Food and Politics in a Complex World: Responsibly Feeding 7 Billion

I’d like to dedicate my column this week to some thoughts about kashrut and food. After all, whether or not we personally keep kosher, or what sort of kashrut we observe, it is a fundamental Jewish practice–one of our most defining spiritual disciplines. For most of our people’s history, until the modern period of emancipation, it is probably safe to argue that most Jews kept kosher in one way or another. There are numerous reasons for that, not all of them religious. For example, in an earlier age with less processed food, people knew more readily what they were eating.

For the past few days, I’ve plunged deep into the bizarre world of modern kashrut. Kashrut, the system of laws governing which foods are permissible for an observant Jew to eat, seems like it should be a simple matter. As one congregant joked with me before I headed to NY to engage in some high level learning on these matters, “just eat fish with fins and scales, ruminant land animals that have split hooves, and don’t mix milk and meat. How hard can that be?”

In our advanced industrial food systems–a system designed to feed several billion people, however, nothing is straightforward. Tracking all the parts that make up even a simple, locally sourced item can take us on a global jaunt as a supply line stretches across the world, or expose us to unhealthy and unmonitored products. To complicate this matter, the United States, which has some of the more robust food labeling laws, still doesn’t actually have accurate food labeling laws. That is, as one food scientist made clear to me, if the government doesn’t require manufacturers to indicate all the ingredients that end up in a food product, and it doesn’t invest in enforcing the rules it does have, then we don’t actually have food labeling laws that provide us with truth-in-lableling. In today’s world, the customer doesn’t really have a right to know.

This has led to some strange stories of politics and unexpected unity. One such concerns the food grade wax that is applied to many fruits and vegetables. A number of years back, it suddenly came to light that the wax used on pears was made from a pig fat derivative. There was a huge uproar, and a concerted mutual effort by Hindus, Muslims and Jews to change this, as it contravened the dietary restrictions of all three religions. As a consequence of this combined work, a national law was passed which requires supermarkets to list the sort of wax used. These days, the labeling is normally kept out of view, and one needs to ask to see the signage.

Stories like this are far more common than most of us want to know. Almost forty percent of fish currently sold is falsely mislabeled, even in many reputable fish markets–the deception begins much earlier in the supply chain. Unless you are purchasing whole fish with fins and scales, or salmon fillets, there’s a good chance that you aren’t getting what you paid for, and that you may not even be getting a kosher variety of fish.

As a former professional chef and a rabbi, and someone who is disturbed by food scarcity and the economic justice surrounding food, these complex and intertwined issues resonate deeply with me. What would a responsible food system look like? Twenty five years ago, I was an early proponent of locally sourced food, and would have argued for that as a key component. My own views have matured on this issue. When we begin to examine the many values and trade offs involved to produce good food that is scientificaly, culturally and religiously appropriate, and readily available and affordable, we realize how very complex eating is.

Joe Regenstein, one of this country’s foremost food scientists, and a committed Conservative Jew, mentions five traits that a healthy food system should have. We should be concerned with:

  1. Animal welfare.
  2. Public health (human health and safety)
  3. Environment and sustainability
  4. Impact of workers (labor)
  5. Economic efficiency

I would add transparent and enforced food labeling laws to his list. In the intersection of kashrut and the global food system, we Jews have an important role to play in ensuring that people are able to receive just what they think they are buying, and nothing more. Our religious rules of kashrut have given us access to an otherwise invisible system. Often times, we have been responsible for important legislation that rights some of these wrongs. Of that, we can be justly proud.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

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