Kosher salting called a threat to Israel's water

March 22, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

ALON SHEVUT, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- Rabbi Yisrael Rozen wants his chicken shaken.

Not long -- maybe a minute of shaking before its ritual bath. The land will be glad for it, he says.

Rabbi Rozen and Israeli environment officials say a vigorous shaking would help rid a kosher chicken of some of its excess salt.

This is important, they say, because the salt used in the process of making meat kosher -- religiously pure -- is taking a toll on the land.

In short, kosher food is hazardous to the earth. At least it is in Israel, where there is so much kosher and so little land.

Salt used to draw blood out of meat in koshering is being dumped into the country's wastewater supply, and eventually pumped into agricultural fields. It is threatening the crops and seeping down into the ground-water supply, increasing salinity.

"It's part of a big environmental problem," says Baruch Weber, a deputy of Israel's Environment Ministry. "On one hand, the Jewish religion is very highly connected to farming, to working the land. So we felt quite uneasy if, on the other hand, it may be destroying the land."

Perhaps only in Israel, where the gathering of Jews has produced such a concentration of this religious practice, is kosher food a chief culprit in water pollution.

Of 100,000 metric tons of salt that enters Israel's wastewater each year, about 30,000 tons comes from the koshering process, according to Mr. Weber.

The government is proposing steps to try to reduce the problem.

It is encouraging slaughterhouses to pipe their wastewater into the sea, for example, where the amount of salt does not matter.

But that is expensive and may run afoul of international conventions regulating dumping in the sea.

Enter Rabbi Rozen.

He is director of the Zomet Institute, a nonprofit organization at a religious settlement just south of Bethlehem. Zomet tries to reconcile the prescripts of Jewish law with modern living.

The Zomet inventors -- Rabbi Rozen and fellow director Ezra Rosenfeld are engineers -- create mechanisms that allow religiously observant Jews to follow the laws of the Sabbath in today's nonstop pace.

Jewish law restricts most work on the Saturday Sabbath. So Zomet has made devices to milk cows, turn on lights, run wheelchairs, open doors, and even to write -- using a pen with disappearing ink that can be recopied after Sabbath.

The salt problem interested Zomet because it involves reconciling modern concerns with ancient practices.

"I believe we should take into consideration the environment and hygiene and the modern world when applying Jewish law," says Rabbi Rozen. "It's not all black and white."

"Halacha" -- a part of Jewish law -- prohibits the eating of blood, a rejection of ancient paganism.

It requires meat to be soaked for at least a half-hour in salt to draw out the blood, making it "kosher" or "fit."

The rabbi's researchers descended on a slaughterhouse to watch how chickens are koshered.

The inventors observed, measured and tinkered with the koshering process, all under the eye of rabbinical authorities.

Rabbi Rozen found that workers in the slaughterhouse rolled chickens on big tables of salt and stuffed salt into the bird cavities, then let the carcasses sit before being washed.

If the workers would just shake the excess salt off the birds, it would reduce by nearly 40 percent the salt that goes into the wash, and thus into the wastewater system, the researchers found.

They sampled a few kosher chicken plants in the United States and found the American plants use half as much salt as the Israeli slaughterhouses.

There is less salt used on each bird, and the American assembly-line process helps shake off excess salt, Rabbi Rozen concluded.

"It doesn't involve chemistry or physics, just common sense," he said. But he acknowledged an extra shaking step in the slaughterhouse may reduce efficiency and add to costs.

Even this can be turned to advantage, says Rabbi Rozen.

Why not advertise shaken birds as lower-salt products, and cash in on the Western trend for healthier foods?

"If people are willing to pay more for the environment or for health, it would be more successful," he says.

Mr. Weber, in the Environment Ministry, applauds such suggestions.

The increased salinization of irrigation water from the koshering process and from salt used to "soften" water already has reduced the yield in some Israeli fruit orchards, which are particularly sensitive to salt.

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