Ask The Expert: Why does kosher meat cost so much?

Question: Why is kosher meat more expensive than non-kosher meat? Is it all a scam or is there actually justification for the prices?

– James, Montreal

Answer: I feel your pain, James. Kosher meat is not cheap. So what accounts for the hefty price tag on your steak?

I spoke with Alan Kaufman, owner of the Kosher Marketplace on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Alan explained that there are a number of factors that drive the price of kosher meat higher than its non-kosher counterparts.

The first thing Alan mentioned is supervision. Kosher meat is supervised from the time the animal is slaughtered until it is packaged and sold. Kosher slaughterhouses must employ shochtim — those trained in the laws of shechita, ritual slaughter — as well as supervisors who can be consulted on unusual or contentious circumstances.

Jewish law also requires that kosher meat be soaked in water for half an hour, salted, and then washed thoroughly three times. In non-kosher meat plants where these extra steps aren’t taken, much more meat can be processed and shipped out. The more meat a company sells, the lower it can afford to set its prices. Because the nature of kosher processing requires more inefficient time for soaking and salting, kosher plants produce less meat and cannot set their prices as low as their non-kosher competitors.

Finally, Alan reminded me that kosher meat isn’t so easy to come by. To be kosher, an animal must be healthy, and must have no broken bones, no diseases, and no scarred or punctured organs. Downer cattle, or cows that are unable to stand on their own, are never used.

Alan estimated that only 20 percent of the cows in any given slaughterhouse pass the inspection that is required for them to be kosher. I’ve seen other estimates from 30 percent to 40 percent. Either way, it’s much lower than at facilities where every cow that comes in gets slaughtered and sold. Screening the kosher from the treif also takes time and money.

So there are some reasons why the consumer is charged top dollar for your kosher hamburger. Ensuring that something is done in a kosher way is a pricey endeavor, and this means that the base price for kosher meat is going to be higher than non-kosher meat.

Does it mean that the meat is cleaner or better quality? It might, but as we learned from the Postville scandal last year, kosher meat can still be produced under very problematic circumstances.

Still, a major advantage of eating kosher meat in this day and age is the ability to easily trace its whereabouts and origins. As we learn more about the dangers of contemporary meat distribution, including a real risk of E. coli contamination, it becomes increasingly important to know where our food comes from and what’s in it. E. coli is a bacteria found in the feces of both humans and animals. In America, kosher slaughterhouses do not deal with the hindquarters of cows — they’re usually sold to non-kosher plants, which decreases but does not completely eliminate — the likelihood of kosher meat coming in contact with cow feces and thus E. coli.

And if the price of kosher meat is hitting you harder than usual, might I suggest making a nice spinach lasagna? Or perhaps a vegetable tart?

"Ask The Expert?" appears each Friday on JTA’s The Telegraph blog, courtesy of MyJewishLearning.com. Do you have a burning question about Judaism and Jewish life? Ask away!

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