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A Kosher GMO?

Since you’re reading a food blog, you probably are aware of the debate around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food.

For those who aren’t invested in the food wars, GMOs are foods that have been altered to take away undesirable traits, like spoiling too soon or not being colorful enough. It’s also being done to preserve endangered fish like salmon by blending different strains of fish DNA and effectively creating a new fish.

Is there such a thing as a kosher GMO? It’s hard to say. So far, kosher certifiers aren’t jumping to start inspecting these “new foods.”

Organic Kosher Program Says GMOs Can’t Be Kosher

Not all naturally produced foods are kosher, but many people who keep kosher have a definite preference for organic and free-range.

What is organic? The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) does not permit synthetic pesticides to be used on products that bear the Canada Organic logo. It does allow for the possibility of pesticide contact through drift from neighboring farms and during shipment. Without this small exception (about five percent) it would be nearly impossible to certify anyone for the Organic logo. You can read more about the process on this CFIA Fact Sheet.

CFIA designates Conformity Verification Bodies to inspect farms and facilities that want the organic designation. They look at environmental protections, soil degradation and erosion, pollution, biological productivity, and health factors to see if they meet regulations. CFIA audits these groups as well to ensure that they follow the rules.

Natural Food Certifiers is a Conformity Verification group that also certifies organic foods for kosher use. In 2013, it declined to approve any GMO food products for its Apple K kosher certification program. Its founder and director Rabbi Reuven Flamer explained why in a press release:

“While according to the strict letter of Kosher food law, a GMO food ingredient is not prohibited, it certainly is not natural. There is a Torah law to ‘guard your health’ may cause various kinds of health problems…and require more herbicides.”

I was reminded about this with Passover coming up when I read about a British Columbia company, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, which has figured out a way to stop apples from browning by removing a certain enzyme responsible. Apples, of course, are a key ingredient for charoset. Since Mitzuyan Kosher Catering only uses fresh ingredients, we won’t purchase older produce no matter how attractive it looks. But other kosher caterers will look to COR and other groups for guidance.

Star-K, another large kosher authority, has added non-GMO designation to its organic kosher line. This triple-audit saves time but also responds to kosher customers who also want to eat organic food, or at least food that has had little meddling. As I’ve observed several times, kosher requires you to think about what you’re eating, and certainly this leads to questions about whether GMOs are kosher and healthy.

Many Consumers See Kosher as Health-Oriented

Although kosher isn’t strictly based on health—from what we can tell, it’s really just a set of rules that distinguished the ancient Hebrews from other tribes—lots of consumers assume kosher foods are healthier.

(Clearly, they haven’t had my mother’s kugel. Delicious, yes. Kosher? Absolutely. Healthy? Well, maybe in small portions.)

My guess is that how a GMO is done will be the key for deciding on its kosher status. Some will get a pass—most likely those that don’t add questionable ingredients, like Okanagan’s Arctic® Apple, which removes an element. That’s different from adding something to it from outside, like grape DNA to change the flavor.

As for GMO fish and meats, expect those to have tougher time. They are being modified with kosher and non-kosher sources, which confuse the question. The Orthodox Union still hasn’t ruled on a GMO salmon that includes some DNA from a nonkosher fish species.

Put in the context of a customer base that leans heavily toward organic and free-range, it won’t be too hard to guess how “new” animals will fare under most guidelines. For many people in the organic and kosher camps, it’s hard to imagine a kosher GMO.

And since you asked, here’s the kugel recipe my mother made from a temple cookbook published in the 1960s called (I swear this is true) To Serve With Love.




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