arise, such as tendonitis in chickens or diseased lungs in turkeys, in which case a checking regime for these problems has to be instituted, but that is the exception and not the norm.

In mammals, on the other hand, it is quite normal to find various abnormalities in the lungs.  This is true of people as well, but they are not dealt with unless they impede lung function.  In animal lungs, however, abnormalities may render the animal not kosher, because they do reflect on the animal’s health, even if they are not immediately fatal.  For that reason, the lungs of all mammals are carefully inspected by a trained rabbi, both in situ (when the lungs are still in the carcass), and after they have been removed.

The most common abnormalities are adhesions between the lungs and the lung cavity and between various parts of the lungs.  Adhesions, called sirkhos in Hebrew, can come in all different varieties, from mucous adhesions that come off when they are touched to fibrous adhesions that are very difficult to peel off and may cause a break in the lung membrane if they were taken off.  This is the source of the differences between various “categories” of kosher: glatt kosher, Bet Yosef, plain kosher.  Simply put, “Bet Yosef” allows only meat from animals whose sirkhos come off immediately; “Glatt” allows meat from animals whose sirkhos come off easily; plain kosher allows meat from animals whose sirkhos do not come off easily and need to be peeled off, if they can be, with great care.  “Easily,” of course, is not a word so simply defined, but today’s glatt refers to a specific standard that all bodekim are taught as part of their training, and the standard is the same for almost all productions, whether in America or Israel.

It is obvious that certifying an animal as plain kosher will require a lot more work than certifying only glatt, in some cases it may require more than a minute.  That is why in large scale productions where there may be 70 or more animals slaughtered an hour, it may not be feasible to do plain kosher, unless you have two bodekim, which, of course, increases the expense.  Most kashrus agencies only certify glatt or Bet Yosef for basically this reason: in large productions, one cannot devote the time necessary to make sure the animal is plain kosher as opposed to non-kosher without cutting corners.  That is also why consumers understand “glatt’ as referring to a higher standard: it is, and the consumer is assured that the animal is completely permitted according to Jewish law, even if it is from a fast production.  Some kashrus agencies, of course, only want to be associated with higher standards, and therefore will only certify glatt or Bet Yosef as a policy matter.  Although only about half of the animals that may meet the plain kosher standard will meet the glatt standard, the increased speed makes up for the smaller amount, and so the difference in actual cost is very small.

Many consumers ask why it is that the desirable hindquarter cuts are not available as kosher in the USA? Some are under the erroneous impression that this is because of the prohibition of “gid hanasheh,” the sciatic nerve and its offshoots referred to at the end of Genesis Chapter 32.  Actually, that is not the case. The sciatic nerve can be easily removed by someone with the proper training.  However, there is a forbidden substance called ‘chelev’ in Hebrew, roughly corresponding to “suet” in English, which is very strictly forbidden, as opposed to regular fat, which is permitted.  The chelev on the loins is difficult to remove because it extends into the muscle and meat.  Furthermore, the cuts it goes into are precisely the cuts most valued by non-kosher consumers (e.g. the sirloin, fillet mignon, T-bone, porterhouse), and removing all the chelev would make mincemeat of these cuts. Removing the chelev is laborious and time consuming, and requires an expert who has undergone weeks of specialized training and constant monitoring, since even the smallest trace of chelev is prohibited.  It is much more efficient to let these cuts be sold to non-Jews, with the chelev intact. However, in certain animals, such as deer, there is no chelev, and one can have kosher venison, including the hindquarters, after removing the gid hanasheh.

The issue of kosher production is very “meaty,” with much written about it in Jewish law.  The purpose of this brief is not to explain all the laws, but to acquaint kosher consumers with many issues not mentioned in the sources, issues that have become relevant in light of current production methods.  Large-scale meat and poultry production presents both challenges (administering many kosher personnel, far beyond just the shochet), and opportunities (the speed and efficiency resulting in a lower cost to the consumer) far beyond what was the case in the ‘good old days’.