Rabbi Natan Margalit has become a seasoned chicken plucker. Simon Feil’s Brooklyn freezer is stuffed with beef cuts — including unanticipated non-kosher ones he cannot eat. And Devora Kimelman-Block, a onetime vegetarian, is quickly becoming the Jeff Bezos of kosher, free-range organic meat — taking Web orders and shipping beef, lamb and chicken all over the East Coast.
Kosher food is more widely available than ever — almost half of all American supermarket products are certified kosher and the fast-food chain Subway expects to have 16 kosher franchises around the country within a year. But with the mainstreaming of kosher has come a small but fast growing subculture of Jews seeking kosher food that adheres not just to the halachic details, but embodies
their ethical and social concerns.
“A real essential part of kashrut is to keep in our minds that animals are creations of God and have dignity as living creatures,” says Rabbi Margalit, a Hebrew College professor who is helping to organize a Boston-area cooperative for purchasing kosher, free-range chicken. “If we forget about that in kashrut then we’re missing the main point and following the technical details only.”
Last month, the Conservative movement’s Hekhsher Tzedek Commission unveiled a 150-page draft of standards for evaluating the ethical aspects of kosher food production. The standards will eventually be part of a new certification system to help consumers choose foods that not only adhere to ritual requirements but are also prepared in keeping with Jewish ethical teachings.
It remains to be seen whether the large food manufacturers that dominate the kosher food market will sign on to the certification program and if a critical mass of consumers will seek such a label. But while Hekhsher Tzedek takes a top-down approach, small-scale newcomers like Rabbi Margalit, Feil and Kimelman-Block — urban professionals in their 30s and 40s who are influenced by books like Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the recent scandals at the Agriprocessors kosher slaughterhouse — have begun stepping forward to bring a kinder, gentler (and pricier) kosher meat to the American Jewish table.
“Until suppliers step forward, even kosher consumers who want to can’t, or couldn’t, eat kosher ethical grass-fed pasture-raised meat,” says Nigel Savage, the founder and director of Hazon, a Jewish environmental group that focuses extensively on food-supply issues. “What we’re now seeing, with some lag, is the beginnings of a number of opportunities for people to do that.” (The Hekhsher Tzedek standards to date do not address the exact same issues that these meat purveyors do, but there is some overlap.)
These new meat pioneers never expected to become so intimately familiar with animal carcasses. Instead they stumbled upon the endeavor simply because they were looking for such meat for themselves — and discovered it was not readily available.
“When I realized that kosher didn’t also mean humane, I had two choices: to become a vegetarian or create kosher meat that also adhered to Jewish values across the spectrum,” says Feil, explaining why in 2006 he created Kosher Conscience, a small poultry- and meat-buying cooperative in New York.
Like non-kosher meat, most kosher meat in American supermarkets and restaurants has been raised on enormous, crowded farms and slaughtered in large meat-processing plants. Such practices have fueled increasing criticism. Many scientists, environmentalists and others argue that conventional meat production, often called “factory farming,” poses serious public health risks and a slew of environmental problems. In addition, critics argue that common industry practices — such as feeding livestock corn and soy, rather than grass or other grains, and depriving them of access to the outdoors — are inhumane and lead to nutritionally inferior products.
Straddling a middle ground between conventional kosher meat and the new grass-roots efforts are large-scale purveyors of kosher, organic, “natural” and free-range meat — such as Wise Organic Pastures — available at many upscale supermarkets. However, these companies still keep animals in relatively confined conditions on large farms.
Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein, a pediatric neurologist who founded Mitzvah Meat, a New York project that is similar to Feil’s but larger, was initially motivated by research that she says links more naturally raised meat to improved consumer health and nutrition. But “it kind of grew from just being about healthy meat to all the other pieces that are part of it,” she says, such as “respecting the environment,” respecting the animals and “connecting more with the animal and the person raising it; making it not just physically healthy but a spiritually nourishing experience.”
Originally planning simply to “find a farmer and schochet [kosher slaughterer]” and get enough meat for her family and a few friends, Shetreat-Klein quickly realized there was a larger demand.
“People were e-mailing and calling me,” she said. “It seemed kind of selfish just to do it for myself.”
Mitzvah Meat and Kosher Conscience both distribute kosher meat that is hormone- and antibiotic-free and pasture-raised on small New York State farms. The two also share a commitment to compassionate slaughtering practices, and both distribute meat in bulk amounts a few times per year.
This year, two Cleveland women launched The Green Taam, a similar effort that sells pastured kosher poultry in Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio. In the Boston area, Rabbi Margalit and Marion Menzin have founded a small poultry co-op called LoKo. But LoKo — which so far has a mailing list of 50 people — is not for the lazy or squeamish: members not only buy in bulk, but are expected to witness the slaughter and then help pluck the still-warm chickens.
“Part of our mission is educational,” explains Menzin. “By being there [for the slaughter] you understand the respect for life in schita [kosher slaughter] in a way that’s hard to understand if you’re not there.
For those who prefer clicking a mouse to plucking a chicken, a variety of beef, lamb and chicken is available online from Devora Kimelman-Block’s rapidly expanding KOL Foods.
Although Kimelman-Block, of Silver Spring, Md., only entered the ethical kosher meat world in 2007, her for-profit company has quickly become the largest player — and some of her compatriots grouse privately that she’s becoming too corporate and that by going mail-order, she’s undermining her “buy local” ideals.
