Where’s the kosher broccoli?

TORONTO — You can still get a kosher stir-fry in Toronto – just as long as you don’t want broccoli. Other veggies you might not see on the menu are asparagus, romaine lettuce, brussel sprouts and even herbs like curly parsley, coriander or dill.

Times have changed, not kashrut laws

And then there are the rumours: what seemingly innocent bite will join the list next?

The problem, according to Rabbi Tsvi Heber of the Kashruth Council of Canada (COR), lies with infestations of tiny insects.

“Tolaim are the insects that are forbidden by the Torah for consumption,” Rabbi Heber says. They include aphids and thrips, along with tiny worms and other almost-unseen perils. These creatures hide – inside florets, under leaves, even inside fruits or fish.

These insects have been forbidden as long as Jews have been eating kosher. But a few factors have brought the issue to light – sometimes literally. While only insects that can be seen with the naked eye are generally prohibited, fluorescent light boxes now allow for extremely close, accurate inspection to determine the degree of infestation. As well, kosher consumers are more aware of insect problems than they were in past.

There may also be more insect infestation now than in the past century. “We see them using less pesticides,” says Rabbi Moshe Bensalmon of Badatz Toronto, a kashrut agency that began operating nearly two years ago. Imports and organic produce also demand greater vigilance.

But the role of kashrut organizations is not only to check and forbid, but also to permit foods wherever possible.

Rabbi Bensalmon recalls an all-organic wedding that was very successful despite the effort involved in ensuring insect-free produce. Every romaine lettuce leaf had to be prewashed, “agitated with soap in a sink,” then rinsed and individually checked on the light box.

The COR is also leading the way in permitting foods wherever possible. Early in 2009, when it was discovered that raisins contain tiny fruit fly eggs, which can hatch into larvae, many agencies rushed to forbid them. After extensive entomological and talmudic research, the COR declared that raisins could still be eaten.

However, when it comes to ingredients like asparagus or broccoli, “it’s not that we can’t check,” Rabbi Heber says. It’s simply not practical. “Broccoli… needs to be thoroughly checked. Infestation levels are high; many bugs can be adhesive and don’t rinse off easily under a stream of water.”

In other communities, there may be more demand. One New York restaurant does offer fresh broccoli, employing two full-time mashgichim (kosher supervisors): one for the establishment, the other to check broccoli.

For Rabbi Heber, consistency doesn’t have to mean increased stringency. “That’s a misconception.”

He adds that “all of our policies are in writing… from top to bottom.”

He believes standardization will pay off in efficiency and transparency. “The community is seeing the COR take control of its establishments, making sure every establishment is in line with our policies.”

Isaac Drookman of Zuchter Berk Caterers agrees. “Since they came out with a fruit and vegetable policy a few years ago, there have been no new restrictions.” He praises the COR’s responsiveness. “The rabbis are flexible… that’s more important than if I have broccoli or not.”

In fact, Rabbi Heber says, “our policies, if anything, have become more inclusive.” For example, COR establishments can now be certified even if they are not serving exclusively chalav Yisrael, kosher-certified dairy products.

The COR has begun going out to synagogues and homes to educate people about kashrut issues and demonstrate how to check and wash produce. “Our motive is not to forbid all the different types of produce, but rather to give them the skills to be able to enjoy the product.”

But restaurant consultant Marvin Greenberg believes the COR could do more to communicate its standards to restaurateurs and caterers.

“This is not about circumventing kashrut,” says Greenberg, a founding member of the Ontario Restaurant Association. “It’s about the lack of communication and the inconsistency of regulations.” He’d like to see more training for mashgichim as well as a more positive attitude toward food businesses taking on kosher supervision.

The COR should “encourage people to become kosher and make it easier, not a point of stress.”

One Toronto restaurateur feels frustrated juggling the COR’s requirements with his customers’. “You’re bound in what you can sell,” he says. “Lettuce, for example: they require a mashgiach to check it.

“People ask, ‘How come you don’t have enough?’ Because the guy has to spend six hours checking lettuce.

“That’s not the way to create a positive attitude for remaining kosher,” says Greenberg, who feels that the COR’s standards may not reflect the true diversity among Toronto’s kosher consumers. “Ninety per cent of people couldn’t care less if I have [checked] broccoli or not.”

Filling in for the missing menu items just takes creativity, Drookman says. “Broccoli is not the only item in Chinese food; it’s one of 200.”