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Keeping Kosher
Wednesday, August 06, 2008


MIra Loma Detention Facility in Lancaster, Calif. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

Judaism places its distinctive imprint on the most ubiquitous practice of all, the eating experience, in what are known as the kosher laws. Kosher is a Hebrew word now found in English dictionaries. It implies being acceptable, passing the grade. While kosher laws do insure a great degree of cleanliness, all kosher food is not necessarily hygienically pure, just as hygienic food is not necessarily kosher. In fact, a hog could be raised in an incubator, given antibiotics, bathed daily, and slaughtered in a hospital operating room without rendering kosher the pork chops it yields.

There are many principles mandated by Jewish law which determine how a kosher animal is to be selected, how it is to be processed in accordance with religious, humane, and hygienic standards, and finally which parts of a kosher animal may not be ingested. It must be stressed that an observant Jew observes kosher not because it provides pleasure or because kosher food is healthy, but because kosher laws are regarded as Divine commandments. Kosher is a religious term with very specific meanings. It is more than a diet. Its applicability is determined by established religious criteria. It does not stand for ethnic cooking or cuisine.

What Foods Are Kosher?

All fresh vegetables and fruits are kosher. Only meats derived from split-hoofed and cud-chewing animals qualify as kosher. In effect, this excludes all beasts of prey, swine, insects, rodents, and reptiles. Among fish and seafood, only those with fins and scales are kosher. This rule quickly eliminates all shellfish, such as lobsters, shrimp, oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops. Birds designated by the Torah as kosher are chicken, turkey, and ducks. Birds of prey, such as eagles, vultures, falcons, hawks, and owls are forbidden. All insects are forbidden. It is therefore, traditional to examine fresh fruits and vegetables for insects before serving them.

Kosher Endorsements

Many processed foods may not be kosher because they may contain non-kosher ingredients. Examples of questionable ingredients are shortening, enzymes, amino acids, gelatin, softeners, stearic acid, grape derivative, and glycerin. It is necessary that all foods prepared for religious diet consumption meet the strict definition of kosher.

Accordingly, when institutions purchase food they must insist that the food have a reliable kosher endorsement from one of the many nationally recognized kosher supervisory organization. Each organization maintains its own kosher symbol. It is highly recommended that only nationally recognized kosher symbols be accepted for the religious diet program.

Included below are six major kosher supervising agencies.

Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations
11 Broadway 
New York, NY 10004
(212) 563-4000

Organized Kashrus Laboratories
391 Troy Avenue
Brooklyn, New York 11213
(718) 756-7500

KOF-K Kosher Supervision Service
201 The Plaza
Teaneck, NJ 07666
 (201) 837-0500

Star-K Kosher Certification
122 Slade Avenue, Suite 300
Baltimore, Maryland 21208
(410) 484-4110

Central Rabbinical Congress (Hisachdus Harabonim)
85 Division Street
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 384-6765

KAJ (K’hal Adas Jeshurun)
85 Bennett Avenue
New York, NY 10033
(212) 923-3582

The letter K by itself is unprotected by copyright law and may be used with impunity. It is important for food service supervisors and purchasing agents to know that, food items marked with a simple K, without design, may not necessarily be kosher and must not be included in the Religious Diet Program.

Food Additives

The following is a list of food additives and their relationship to kosher acceptability.

Acetic acid – Vinegar and products containing vinegar must have kosher control to guarantee that the origin of the vinegar is neither wine nor wine alcohol.

Cream of Tartar (Tartaric Acid) – It is produced by the aging and baking of wine residue obtained from wine barrels. Kosher guarantees are necessary to confirm this process.

Enzymes – A natural substance produced by living cells. Enzymes can be derived from animal tissue. Therefore, products produced with enzymes must be effectively kosher controlled.

Flavors – These are produced by a synthetic chemical process, either from fats and oils of animal or vegetable origin, or from petrochemicals. Therefore, the kosher status of a flavor formulation can be determined only after review of the flavor ingredients.

