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Kosher Butchers: Our Beef Safer from Mad Cow Disease

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New signs spice up the meat section of the Hungarian Kosher Grocery in Skokie, Ill., one of the nation’s largest kosher food supermarkets.

They reassure customers that, in light of the recent scare and media hoopla over mad cow disease, kosher beef is safer than non-kosher meat.

“Some people are paranoid. You tell them something on television, and they think that’s the way it is,” says Sandor Kirsche, the supermarket’s owner.

Kirsche posted the placards in response to customer inquiries about meat safety following the reports of mad cow disease in the United States a week ago.

Kosher food wholesalers and retailers, as well as top kosher-certification agencies, agree with Kirsche’s assessment that kosher beef is much less likely to be infected with mad cow than is non-kosher cuts.

Kosher food industry sources say that a combination of safeguards — ranging from traditional kosher slaughtering practices to beef-purchasing policies — make kosher beef safer.

Some predict that the mad cow scare could create greater demand for kosher beef from Jews and non-Jews alike.

Menachem Lubinsky, president of Integrated Marketing Communications, which produces the annual Kosherfest trade show, says he expects that the mad cow scare will boost sales of kosher beef the way several outbreaks of salmonella in the past few years sent kosher poultry profits soaring.

Still, industry sources caution that kosher meat isn’t immune to contamination with mad cow disease.

“I don’t want to overstate the case. Some of the procedures related to kosher mitigate against MCD, but there are no guarantees,” says Rabbi Menachem Genack, rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division.

His comment came after the union, the world’s largest kosher-certification agency, and Star-K, another major international kosher-certification agency, issued statements seeking to reassure consumers about mad cow.

Those reassurances came after a Holstein cow imported along with dozens of other cows from Canada tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, a fatal brain-wasting disease similar to the human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or CJD.

Most reports of humans contracting CJD from eating diseased beef occurred in the 1990s in the United Kingdom. So far, 139 cases have surfaced worldwide. Like the United States, not all countries have strict testing regimens in place.

In June 2002, a cow in Israel’s Golan Heights was found to be infected with mad cow, but Israeli health officials said the animal was isolated and no infected meat reached consumers.

Last week, the first instance of mad cow in the United States was reported in Washington state. Health officials believe the animal got sick from infected Canadian feed before arriving in the United States.

But U.S. officials say tough new measures against mad cow protect the domestic feed supply and that the U.S. beef supply remains safe.

Still, ground meat from the infected cow has been recalled from supermarkets in eight Western states and Guam.

Kosher food experts maintain that there is every reason to believe people should have no beef about eating kosher meat.

While some of the dozen kosher slaughterhouses in the country buy their cattle at the same auctions that supply non- kosher producers, a shochet, or ritual slaughterer, would never accept a visibly sick cow such as the infected bull found in Washington, industry insiders say.

“An animal that is a ‘downer’ — that cannot walk to the slaughtering place on its own — would not be used,” says Rabbi Avrom Pollack, president of the Baltimore-based Star-K.

If the animal were sick, it could not be considered kosher.

Among other anti-mad cow measures announced Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared a new ban on the use of such “downer” cows in meatpacking plants.

Kosher slaughterhouses also typically use younger cows — between 18-24 months old — while the diseased cow in Washington is believed to be six and a half years old.

Kosher slaughter also prohibits shooting or stunning cows in the head, “which may cause brain matter, where the disease resides, to be scattered to other parts of the body,” the O.U.’s Genack says.

Kosher slaughter mandates that the animal’s throat be slit, and potentially contaminated blood is drained away from the carcass, he says.

These kashrut experts and others also say that about 50 non-kosher slaughterhouses use a machine called the Advanced Meat Recovery System, which scrapes every bit of meat from a carcass — including from areas near the brain and spinal column where BSE could reside — and some scraps go into packaged ground meat.

“In the case of some of the treif beef that’s out there, they use anything,” says Rabbi Sanford Abramowitz, using the Yiddish word for non-kosher.

Abramowitz has his own beef to hawk. He is president of Zalman’s Glatt Kosher, a wholesaler of premium kosher cuts to supermarkets in the East and Midwest that claims a 25 percent stake in the kosher beef market and is one of only two meat producers in the country. The other is Agree Processing, owned by the Rubashkins, a Chabad- Lubavitch family with a large operation in Iowa.

Zalman’s uses “muscle meat” taken from the forequarter and geared for roasts and steaks. Those cuts are taken only from steers and heifers, rather than the type of retired diary cow that contracted mad cow, Abramowitz says.

His company uses meat from cows raised by International Glatt in Wyndham, Minn., Abramowitz says.

Others, such as Star-K’s Pollack, say kosher slaughterhouses import much of their meat from Latin American nations such as Costa Rica and Uruguay, where no cases of mad cow have cropped up.

However, asked what kind of inspections those countries conduct for mad cow, Pollack laughs.

“You don’t want to know,” he says.

Other factors point to kosher beef being safer. Pollack says that only 35 percent to 40 percent of the cows that arrive at kosher slaughterhouses end up being used, as many do not meet kashrut standards because of other health issues, such as diseased lungs.

Kirsche, in Skokie, says he had expected a drop in demand for kosher beef because of the mad cow scare but that he still is seeing his typical $25,000 in weekly sales.

Abe Hollander, manager of the meat department at Supersol in Lawrence, N.Y., another major kosher outlet, says he, too, has fielded questions from worried customers.

But if the mad cow outbreak remains confined to a few states, he says, “it should have no affect whatsoever” on the kosher beef industry.

“I don’t pay any attention to it,” he says. “It’s the mad butchers you have to worry about.”

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