This is a cross post from my Thought for the Week for The LJS.

Dear Friends,

I know I’m not alone in being astonished by the news regarding the amount of horsemeat that has found its way into our food disguised as beef product. The comments that I heard, regarding the amount of horsemeat consumed in other countries, have not set my mind at ease. The obvious question for me is really: If there are fraudulent activities in the supply of the meat, what guarantees do we have about the horsemeat that has entered the system with regards to rearing, slaughtering and preparation? How do I know the horse has been treated appropriately, that the drugs used in the animal are suitable for human consumption and so on? I’m sure there are measures in place to prevent any outright risk to the consumer but it is an enormously worrying discovery.

Of course, there are those in the Jewish community who seem to imply that, whilst worrying, if you buy kosher meat this specific issue might be minimised as a problem. But let us be clear, the kosher food industry has not been without its scandals; in the last ten years a very high profile series of allegations and prosecutions were brought against Agriprocessors in the USA which revolved around issues of labour law, animal abuse and food safety. As I point this out I am aware that, just like non-kosher food production, it is not that kosher food production necessarily entails these problems. But food being kosher does not mean that anyone can rest easy in the knowledge that the dinner on their plates has come from legitimate and ethical sources. Religious life does not necessarily protect us from falling victim to the actions of the greedy.

As a result of the Agriprocessors scandal and other wider concerns, we have seen the development of more than one complementary certification for kosher food which is principally concerned with the ethics of food production not on the traditional categories of permitted foods – hence the Liberal Jewish interest. For example these new schemes offer certification for production of food, treatment of animals, commitment to labour laws and even, in the case of restaurants, accessibility for people with disabilities. In fact, more than half of the Liberal Judaism publication written by my colleague Rabbi Janet Burden is devoted to a 21st century understanding of kashrut from within the strong Liberal Jewish value which upholds the importance of an ethical way of life.

On a slight tangent, I was listening to a debate on the radio about the science of food testing and the particular issue of how much food is tested before it lands on our plate. You may be interested to know that in the Babylonian Talmud there is a discussion of probability and how it is used to calculate whether something is kosher or not. In Tractate Ketubot the question is asked: In a city that has 9 kosher butchers and 1 non-kosher butcher, should proximity or ‘majority’ be used to decide whether a piece of meat found in the street outside the non-kosher butcher is to be regarded as kosher? The answer given: since the majority of butchers are kosher, the meat should be regarded as kosher even though it was found nearest to the non-kosher butcher. Of course this is a heuristic for quickly calculating probability, but it is used today in certain Jewish legal circumstances when deciding on issues of kashrut.

I’m not so interested in the effectiveness of the method of calculation of probability in the Talmud, but more in the way it sheds light on anxieties around a contemporary issue. I am worried about the food on my table; we hope that the testing methods in place will be reliable enough to ensure that nothing that I buy in the shops will be detrimental to my health if prepared and consumed properly and appropriately. What this latest scandal seems to suggest is that there was not enough rigour in the testing and inspection processes and that greed can lead to all kinds of devious methods to evade the law.

Liberal Judaism has a stance on ethical eating and I also see my Liberal Jewish values and heritage informing the way I frame this latest situation. This is not something solved by ‘eating kosher’ it is about deeper questions of profit making in food production and consumption. Finally, I’m certain that the issues raised in the ‘Enough Food For Everyone IF’ campaign (that involves Jewish charities in a national debate about food and poverty), launched just a few weeks ago, must also be part of the debate.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Neil