June 19, 2024
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Kosher Pork? Impossible. Well, Possibly.

Impossible Pork is the talk of the kosher world these days and, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Jews tend to ask a lot of questions. After reading through the different articles and opinion pieces, I had even more questions than I started with.

Luckily for you, I didn’t stop there. I went looking for the answers to my questions. I can truly say that some of the answers surprised me. But before we get to the answers, let’s get to the questions…

What is Impossible Pork?

Glad you asked! Impossible Pork is the newest invention of Impossible Foods, a company that makes imitation meat products. Their products are widely considered to be the best imitation meat products ever made due to patented research into how different proteins and fats from meats can be replaced by those from plants.

Impossible products have gained popularity in the kosher community for several reasons including being able to make dishes that would usually be treif due to milk/meat issues.

What’s the news story?

The Orthodox Union (OU) decided not to certify Impossible Pork as kosher. The OU provides the hechsher for other Impossible products on the market, as well as countless other fake meats.

Why didn’t the OU give Impossible Pork a hechsher like the other products?

“Not because it wasn’t kosher per se,” Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the OU’s kosher division, said in a statement after the decision. “It may indeed be completely [kosher] in terms of its ingredients: If it’s completely plant-derived, it’s kosher. Just in terms of sensitivities to the consumer … it didn’t get it.”

Wait … it may be completely kosher? And what does ‘in terms of its ingredients’ mean?

I reached out to Rabbi Genack to have him clarify these comments. I had read many opinion pieces where different writers tried to prescribe various halachic reasonings that the OU might be taking issue with and therefore declining to certify the product.

Some seem to have interpreted the phrase “in terms of its ingredients” to mean that the product could be non-kosher in an area other than just what is physically in the product.

“I want to make it very clear,” Rabbi Genack told me, “this is not a halachic issue. The issue is one of the community and how comfortable they are with it. We discussed it, and there were just as many people who were uncomfortable with it as there were who thought it was fine.”

“We want to make sure that we are sensitive to those who are opposed to the idea,” Rabbi Genack said. “We had an issue with a product that was labeled ‘bacon’ in the past. We didn’t want to have a repeat of that kind of situation where a lot of people were uncomfortable.”

Is this a ‘spirit of the law’ kind of situation?

Yes and no. While we usually don’t delve into the realm of the spirit of a halacha, there are times when we do.

However, kashrut is almost never one of those times. If it were, we wouldn’t allow restaurants to sell “cheese burgers” made with Impossible Beef, mock crab sushi made with kani, or nachos made with fake cheese in a fleishig restaurant.

Rabbi Genack told me that somebody approached him in shul last Shabbat about the Impossible Pork situation. He decided to take a poll of the 40 people or so who were present. Just over half of them supported the OU’s decision, whereas the others disagreed.

Apparently, a good portion of the community simply isn’t comfortable with the idea of there being an OU on a product that can be used in place of pork regardless of the actual halachos involved.

Doesn’t the OU certify other fake pork products? How is this different?

When asked about this issue, Rabbi Genack made the distinction between foods that were prepared foods and those that were meant to imitate the raw ingredient of pork. For instance, the OU currently certifies at least two types of imitation pork rinds, Trader Joe’s Spicy Porkless Plant-Based Snack Rinds and Pig Out Pigless Pork Rinds.

Rabbi Genack explained that it wasn’t necessarily the name, but rather the way the product imitates the treif product. In other words, there’s a difference between something that is a facsimile of pork rinds and something that is actually imitation meat itself, that might in some way pass as actual pork if seen outside of its packaging. This was the factor that he said made kosher consumers uncomfortable.

For the record, the OU does currently certify JADA Plant-Based Porkless Mix. However, that product is more of a dry mix that creates simulated ground pork crumbles when combined with water and oil. It doesn’t really look like raw pork at any point.

This sounds complicated. Were people confused?

They were! And by people, I mean Impossible Foods themselves.

The OU has said the company accepted their decision to not certify the product. In fact, the OU isn’t the only organization that isn’t quite on board with Impossible Pork.

The Islamic Services of America, the providers of the halal (Islamic dietary restrictions) certification on the other Impossible products, also declined to certify Impossible Pork. They said in their statement that the main issue is the name of the product and the aversion to the word “pork” itself.