A year ago, Kimelman-Block left her job in educational technology to run KOL Foods full time. She recently hired someone with an MBA to help with the business end of things.
“I started very small just in my local community and had such interest here that it really blossomed,” she says. “I had folks driving down from Philadelphia to get my meat, so I decided to send it to them.”
KOL Foods first established a buying club system in five cities. Last month it launched the online business, which serves the East Coast, as well as Michigan and Ohio. It currently works with 10 small farms, mostly on the East Coast.
The goal is to be available nationally by the end of the year.
“I would be nationwide already, but we have a big focus on maintaining as small a carbon footprint as possible – which means I don’t want to air mail any of my products,” Kimelman-Block says.
Instead, she is attempting to set up additional distribution centers in the Midwest and West Coast.
To those who criticize her for growing too quickly or for using a for-profit, rather than a cooperative, model, Kimelman-Block says, “This is not going to go anywhere if we can’t be economically sustainable. If I’m going to make a difference in how animals are raised and processed, I’ve got to be around.”
“And I have three kids in Jewish day school,” she adds.
Still in its infancy, this new meat market represents a tiny fraction of the approximately $250 million in annual kosher meat sales currently in the United States.
Before launching its online sales last month, KOL, the largest distributor of ethical kosher meat, had been selling about $240,000 of meat a year. Mitzvah Meat has sold almost 10,000 pounds of meat in its first year. The Green Taam has slaughtered fewer than 1,000 birds, mostly chickens, so far.
Not surprisingly, “ethical” kosher meat is not particularly convenient or recession-friendly. Conventionally raised kosher meat is not known for its low prices, and “ethical” kosher meat is far more expensive.
LoKo’s pluck-your-own chickens cost $4.50 per pound, while Kosher Conscience prices have ranged from $11 per pound for beef to $5 per pound for chicken. At KOL Foods, the cheapest item —chicken — is currently approximately $5 per pound, plus a minimum of $15 shipping. And the cost of beef steaks and lamb cuts exceeds $15 per pound.
In addition to the high price tag, one must buy in large quantities and take a variety of cuts at a time, whether or not what you’re really craving is only a few chicken breasts or hamburger fixings. Even KOL Foods, which is more consumer-friendly than its smaller rivals, requires customers to buy meat in multi-pound packages that include a variety of cuts.
Nonetheless, while KOL’s expansion may change things, so far the new meat vendors insist they cannot meet the demand for their product.
Cleveland’s Green Taam, which launched this year, has gotten an “overwhelming” response, says co-founder Ariella Reback.
“We sold out both the runs completely, with people begging and pleading to get more of everything from us,” she adds.
How to account for this in the midst of hard times?
“People are more conscious of where they’re spending their dollars,” Reback says, adding that “if I can feed my children something that’s healthier I’ll do it even if it’s costlier.”
This spring, in order to meet demand in Ohio and to expand beyond, Reback and co-founder Amalia Haas hope to build their own small chicken “processing facility.” They describe it as a “sustainable enterprise, not with the pollution of a normal slaughterhouse.”
Menachem Lubinsky, editor of KosherToday and the founder of the annual Kosherfest trade show, said that while butchers tell him of dramatically increased demand for organic kosher meat, he is hearing less about ethical meat or “requests for additional certifications.”
In turmoil briefly after Agriprocessors was forced to shut down its Iowa meat-packing operation last year — with consumers facing shortages and higher prices — the mainstream kosher meat market has mostly returned to normal by now, Lubinsky said.
One thing that has changed — which could bode well for KOL — is that “more people are buying meat online now,” he noted.
Proponents of free-range, small-scale “ethical” meat argue that it is not only healthier, better for the environment and more in keeping with kosher ideals, but that it tastes better.
“This meat is so much more of a treat than regular,” Kimelman-Block says, adding that it is “multidimensional and rich” in flavor, requiring virtually no seasoning.
“You only need to put marinade on something that doesn’t have a taste,” she says. “Conventional meat has to be doused with Worcestershire sauce to make it taste like meat.”
Menzin, of Boston’s LoKo, predicts that “in 20 years, [ethically-raised meat] is going to be like half the [kosher] market,” adding that “people are going to realize it’s like eating candy versus fruit.”
Lubinsky is not so sure.
“I think she’s correct that there will be increased interest and awareness in this kind of meat, but I don’t see it reaching the 50 percent mark,” he says. Nonetheless, he notes that natural meat could become like other niche trends in the kosher market, like gluten-free foods, which has “seemingly overnight” taken off.
Because of the need for a kosher slaughterer and certification, along with numerous other details unique to Jewish dietary laws, running a small-scale kosher meat business is far more complicated than the non-kosher “ethical” meat or kosher industrial meat alternative.
Unlike non-kosher chickens, which are first scalded to make feather removal easier, kosher chickens must either be painstakingly hand-plucked immediately after slaughter or cold-plucked with special machinery. Kosher rules about the condition of beef are so strict that it is impossible to know whether a cow will meet approval until after it is slaughtered — which is how Kosher Conscience’s Feil got stuck with an entire freezer of high-quality, but treif, beef.
Indeed, with its high prices and logistical challenges, it is unclear whether such specialty kosher meat can ever be made accessible to more than a tiny, uber-committed (and affluent) sector of the kosher market.
Nonetheless, ethical meat proponents argue that meat should be an occasional treat, rather than an everyday staple.
“When we get cheap meat we’re paying less up front at the supermarket but paying more at the doctor’s office and in terms of the environment and health of society,” says The Green Taam’s Haas.