Simulated pork rejected by Jews – what’s the problem?

‘This little piggy went to market’ – but was rejected. What’s the obsession with pork?

By Atara Beck

“The Orthodox Union won’t certify Impossible Pork as kosher, representing a break from the way that decisions about certifying kosher food are normally made,” according to an article published recently by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA).

The author, David Zvi Kalman, believes the organization made the right decision.

But should a religious Jew be denied a pleasure that might be technically permitted?

Years ago, many kosher caterers refused to serve non-dairy creamer with meat at events because of the sensibilities, but now they do. A product called Bacos, which simulated bacon flavor, had kashrut supervision. Now there are kosher “cheeseburgers.” Is this different?

Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz, a world-renowed Torah scholar, lecturer and former law professor at the University of Maryland, discussed the issue with World Israel News.

“Generally speaking,” he said, “Kashrut organizations should try to help consumers, and indeed there is a long history of hashgachot (certification) for artificial crab, shrimp, pareve [neither meat nor dairy] cheeseburgers and even soy Bacon Bits.  So the fact that something tastes like traif [non-kosher] does not appear to be an issue — though some people are indeed bothered by that point as well.

“The Talmud itself makes the point that God created a kosher taste for every non-kosher one, so we can enjoy all the tastes that are available. The Talmud states elsewhere that a person need not say – indeed, should not say — I hate the taste of chazir [pig]. Rather, he should say I love it but God said to keep away. So the issue is not giving hashgacha to kosher products that taste like non-kosher ones,” he said.

‘Like coming to synagogue wearing a swastika tie’

“I cannot speak for the OU, but the issue seems to be connected to the labelling,” the rabbi continued. “Pork is so identified as the sign of traif, as a betrayal of Jewish commitment to kashrut, that giving a hashgacha even on fake pork is like coming to synagogue wearing a swastika tie. It is a public identification with that which is deemed repulsive in the eyes of the Torah.

“Would we certify Impossible Blood? Another problem that I think is real is potential consumer confusion. Impossible Pork with an OU will be lying in a supermarket next to similar packages of real pork. If the word pork will not scare you off because some ‘pork’ packages have hashgacha, a consumer might easily pick up the wrong package. This has happened to me and to others, so there is a logic to avoid openly traif words in product packaging.”

Richard Rabkin, managing director of the COR Kashruth Council of Canada, told World Israel News that “COR’s position would likely be similar to the OU’s.

“It is true that there are certain items which are synonymous with being non-kosher that have been produced in a manner to create the appearances of a kosher equivalent,” he said. “The term ‘beef bacon’ comes to mind as one example — I’ve also seen it called ‘facon’ — which is beef cooked with certain seasonings and in a particular way to stimulate bacon. In those instances, I suppose it is more explicit that the product in question is beef but cooked with seasoning or in the style of non-kosher.

“’Impossible Pork’ might be different because it doesn’t make that differentiation clear in the product title. The sensitivities of kosher consumers are important when making these decisions, and my instincts tell me that many would in fact be offended by the term ‘Impossible Pork.’”

‘A philosophical disadvantage’

Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett of Ohr Somayach Jerusalem offered a fascinating perspective.

“Pigs are treated differently,” he said in an interview. “I think one reason concerns the different simanim (signs) that a kosher animal must have. A kosher animal has to have split hooves and chew its cud. There is only one type of animal that has split hooves and does not chew its cud, and that’s the pig and all animals that are related.”

In rabbinic literature, “it says when a pig wallows in the mud, it sticks out its feet…and what the pig is showing you is its split hooves. You can’t tell by looking at an animal whether it chews its cud. So it’s like saying, ‘Look, I have split hooves, I’m kosher.’ The pig therefore becomes the metaphor for the type of evil that externally looks very good but inside is bad.

“So the pig has a sort of philosophical, or a metaphorical, disadvantage as it were, and it comes to exemplify one of the worst dimensions of evil…

“The pig has taken on this horrible reputation.”

Kasnett noted that at the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem, there’s an animal called a tapir that looks like a pig, and a sign directed at hasidim explains that it is not a pig, because “there are some Jews who won’t even look at a pig,” although they would look at other non-kosher animals, like a lion.

However, “the pig has a terrible stigma, and beyond that, it’s an animal that was raised for a staple food, a main food, for people in non-Jewish societies in which we, Ashkenazim, have lived for centuries.”

What’s in a name?

Dr. Avrom Pollak, president of Star-K Kosher Certification, recalled that about 25 years ago, supermarkets in America were selling mock shrimp and mock crab, made from a kosher species of fish.

“The interesting thing about it was that we started getting phone calls,” he told WIN. “What fascinated me was not that people were complaining about it – again, it was 100% kosher – but that almost every one of the people who complained about it was not necessarily fully observant of the rules of kashrut and would have had no problem eating shellfish, but they couldn’t quite accept the idea that a kosher supermarket was selling these mock products, and it really upset them.

“The people who were eating only kosher food didn’t seem upset at all. I’m not saying they were lining up to buy the product…but it was an interesting take on how they feel about these issues.”

“Non-dairy creamers, I think, is a little bit different because even in the Talmud they discuss almond milk,” Pollak said. “Now, it’s so common to have milk substitutes, so people don’t even think twice about it… People don’t seem to object to a cheeseburger made with pareve cheese.”

“Personally, he said, “I wish they would come up with a different name and not call it pork. That would eliminate some problems… It’s an emotional issue more than anything else.”