Thursday, February 21, 2013

Lesson from the Horsemeat Scandal

A horse is a horse, of course, of course.

But what's in your hamburger? Or should I say, "horse-burger?"

No, I'm not horsing around. Google "UK horsemeat scandal" for a plethora of recent news items.

Horsemeat has somehow entered the European food supply chain and has been fraudulently labeled as beef. From the British Isles to Poland, Spain to Scandinavia, Europe is reeling from shock and disgust over widespread equine consumption. Horsemeat has been found in a variety of food products, including lasagna and TV dinners. In fact, many products sold in supermarkets and restaurants throughout Europe claiming to be 100% cowmeat -- such as Angus hamburgers and meatballs -- were in fact entirely horse.

Where's the beef, you ask? That's a good question. No one's sure what happened to it, and how it got replaced with horsemeat. Interestingly, lots of pork was found illegally marked as beef too, but for some strange reason, no outcry was heard. Europeans must have a soft spot for swine. (Donkey meat has allegedly been found too, and the list may be growing.)

And now, the widening scandal is spreading to Asia and the Wild Middle East. Will it soon be "Giddeyup Morsi?" (I sure hope so.)

It's not just about mislabeling and deceiving consumers. It's also a public health concern. Apparently, a drug called phenylbutazone, also known as "bute," has been found in numerous horses slaughtered in the UK, and is thought to have entered to human food chain. Used as an anti-inflammatory painkiller for sporting horses, bute has been banned for animals intended for eventual human consumption, as it is may be harmful in large concentrations.

Do you think your meat is safer here in the US? I remember back in the seventies when a variety of non-bovine meat was allegedly found in "beef" dishes in fastfood chains across the US. Just last year, US consumers awoke to news reports of so-called "pink slime" in our food chain, labeled as "beef." Although pink slime, officially known as "lean finely textured beef," does come from cow, it does not necessarily come from muscle tissue, what one would normally call "meat," but from cartilage, connective tissue and sinew. Sounds kind of slimy to me.

As far as the current horsemeat scare is concerned, no horsey surprises have been found in the US food supply just yet, but that might just be because there are no horse abattoirs in the US. Americans aren't particularly fond of horses for eating, but just for riding, according to a recent "Gallop" poll (just kidding).

But all horse jokes aside, how can you be sure what you're eating, anyway? Can you trust the USDA (or what ever the British version is) to ensure that you're actually getting what you think you're buying? Well, some folks think that government quality control is infallible, but I say they're backing the wrong horse. And thanks to relying on Euro-govt "quality control," the wrong horse has ended up on their very own dinner plates.

Society has always told us not to put the proverbial cart before the horse. But for crying out loud, don't put the horse into your shopping cart.

I know for some, fast food and frozen dinners are an excuse to "eat like a horse." But for goodness steak, don't eat the horse!!

Don't get me wrong. I don't mean to beat a dead horse or anything. Nor am I anti-government. I certinaly appreciate the USDA's efforts to keep us safe, and far be it from me to look the gift horse in the mouth. But all I'm saying is, we cannot rely on government agencies alone to certify what we put into our bellies. Trusting government to keep us healthy might just be a modern Trojan Horse. And health isn't just bodily. There's spiritual health too. If you're Jewish, to ensure maximal spiritual and bodily health, there's only one way to go: kosher.

Several years ago, I had a discussion with a friend about why to only buy strictly kosher meat. After explaining the criteria of kosher animals, the rules of shechita (ritual slaughter) and koshering process, and the spiritual benefit of keeping kosher, I also explained that kosher meat requires constant supervision of a mashgiach (a reliable, Torah-observant Jewish individual who serves as kosher supervisor) until it is packaged, sealed and labeled. We then discussed other foods like dairy and fish that require hashgacha t'midit, constant supervision, in order for the consumer to be ensured that they are indeed kosher.

My friend was sceptical. "What are the chances of pig or horse milk entering the human food supply?" he scoffed.

Quite frankly, after last week's news, nothing would surprise me.

From a kosher perspective, however, no one should be alarmed about the horsemeat scandal. You see, non-kosher beef is every bit as treif (unkosher) as horse, ham or donkey.

If you buy kosher, the hechsher (Rabbinic seal of approval) vouches for the authenticity and kashrut of the beef you're buying. And if you don't buy kosher, well, then you may just as well be eating horsemeat anyway, from a kosher perspective, at least. So quit beefing about it.

