The War on Vegetables
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 [email protected]