“I like to think it’s watched more carefully,” said Avigayil Ribner, 23, a research fellow for St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City, who has kept kosher all her life.
But not so, said Sarah Klein, staff attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. “People think kosher food is safer. We have no evidence of that. None. There’s no data.”
However, the rules for preparing kosher food closely parallel the recommendations of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for proper food handling. So while research hasn’t proven that kosher food is safer to eat, the way in which it is prepared may reduce the chances of spreading foodborne illness.
The main difference between kosher and non-kosher meats is the way in which animals are slaughtered. For food to be kosher, animals have to be killed individually by a specially trained Jew known as a shochet. Another trained expert then inspects the carcasses for signs of disease. But these steps have no real effect on food safety.
The meat then has to be salted to draw out and remove any blood. One USDA study of poultry found that the salting process weakened the bonds between salmonella bacteria and chicken skin, helping eliminate bacteria. But another USDA study found that kosher and organic poultry had a “high incidence” of contamination by salmonella and listeria bacteria.
Any possible gains from salting are offset by rules that prevent kosher meat from being immersed in scalding water, which helps kill bacteria but makes draining the blood more difficult. Non-kosher meat does receive this added antibacterial step.
A study by the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology showed that because kosher poultry is not scalded, the chickens have to remain longer in the defeathering machines. This increases the risk of contamination with listeria, particularly nasty bacteria that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists among the top five causes of death from foodborne illness.
None of these studies factored in the final step in keeping kosher: how the meal is prepared. This is where additional food safety practices come into play.
“If possible, use one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for raw meat, poultry and seafood,” the USDA’s Safe Food Handling website advises.
This is done almost automatically by people who keep kosher, who have separate dishes, silverware, sponges, cutting boards and sometimes sinks for meat and dairy. And kosher cooks will often have a third set of cutting boards and other utensils for parve foods – items that are neither dairy nor meat, such as vegetables.
In kosher restaurants and retail stores, a trained staff member known as a mashgiach oversees the kitchen and ensures that all meat, dairy and parve utensils are kept separate. Rabbi Dovid Frost is the mashgiach for KosherMart in Rockville, Md., a store that includes a dairy bakery, a meat deli and a restaurant. Frost explained that part of his job is to ensure that this separation exists.
“The basic thing,” he said, “is that these things don’t get mixed from one area to another.”
Joy Gold of Silver Spring, Md., started keeping kosher almost 35 years ago when she was pregnant with her first child, but not for food safety reasons. The requirement for Jews to keep kosher is a chok, a law from God that has no explicit explanation or logic.
“We don’t necessarily know why we do it, but we do,” said Gold, a former publications director at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington. She recognizes there could be safety benefits as well, adding: “It seems like it makes sense.”