06/12/2014 05:42 EDT | Updated 08/12/2014 05:59 EDT

Spirituality vs Science: Is Kosher Food Safer?

Tom Le Goff via Getty Images

As you rush past the tempting baked goods aisle in the supermarket searching for your beloved produce section, a kosher symbol catches your eye. You walk up to the package and notice the word "parve" is written on it. What's a parve? -- you think to yourself -- and what is kosher anyway? With all the food recalls in the news lately, are kosher foods safe to eat?

Kosher food is food that was prepared according to Jewish Law. The certified Kosher emblem means that the food manufacturer has been inspected and was found to be producing foods in accordance with these laws.

Kosher standards and modern science-based food safety are concerned with preventing the adulteration of food but for fundamentally different reasons. Both involve products, ingredients, and processes. Yet, there are vast differences in intent and focus.

Kosher regulations are predominantly based upon religious beliefs and are the foundation of modern food safety. Yet, the intention of kosher is to maintain spiritual purity of food by ensuring that it does not contain substances or combinations of substances that are forbidden by kosher law. For example, kosher products become unclean if milk and meat are combined in the same product. But the focus of controlling cross contamination is to keep kosher and non kosher foods from mixing.

Conventional food safety is based on science. The intention of science-based food safety is to maintain the physical purity of food by preventing contamination. Thus, mixing milk and meat is not a problem as long as the product is cooked thoroughly to minimize the growth of pathogens. The focus of controlling cross-contamination is to prevent pathogens from entering the product and to prevent allergic reactions.

Despite the fact that most kosher standards are based on religious beliefs, many have a practical basis in science.

For instance, the laws that require hygienic cleanliness control the growth and spread of pathogens. The Passover requirement to completely clean Jewish-owned properties (to ensure no crumbs of leaven bread are present) substantially reduces the risk of insect and rodent infestations.

A curious benefit afforded by kosher law is that it is forbidden to eat the brain, spinal cord, and major nerves of cattle, all of which must be removed from meat prior to further processing. It turns out that this practice affords some protection from Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (the human form of Mad Cow Disease) since infectious "prions"are generally confined to these tissues.

Kosher law requires the blood be drained and drawn from the meat via the application of salt. The salt used for this purpose is large crystal kosher salt, which is a misnomer since all salt is kosher. "It really should be called 'koshering' salt", explained Rabbi Mendy Feigelstock, Director, Kashrus & Operations at Kosher Check. As a result, kosher meat comes pre-salted and the salt acts as a preservative that controls the growth of some pathogens.

Kosher law forbids the consumption of shellfish, which can contain harmful bacteria, viruses, and toxic algae that can be deadly to humans. People who are highly allergic to shellfish can rest assured that kosher products are shellfish free.

It is forbidden to mix milk and meat together, so lactose intolerant individuals can consume either meat or parve (vegetarian) products with confidence that they do not contain milk or its products.

Produce with small crevices such as raspberries and broccoli must be carefully washed and closely inspected under kosher law to ensure that small resident insects are not accidentally consumed. This thorough washing process not only removes insects but may have the additional benefit of removing harmful bacteria such as E. coli.

Kosher certified companies must commit to allow regular inspections; so consumers are assured that an auditor has visited these facilities, verified that basic hygienic practices are being followed, confirmed that cross-contamination is not occurring, and observed that all produce is washed thoroughly and free of insects such as worms.

Lacking a firm basis in science, kosher supervision does not absolutely guarantee that the food is safe. However, while many non-kosher facilities achieve a high degree of food safety using HACCP food safety systems, the additional oversight undertaken by kosher inspectors makes many kosher foods safer even without HACCP. Plus, it is really convenient for people who suffer from food allergies, lactose intolerance, or who just love raspberries but prefer to avoid the bugs.

Kosher Check, a well respected authority based in Vancouver, B.C. has restricted the use of its distinctive green symbol to only those companies which can demonstrate that their products meet the requirements of both traditional kosher supervision and modern science-based food safety. So stay on the look out for this symbol if you want the best of both worlds.

Full disclosure: Kosher Check uses our Icicle food safety platform to manage their kosher certifications.


Most Surprising Kosher Items