Now that my son is of school age, sending him every morning to school is like letting him go, giving up controls to someone else (and in this case an institution). When my first born was little, even when I went back to work, I would pump a couple times a day in the office to ensure that he was fed a breastmilk only diet and made purees homemade at night from organic fruits, vegetables and grains. I was religious about my food choices for my son. I remember the first time he ate chocolate…he had picked it up from a Halloween bowl outside my neighbors door. I was horrified when he dug his teeth into a rollo still in its wrapper – he had utter bliss in his eyes as he said “Mama! This is delicious!” Oh no! My son was discovering the foods that I had tried to keep away from him for as long as I could.
He is now 3 and at a Jewish day school. They serve a morning snack and hot lunch everyday. At first this was incredibly appealing to me as it relinquishes me from preparing him lunch everyday, especially with a baby at home, it frees up some of my time. The meals are prepared in a kosher kitchen and everything is in strict guidance of the laws of kashrut. Now being Kosher has nothing to do with being organic or healthy, but a small part of me always felt some reassurance knowing another authority was looking after my food. However, with the prevalence of GMOs in our food suply, it made me wonder, are GMOs kosher? And was my son being served food that may contain GMOs on a regular basis?
I’m not here to explain what GMOs are but if you are curious, two geat movies on Netflix that I recommend watching are GMO OMG and Food Inc. They specifically focus on genetically modified crops that are engineered to produce pesticides and those that are resistant to herbicides mainly manufactured by big chemical companies including Monsanto and Dupont. The main culprits are foods processed with Soy or Corn which is about 80% of the processed food we consume in the US. To be honest, I’m a bit outraged that they are so much a part of our food supply in America and pretty much unavoidable unless you always prepare your own food consciously avoiding GMOs (although labeling GMOs is not required in the U.S.)
On a recent trip to a frozen yogurt store next door to my sons school, I asked if there was corn syrup in the yogurt my son was eating, joyfully, by the spoonfuls. The cashier went to check the ingredient listing and answered yes. The place prominently displayed a K (for Kosher) but were there GMOs in it? The answer was most likely yes, but I wasn’t prepared to pull the spoon right out of his mouth. I was disappointed that the seemingly reassuring K did not reassure me at this moment. I felt not at all safer that my kids were eating Kosher and I wondered why…
I went to the Whole Foods meat section and asked the butcher about my Kosher meat feed. He had said that the feed must be labeled organic in order to ensure that it was being fed a GMO free diet or specifically say that the feed is GMO free. It added another layer to my shopping decision. Whole Foods does have an animal welfare labeling system (1-5) but this has nothing to do with the animal feed. According to the butcher, it would be very difficult to label feed as GMOs as they are such a significant part of the animal feed in the U.S. Nonetheless, I purchased my Kosher prepackaged meat that clearly stated “organic, vegetarian, diet.”
It seems exhausting to shop today for food and make the right choices to feed yourself and your family. It feels as though the labels need labels. We are burried in various labeling systems: K, OU, U, Organic, USDA Organic, NON GMO Project Verified and words on packages that are basically meaningless yet look convincingly good including Natural, heart-healthy, wholesome, whole grains, natural flavors etc. You need a de-coder just to decipher your box of cereal. And if you go out to eat, you might as well just give up because it would be virtually impossible to know what you were eating unless the restuarant disclosed it’s food sources. The first (and only) national food chain to become “GMO Free” is Chipotle. This is a huge step and hopefully inspires other national chains to follow suit. At least it brings the conversation to a more mass population nationwide and helps bring awareness and discussion around food, food sources and what we are eating.
The OU (orthodox union – a rabbinic organization that certifies food as Kosher) has declared that GMOs are microscopic and therefore not significant in the matter of kashrut. But as the genetic modification of animals and plants becomes more robust, will the matter of kashrut even matter anymore? Is salmon still a salmon if it’s genetically modified with a non-kosher eel? What assurance would an OU symbol mean to me? It conjures up the Magritte painting for me: Ceci n’est pas une pipe.
Last summer I had a debate with someone who keeps Kosher in their home and he was adament that being kosher is just healthier. In truth, this is not the case. It is not about health. It is about following the law according to the Bible and a big part of that law is identifying certain characteristics of animals and fish that make them inherently kosher. The discussion of GMOs in the Jewish community should continue to be questioned. And if GMOs are not part of the conversation of Kashrut, then what will be the point of kosher labeling when what you see may not be what you are eating. Just because a salmon has fins and scales, is it really a salmon? A kosher label should give you assurance that your food is actually what it claims to be.