In fact, a spokesperson for Impossible Foods even made a statement that even though they would have liked kosher and halal certifications, they are unwilling to change the name of the product.

From my discussion with Rabbi Genack and the other products that the OU currently certifies, it would seem that the name is actually irrelevant to the issue from the OU’s perspective.

“The decision is certainly not final at all. We would absolutely be willing to review our position in the future,” he concluded.

What might make the OU change their position in the future?

From the logic displayed here, I would say that if the community at large changed its position, so would the OU.

For instance, the OU doesn’t want to make the majority of people uncomfortable. But what if the other side became the majority? We all know that people tend to change their minds on things over time. Perhaps people will become more comfortable with the idea and the OU certifies Impossible Pork in the future.

Progress only continues, and Jews have been known to adapt throughout history. In five years, there might be Impossible Shrimp, Impossible Crab, Impossible Lobster, or all three.

People used to be uncomfortable with Shabbat lamps. Now? Not so much. Who knows what the future will bring?

So the decision has been made for now. What are the repercussions of the OU’s position?

Well, that’s where it gets a little tricky. At first glance, you might say that this is a closed issue for now. Not kosher means not kosher. But the fact that the product was developed in order to be kosher makes the case a little more murky.

Impossible Foods spent millions of dollars producing all of the chemical formulas for this product and they aren’t going to change it just because they can. There have always been people who check ingredients on products that have no hashgacha. Maybe this will just be the next thing that people will say is kosher, but not certified.

I’ve heard a few people say that they planned on eating Impossible Pork regardless of the decision by the OU. That would certainly be a slippery slope.

It would also raise a question about whether or not the OU should feel obligated to supervise the product if people are going to eat it anyway.

Is there a great demand for Impossible Pork in the community?

“I just think that we already have so many amazing products that we can have fun with in the kitchen,” said Shalom Yehudiel, owner and operator of The Humble Toast and La Cucina Di Nava in Teaneck. “If the OU says it makes people uncomfortable to eat imitation pork, I stand by that 100 percent.”

Matthew Chan of Chop Chop, a Chinese restaurant in Washington Heights, gave an interesting perspective on the issue. He told me that his family, despite not being Jewish, doesn’t eat pork because they view it as dirty. “It’s not only a kosher issue,” he said.

He already has Impossible Dumplings (made with Impossible Beef) on his menu, though dumplings are traditionally made with pork. I asked if he would consider switching to Impossible Pork if it was certified by the OU.

“No,” he said. “The word ‘pork’ is not good to hear.”

Narruto Bowl in Teaneck is a fleishig restaurant with a frequent vegetarian clientele who come for the unique Asian fusion flavors. Chef Joshua Massin says that, if it were certified, he might use it at his restaurant, but likely wouldn’t.

“As a frum Jew, I can see the slippery slope of letting actual non-kosher animal names into our vernacular,” he said. “Calling something ‘bacon’ is not nearly as fraught as accustoming klal Yisroel to eating ‘pork,’ impossible or otherwise.”

So, it seems like restaurants are a no go.

Should the kashrut organizations be involving themselves in people’s feelings? Or should they simply certify things based on halacha alone?

This question has been getting more and more complicated every year.

Different communities have different feelings on how comfortable they are with their local vaad intervening into non-kashrut-related matters. Whether it’s a restaurant wanting to have a TV or whether or not it’s fine for a place to have an actual bar, these issues have been popping up for years.

To make things even more complex, we now have politics to deal with. Recently, you may have caught some of the same people who advocate for kashrut agencies to stay in their lane also declaring that the Kof-K should drop their certification from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for the company’s withdrawal of products from the what the company referred to as “Occupied Palestinian Territories.”

Personally, I think that kashrut should be kashrut so that everything stays simple. Otherwise, we have to figure out exactly how involved we want them to be.

Speaking of ‘personally,’ would you try Impossible Pork?

If it wasn’t certified? No. Though I do feel that there is an interesting argument to be had there, the slope is just too slippery for me.

If it was certified? I’ve thought a lot about that while doing all this research. My answer is…

I don’t know. I guess I’m curious as to what it tastes like, but I’m not quite sure why. I’ve never eaten pork, so I’d have nothing to compare it to.

I guess I’d try it once and see how I felt about it. After all, I guess this whole issue comes down to how we feel.

By Nathaniel Burnside

 

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