The War on Vegetables


Illuminated: A light box makes small bugs easier to see.
Illuminated: A light box makes small bugs easier to see.

By Leah Koenig

Published December 30, 2009, issue of January 08, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Last November, I koshered my kitchen for the first time. I did so with the full understanding that my decision came with certain compromises, like giving up my favorite cheeses and my delicious but uncertified collection of vinegars. While a bit heartbreaking, these were sacrifices I was willing to make as I welcomed in my new lifestyle. If only I had known that I might have to give up salad, too.

Leafy salad greens, along with berries, asparagus and a variety of other produce, have come under serious scrutiny in the kosher world over the past decade. There’s nothing treyf about these particular fruits and vegetables, except that they have a tendency to attract insects, which are halachically forbidden. Once they are removed from a spinach leaf or the inside of a raspberry, the produce is theoretically fit to eat. But kosher agencies like the Orthodox Union and KOF-K argue that certain bugs (for example, aphids, thrips and mites) are too small to spot easily, but large and common enough to be compromising.

As a result, the kosher industry and a growing number of consumers have started to eye their refrigerator crispers with suspicion. Meanwhile, new products have emerged, like vegetable soaps, and light boxes that make insects easier to see. While most Jews probably still have never heard of light boxes, for some they’ve become a way of life. All catering companies certified by Star-K, for example, are required to use them, and two years ago, the company started selling them directly to consumers for home inspection.

But why the heightened interest in insects now? One answer, according to the Orthodox Union’s Web site, is Rachel Carson, the scientist whose 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” led to a national ban of DDT and other pesticides. As Menachem Genack, CEO/rabbinic administrator of the O.U., has stated, “Since the days of Rachel Carson, the federal government has quite correctly limited the use of insecticides on food… therefore, knowing how to check for these insects has become increasingly important.” In other words, when it comes to kashrut’s bug restriction, organic produce is actually deemed more “dangerous” than its conventional counterparts. This explanation seems historically anemic, however, since the kosher laws long predate the use of pesticides, and produce has been organic-by-default for most of human history.

The actual reason for the insect fixation has little to do with a 20th-century biologist and everything to do with bagged lettuce. Pre-washed salad greens were a late but powerful arrival to the American love affair with industrial convenience foods. As they, along with shredded coleslaw, baby carrots and similar products, have grown in popularity, they unwittingly opened the door to kosher certification.

“Value-added [meaning “processed”] products made all the difference,” Rabbi Tzvi Rosen, who edits Star-K’s journal, Kashrus Kurrents, told me. “The Halacha was always clear about bugs, but now the awareness about it has been heightened.” Kosher consumers know to look for hechshers, kosher endorsements, on packaged foods, but until recently, that category didn’t include fresh produce. Now that the line is blurred, the broccoli sitting quietly on the edge of our plates has become the center of attention.

While not necessarily the stuff of daily headlines, the increasing preoccupation with bug infestation has the potential to change the kosher diet dramatically, and not for the better. Every major certification agency has guidelines on its Web site (or, in the case of the O.U., for sale on a 90-minute DVD) about proper inspection. The Chicago Rabbinical Council takes things a step further by banning the use of fresh Brussels sprouts and other produce that, because of their tightly packed leaves or small crevices, are deemed too difficult to inspect adequately. Similarly, the Kashruth Council of Canada prohibits catering services from using fresh broccoli, artichoke leaves, frisee, mixed greens, oyster mushrooms, curly spinach, watercress, dill, curly parsley, blackberries and raspberries.

Perhaps only a handful of people mourn the loss of Brussels sprouts. But many believe that there is something larger at stake here. As these industrial standards begin to trickle into people’s homes, they encourage stilted norms, including the incorrect notion that certain “seed bearing plants,” which God gave to humans to eat in Genesis, might not be fit for consumption, after all. Some argue that eventually, whole categories of fruits and vegetables could be considered untrustworthy — a stance that could, ironically, further deter kosher keepers from seeking out the healthy, organic, unadulterated foods so highly recommended by nutritionists and food experts. (Not incidentally, bagged lettuces and baby carrots both have been linked to food-borne pathogens, like salmonella and E. coli contamination — both unfortunate side-effects of industrial food production.) On the fleyshik side of things, hormone-free and free-range meat is becoming increasingly possible to find under kosher auspices. But the vegetable part of the meal seems headed in the opposite direction.

Perhaps more important, kosher agencies overstep their bounds by beginning to hechsher fresh produce. From the industry’s perspective, any expansion of business is understandably a good thing. But these agencies were developed to take the guesswork out of kosher consumption, not to discourage the use of inherently kosher fruits and vegetables, or to profit by creating a new need for inspection DVDs, light boxes and the like. The lesson to be learned here is to not give up common sense. The halachic prohibition against insects is not the issue; kosher caterers and consumers alike should certainly check for, and remove, bugs. But when this honest concern turns grocery shopping and dinner preparation into battle scenes, we can only lose.

Leah Koenig writes a monthly column on food and culinary trends. She can be contacted at

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.