By Simone Friedman
In the 1950’s, my grandfather, Rabbi Samuel Friedman, z”l, traveled around North Carolina performing shechitah (kosher slaughter) on chickens for Jews who otherwise did not have access to kosher meat. If prior to slaughter, he saw that a chicken was sick, had trouble walking, or had tumors, then he declared that chicken to be traif – unfit for kosher consumption.
Many people who keep kosher today would be surprised to learn that due to genetics, over 99% of kosher chickens today would not meet the same standard that my grandfather felt so strongly about sixty years ago. Chickens that are raised today for the kosher market are the same fast-growing breeds that are raised for the non-kosher market – they are bred to be so morbidly obese that they would be the equivalent of a human child weighing 500 pounds at age 10, which is more than six times their natural rate of growth. In addition to being obese, these fast-growing breeds have painful problems with skeletal development and heart and lung function – many can barely walk. There is no doubt that my grandfather, were he still alive, would consider almost all chicken on the kosher market today to be traif, or unfit for kosher consumption.
How do we solve this problem and what opportunities are there for Jewish philanthropists, foundations, and organizations to turn these solutions into catalysts for greater Jewish engagement?
- Due to the strong interest in ethical food sourcing among Jewish young adults, as well as the interest among Jewish parents in serving their children meat that comes from healthy animals, there is a huge opportunity for kosher poultry companies. Consider Empire Kosher, which dominates the kosher chicken and turkey market and is owned by Hain Celestial (NASDAQ:HAIN), a company otherwise known for its organic and natural products. If Empire were to secure a respected third-party animal welfare certification, such as from Global Animal Partnership, for all of their products and start to carry at least some lines of slower-growth birds raised outdoors on pasture, they would not only be the leader in the kosher market, but a national leader on animal welfare for the whole poultry industry. If the leading kosher poultry producer was also one of the highest welfare producers, this could potentially open up a new market for kosher poultry among both Jews and non-Jews who do not keep kosher but who want to serve their families ethically sourced chicken that have led healthy, natural lives. Any increase in production cost could be made up by increased market share, and a first mover advantage could lead to a significant increase in sales. Investors in Hain Celestial – I am one myself – may be able to influence the company to make these changes. If other Jewish philanthropists, foundations, and endowments are holders of HAIN as well, this could be an opportunity to put impact investing principles into action and work together to not only generate greater financial returns, but also generate greater social returns as well, in the form of increased Jewish engagement.
- Anyone who keeps kosher or who is interested in how food and Jewish values intertwine, should sign up with the Jewish Initiative for Animals to go on a farm tour of the Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Kansas, which is raising heritage chicken on a larger scale for the overall kosher market (see “The Country’s Tastiest Chicken will Soon be Kosher“). Unlike the industrial birds bred to quickly grow morbidly obese, heritage chicken are the gold standard in animal welfare, and they can run, jump, and even fly. They live the type of natural lives that chickens were intended to live, and are a manifestation of the biblical value of “tzaar baalei chayim,” or the teaching that Jews must be compassionate to animals.
- There are two kosher meat distributors, Kol Foods and Grow and Behold, which will be selling kosher heritage chicken that still grow at a natural rate and represent the gold standard for welfare. A limited supply of birds will be available in time for Rosh Hashanah. Although this chicken will be sold at a high cost, demand has already exceeded expectations, as this is the first time that kosher heritage chicken will be available to the public in decades. Synagogues and young adult engagement programs are ordering this chicken in order to provide a true farm-to-table experience that can be used as an engagement tool. Individuals and families have also been placing orders for these birds; one couple has even reserved dozens for their fall wedding. This first kosher heritage chicken run will be setting an important example of the Jewish commitment to incorporating tzaar baalei chayim in our food choices. The more demand there is for kosher heritage chicken, the more supply they will provide, and the greater supply, the lower the eventual costs.
A future of better kosher chicken is in sight. My grandfather would be proud.
Simone Friedman is the Head of Philanthropy and Impact Investment for Emanuel J Friedman (EJF) Philanthropies. The views expressed in this article are her own.