We have a giant supermarket here in Northborough that claims to sells kosher meat in its deli. The only problem is that there is no kosher butcher, and the kosher meat is removed from its original packaging, cut up and put on display. The supermarket's butcher does have seperate knives and cutting boards that he claims only to use for the kosher products. But alas, according to the strict laws of kashrut, due to its lack of hashgacha supervision, the so-called "kosher" deli meat is 100% NOT kosher.

I've discussed this with numerous local Jews. Many people have argued that while it may not be authentically kosher, it's (sic) "close enough for me."

Well, to this I say: "close" only counts in horseshoes.

Bottom line: if you really want to avoid horse for your main course, you just gotta just adhere to a higher source -- the Torah, perforce.

It's time to beef up our kosher observance, folks.

Ok, some of you might be thinking: "Hey come on, rabbi! Get off your high horse. You can buy kosher meat galore in Jewishly-saturated neighborhoods like Brookline or Newton, but we live out here in horse country. No kosher butcher here for of miles."

To you I say, whoa! Hold your horses. How do you know there's nothing kosher nearby? Have you checked in your local supermarkets? You may be pleasantly surprised. If they don't stock it, maybe if you apply pressure, they might agree to carry it. I have recently found kosher poultry and beef in the most unlikely of places, like Walmart, Trader Joes and Stop 'n Shop.

If there's a will, there's a way. Throughout our long history, Jews have managed to keep kosher in the most remote and exotic of locations, from the Wild West to the Far East, in the best of times and the worst of times. Certainly in twenty-first century suburban USA with an all-time high percentage of food items sold in average supermarkets being kosher, one can put forth the effort and manage to keep kosher.

No one ever said being Jewish is easy. So stop kvetching and experience the joys of kosher living!

It doesn't have to be "all or nothing." One can begin keeping kosher observances gradually, "yiddle by yiddle," as they say.

A Jewish family struggling to find their comfort level in Jewish observance once confided to their rabbi: "We keep a strictly kosher kitchen, but we sometimes eat out..."

Replied the rabbi: "Then you have kosher pots and a treife boich!" (an un-kosher belly).

When told the same comment by a congregant, Rabbi H. Fogelman of Worcester, MA, once responded : "Then I guess you're dishes will go to heaven."

Sigh. I guess you can lead a horse to the water...

But in all seriousness, Jewish observance doesn't have to be 100% or zero. It's not just "Yea or Neigh."

Take baby steps. Start by cutting out pork, seafood, and shall I say, horsemeat. Then begin to seperate between dairy and meat. Then eliminate treife chickens and beef altogether. In short time, you'll be champing at the bit to "go kosher" entirely.

Don't feel you're too set in your ways to make a change. In Judaism, it's never too late to change horses midstream.

Not surprisingly, in the wake of the horsemeat scandal, kosher meat sales are surging in the UK (according to an article I read today on Here in the US, kosher consumption has been on the rise for years. According to a recent statistic I read, a whopping 85% percent of kosher consumers in the US aren't even Jewish! Everyone's catching on.

So whether you're pedestrian or quedestrian or equestrian, trot over to your local kosher food store and buy Kosher.

If you're a novice, gallop over to a reliable website to learn the rules of kosher, like this one.

Better yet, visit your local rabbi for kosher instruction. It's always better to hear it straight from the horse's -- I mean rabbi's -- mouth.

And while you're at it, why not prance over to shul and attend a crash course on the laws of kosher (but please don't crash on the way, specially if you're horseback).

As for me, I'll continue to whinny until I'm hoarse, "Keep Kosher!"

PS: all this horse talk reminds us to get ready for the two upcoming Jewish holidays: Purim and Passover. Purim -- Mordechai led on king's royal stallion. Passover -- don't forget the horseradish.


Steve said...

Thank you rabbi. That was great

Zalman Aron said...

nice job! takeh. although pretty disgusting when you think about it... :) .

It took me until the tail end of the your article to find the grain amid the hay--it was a bit long--but the mane thing is you managed to harness this newsstory with an important message, and hopefully you will unsaddle some peoples stomachs, stirrup awareness, spur future growth, and groom many more stable and steady kosher eaters... when there is no hechsher, who know what could crop up in your plate....

Anonymous said...

this is one of the best and funniest article i have ever read your genius

Anonymous said...

very true indeed