A plastic problem

A plastic problem

Recently, a diner in an upscale kosher eatery in the metropolitan area asked for a side order of steamed broccoli to go with the main course, a salmon dish.

The waiter came back a few minutes later with the salmon, but not the broccoli. When asked where the side dish was, he apologized and said he would return with it in a moment.

He returned almost immediately. “We’re sorry,” he said, “but we’ve run out of broccoli.”

KEEPING THE FAITH: One religious perspective on issues of the dayA few minutes later, the restaurant owner inquired if the diner was enjoying the meal. Said the disappointed diner, “I would have enjoyed it more if I could have gotten the steamed broccoli I ordered. How can you run out of broccoli?”

“We didn’t run out,” the owner said. “It shouldn’t have been on the menu. We don’t serve broccoli any longer. It’s too much trouble to clean broccoli sufficiently for it to be approved by our mashgiach,” or kashrut supervisor.

It is all about the bugs, he said.

The diner’s eyes rolled.

We tend to think of such things as religion gone mad. Do vegetables need kosher certification? Of course not, we say. All vegetables and fruits are kosher by their very nature. Obviously, this is yet another example of how a certain segment of the Jewish world is trying to control our lives in absurd ways.

We need to get over that attitude.

Vegetables in theory are kosher by their very nature – but the bugs in them are not, and there are bugs in broccoli.

There are worse things in broccoli, in fact. If we look carefully, what we are likely to see are very tiny, seed-like adhesions that have almost the same color as the vegetable itself. These are not bugs; they are their droppings.

This is even more of a problem with organic broccoli, or any leafy or floreted vegetable. The stringent kashrut rules regarding cleaning these “natural” foods make sense for everyone, not just people who keep kosher.

What about an apple (or any fruit)? Does it need to be certified kosher? It grows on trees, after all.

Yes, they do grow on trees – but the sprays some greengrocers and supermarkets coat them with to make them more attractive to the consumer do not. Are these sprays kosher? Are we even aware that they are on the fruit in the first place? Do they permeate the peel and get into the fruit underneath?

Then there is aluminum foil. Standard packages of the most common brands have kosher certification, but come on, seriously, who eats aluminum foil?

No one, but aluminum foil is not made just of aluminum. Lubricants have to be used at every step of the manufacturing process, and the final foil must be coated in order to roll off the roll readily. Without certification, can we be certain these lubricants are kosher? They will get on the food, make no mistake.

They are safe – provided we do not buy foil that is labeled for industrial use only. That foil is coated with a kerosene-based substance and is not something we want on our food. The federal government regulates that end of it, so we can be certain about the safety of food-grade foil, but not about its acceptability for the kosher consumer.

To be sure, there are excesses and unnecessary stringencies in the kosher supervision industry (it is a very lucrative industry, at that). Rolling our eyes and saying “here they go again,” however, ignores the realities of keeping kosher.

That brings me to what prompted this column in the first place.

Plastic bags.

We all know that plastic is biodegradable, in a few millennia, give or take a couple of thousand years. Plastic is helping to destroy all the works of creation God saw that He had made and declared to be very good. It is getting very bad.

Science seeks to change that. And some of what scientists are now doing may wreak havoc on the kosher consumer.

One example is research now under way in Australia.

We want plastic bags to be strong enough to hold what we put in them, and durable enough to last long enough for us to use what they hold. “It is this toughness, or durability, that still makes conventional bags the norm and a worsening environmental headache,” according to an article in a down-under publication, Swinburne Magazine. “Plastic packaging accounts for up to 25 percent of Australia’s municipal landfill. Researchers at Swinburne University of Technology believe science might offer a solution.”

That solution: shellfish.

And spiders.

According to the magazine, Swinburne researchers are trying to develop usable plastic from chitin-based polymers.

“Chitin,” reports the magazine, “is the world’s second-most abundant natural polymer and is mostly derived from shellfish waste, but also includes the exoskeletons of crustaceans, insects and spiders.”

These plastics will be truly biodegradable, which also means that the scientifically re-engineered shellfish waste, and exoskeletons of crustaceans, insects and spiders might leach into the foods they hold. Sounds yummy – but will it be kosher?

A second prompt was a new report from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, “Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security.” The report advocates adding more insects to the general food supply.

From many quarters, questions are being raised about whether this is silly science, but it is being taken seriously in other quarters. There even is a website dedicated to “food insects” that long predated the FAO report.

In truth, though, many of us are already eating some insects in our food because the Food and Drug Administration maintains an “acceptable” level standard for insect parts – and insect droppings – in processed foods.

The next time a waiter in a kosher restaurant says broccoli is no longer on the menu, maybe we should not be so quick to roll our eyes.