Kosher Jews across the country may find it nearly impossible to locate properly prepared meat and poultry if proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations are implemented.
The regulations, designed to reduce disease-causing bacteria in meat and poultry, would affect the salting and rinsing processes, or m’lichah and haddachah, according to rabbinic experts.
The new rules would not affect the ritual slaughter, or shechitah, involved in Kashrut.
The proposals’ impact on the Kosher community “could go anywhere from ending certification to making the meat and poultry scarce and higher priced,” said Abba Cohen, director and general counsel of the Washington office of Agudah Israel of America, an Orthodox organization.
“If these regulations make it too difficult for the packing plants to comply with, they just may close up,” said Avrom Pollak, president of Star K Kosher Certification.
Star K, based in Baltimore, is an international non-profit organization that certifies food as Kosher around the world.
The proposed directives, introduced in February, call for washing all meat and poultry in an anti-microbial solution and storing the food below 40 degrees Fahrenheit through the handling, holding and shipping process.
Recent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses prompted the new proposals, according to Jacque Knight, a USDA spokeswoman.
Depending on how the anti-microbial treatments are applied, the wash could “comprise” the ritual salting and rinsing, Cohen said.
This is especially true if the solution must be applied before the process can begin, he said.
“There’s no halachic solution for that. It would make it impossible to certify Kosher meat and poultry,” he added.
The temperature provisions could affect the salting and rinsing timetable, putting pressure on those who produce Kosher meat and poultry, Cohen said.
According to Jewish law, the rinsing and salting must be performed within 72 hours after slaughter, he said.
The time required to bring the meat and poultry to that temperature, combined with concerns such as shipping and delivery schedules and slaughters on Fridays or before religious holidays, could pose problems, Cohen said.
Although there is a broad religious exemption in the 1957 Poultry Products Inspection Act, applying to both slaughter and post-slaughter, there is a slaughter, but no post-slaughter religious exemption in a comparable meat act.
But because the poultry exemption is granted at the discretion of the USDA secretary, it may not be applicable in this case, Cohen said.
In any case, the regulations are not final.
The USDA is reviewing a letter from Agudah, along with 6,000 other comments on the proposals from the community at large, as part of the approval process, Knight said.
The department will also hold a public forum on the proposals here in September so that people can raise their concerns, she said.
The new regulations are expected to be approved by the beginning of next year, Knight said.
They will be phased in over a three-year period, and would affect about 6,200 federally inspected U.S. meat and poultry plants.
The regulations would also apply to foreign countries that export their products to the United States.
Cohen said Agudah would like an exemption, but would be satisfied with some sort of accommodation.
“What we’re looking for is not necessarily an exemption, but some kind of accommodation so as to accommodate our concerns, even if the USDA finds some other way it can ensure the health and safety of the meat and poultry,” he said.
According to Agudah and Star K, the salting process itself cuts down on the presence of bacteria in meat and poultry.
Although USDA scientists have not reviewed that possibility, the department is “open to any proposal they can show us that will meet the safety performance,” Knight said.
Cohen and Knight appeared optimistic that a compromise could be reached.
“We think the rule is flexible enough that we will be able to meet the goal of food safety and performance standards” without intruding on religious practices, Knight said.
“We have every reason to think they’re going to be sensitive to our concerns,” Cohen said. “They understand the Kosher meat and poultry industry has its own procedures and requirements and that accommodation is sometimes appropriate.”