I usually buy organic, sustainably raised meats, but sometimes when I can't find them, I get kosher meat instead. Does that make environmental sense, or is the stuff approved by rabbis just as bad as anything else?
You're not the only one who's going kosher for reasons that have nothing to do with Judaism: In a recent survey by the industry research firm Mintel, the top reasons consumers gave for buying kosher products were "food quality," "general healthfulness," and "food safety." ("I follow kosher religious rules" came in sixth.) The idea that these foods are cleaner and better for you seems to be fueling a recent surge in popularity—with sales of kosher products up 64 percent between 2003 and 2008. It makes sense that people would link the idea of spiritual purity with such notions as ecological virtue and public health. Unfortunately, those connections are little more than leaps of faith.
First of all, the rules for producing kosher meat don't specify how to raise the animals or what to feed them. So unless the label says otherwise, you're not likely to be getting the flesh of an animal reared on organic grasses. (Same goes for halal meat, though the Muslim method does include a preference for giving animals "clean" food—i.e., nothing of animal origin—in the final days of their lives.)
In both kosher and halal slaughterhouses, the animals are usually killed by hand, with a sharp knife drawn across the neck. From there, halal meat is processed just like regular meat; kosher meat goes through some additional steps. The lungs are inspected by an examiner, or bodek—first by touch, while the organs are still inside the animal, and later by sight—for any abnormal scars, bumps, or holes. Depending on the size and location of any blemishes, the animal may be declared either kosher or glatt kosher. (The latter category includes the more pristine animals.) The bodek may also choose to spot-check other organs as well. Then the meat is de-veined, soaked in cold water, and salted before being rinsed.
Does this special process make kosher or halal meat any safer for the consumer? Not really—or at least, that hasn't been proved. The additional scrutiny by the bodek may lead some people to believe that the resulting meat poses fewer health risks. Lung adhesions do indicate when an animal has had some kind of pulmonary disease in the past, such as pneumonia or pleuritis. But USDA inspectors—who examine every animal both before and after slaughter—also examine the lungs (and other organs) for signs of disease. The USDA inspector may reject an animal that the bodek permits, and vice versa, though the USDA always makes the final call on whether meat is safe to sell. According to Joe Regenstein, head of the Cornell Kosher and Halal Food Initiative, it's unclear what health implications—if any—the extra religious examination might have for consumers. (Regenstein also says there's no data showing that the cleansing, final-days diet used in some halal systems translates into health benefits for you and me.)
Studies on beef briskets and chicken skin have shown that the kosher salting and rinsing process can reduce the presence of some nasty microbes, like salmonella. The leaching of blood and the de-veining might help a bit, too, as blood is a good medium for bacteria. (It may also extend the shelf life of the meat.) But kosher meat processing has other contamination risks (PDF). For example, the rules dictate that steam and hot water can't be applied until after the meat has been salted, for fear of cooking and therefore trapping the blood within the flesh. That means producers of kosher chickens can't rely on heat to scald off stray feathers. Instead, they use additional, stronger plucking machines, which can tear the skin of a carcass and open up sites for infection. By the time a kosher chicken arrives in the supermarket, there's no good evidence that it will be any cleaner than a conventional one.(It will likely be more expensive, though.)
Nor is there much reason to believe that kosher or halal meat is better for the planet than conventional meat, since they all basically come from the same farms. (When it comes to animal-based food, raising the livestock usually causes far more environmental damage than any other part of the life cycle.) If anything, all the salt used in the koshering process can make wastewater treatment into more of a headache, since it can upset the microorganisms plants use to purify the water. And, like all niche products, kosher and halal meat lack the economy of scale afforded to conventional products—a fact that probably translates into lower distribution efficiency and more food miles.
Of course, as the Lantern never tires of pointing out, the best way to green your diet is to cut back on meat in general. But if it's not Shabbat without a brisket, you're in luck: Recent years have also seen the burgeoning presence of "eco-kosher" and "eco-halal" meat purveyors, who provide local or organic meat that's also been sanctified by the proper authorities.
Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and check this space every Tuesday.