Food Coloring – Kosher control is necessary to guarantee both the source of the colorings and its additives.

Glycerides – Produced from fats of both animal and vegetable origin. Kosher is guaranteed only when the entire production process is under full kosher control.

Glycerin – May be derived from both animal and vegetable products. Only when the origin of the glycerin is kosher guaranteed may the glycerin be accepted as kosher.

Hydrogenated Vegetable Shortening and Oil – This product may contain non-kosher ingredients or may have been produced in a non-kosher facility. It may be accepted as kosher only when the entire production process and sources of raw materials are under full kosher control.

Lard – Lard is purified hog fat. It is not kosher.

Stearic acid – It is an acid found in both animal and vegetable fats. Therefore, kosher is guaranteed only when production is under full kosher control.

Turmeric – It is a spice commercially available as ground powder or oleoresin extract. Since oleoresin is produced with glycerides, the origin must be controlled in order to guarantee kosher.

Whey – It is a milk by-product used in the production of cheese, ice cream, candy, etc. It cannot be eaten with meat and may be accepted as kosher only when produced under kosher supervision.

Milk and Meat Mixtures

Jewish people observing kosher dietary laws may not combine meat and dairy products. Meat, including fowl such as chicken or turkey and products containing them, and dairy foods may not be cooked together, served at the same meal, or even served or prepared with the same kitchenware and tableware. Accordingly, it is necessary to maintain separate cooking and eating utensils for meat and dairy dishes. They must be properly marked or easily distinguished by color or design, etc.

It is important to note that not all coffee creamers and butter substitutes labeled non-dairy are in fact non-dairy according to kosher laws. Some contain sodium caseinate, which is derived from milk, making it a dairy product which cannot be used at a meat or fowl meal. It is therefore necessary to insure that cream substitutes and margarine served with meat or fowl are not dairy products. A specific time period must elapse after one has eaten meat or fowl before one may eat a dairy product. Acceptable practices range from one hour to a six-hour waiting period. However, after one has eaten dairy, one may rinse his mouth, eat a neutral food, and then proceed to eat meat or fowl.

The same washing machines and ovens (including microwave ovens, unless the items are double wrapped) may not be used for meat and dairy foods even though both foods are kosher. For this reason, it is essential that the Religious Diet Program provide disposable Styrofoam, plastic, or paper utensils and tableware if detainees request this.

Fish, vegetables, fruits, and pasta products are considered neutral (or parve) and may be eaten with all other kosher foods. As noted above, a kosher food item that is cooked, baked, or prepared with a utensil or in an oven which has been used for non-kosher food or prepared with non-kosher cutlery renders the kosher food non-kosher. For example, a kosher egg boiled in a non-kosher pot becomes non-kosher. The one exception is, if kosher food is double sealed. It may be heated in a non-kosher oven but the double seal must be maintained throughout the heating process. Thus, pre-packaged meats or TV-style meals provided by kosher vendors and double-sealed in plastic wrap may be heated in standard ovens or microwaves.

It is imperative that religiously certified food is prepared in a secure area and that all preparatory equipment including ovens, vessels, knives, other utensils, etc., be used and maintained exclusively in the Religious Diet Program. The use of disposable items is highly recommended because it will help avoid potential problems and mishaps. All those engaged in the preparation of religiously certified meals need to be well trained and acutely aware of the kosher rules.

After all is said and done, what is the primary aim of the kosher laws? One realization becomes clear: for whatever reason God chose to give the Jews these limitations on food, the functional goal they serve is to render the people distinct, thus discouraging assimilation into indigenous populations and faith groups. They also serve as constant cues, especially while traveling or incarcerated, that observant Jews have many religious obligations. It is suggested that copies of this section regarding kosher laws be provided to all food service administrators and purchasing agents.

All information in this section has been compiled from the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Technical Reference for Inmate Religious Beliefs and Practices