While the immigration troubles at Agriprocessors have put kosher meat in the spotlight lately, strawberries have quietly been becoming the latest concern for kosher consumers.
Some establishments in Passaic have banned the fruit because of tiny insects that rabbinic authorities say have infected this season’s crop. In Bergen County, however, it’s business as usual in the fruit aisle, and rabbis say that thorough cleaning will take care of the critters.
At the root of the fruit scare are aphids and thrips, two miniscule critters that latch on to fruit crops. Thrips – slender bugs with fringed wings, commonly called thunderbugs, thunderflies, storm flies, and corn lice – feed on plants and animals by puncturing them and sucking up the insides. Aphids feed on plants’ sap and can transmit plant viruses to potatoes, sugarbeets, and citrus plants, which can infect the crops. Rain will usually knock aphids away from plants, but the bugs can burrow into the fruits, necessitating a thorough soaking before serving.
In Passaic, Kosher Konnections, a grocery store, and Main Ingredient, a kosher caterer, have both put the kibosh on the use of fresh strawberries. An employee at Kosher Konnections told The Jewish Standard that the store has not sold strawberries in a few months. “If there’s a problem [with kashrut], we don’t sell it,” he said.
Main Ingredient has cut out the use of fresh strawberries and uses only frozen when necessary, said manager Shlomo Moskowitz. Main Ingredient is under the supervision of the Association for Reliable Kashrut of Lawrence, N.Y., and the directive came from Main Ingredient’s mashgiach, he said.
A rabbinical representative of ARK, who declined to identify himself on the record, said that inspectors had found that this season’s strawberry crops were infected, and so none of the strawberries should be used. Most insects are not kosher.
The problem surfaced last year when members of the Orthodox Union issued a warning about an increased risk of infestation. The determination is made season to season, the ARK representative said. He deferred further comment to experts who physically examine the crops.
The United Kingdom’s fervently Orthodox Keddasia Beth Din enacted a strawberry ban in 2005 because of the creepy crawlies, but other British rabbinic authorities said it was not necessary. The OU, the world’s largest Orthodox umbrella group and kosher certifier, has also not declared strawberries off limits. Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO and administrator of the OU’s kashrut division, said, “If it’s properly washed, the OU’s position is it can be used.”
The OU recommends cutting the green leafy top off each strawberry without cutting a hole in the fruit, which would allow the bugs to crawl inside. If there is a hole, consumers are advised to slice the strawberry in half lengthwise before thoroughly washing it in soap and warm water.
The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which supervises the majority of the area’s kosher restaurants and markets, has not banned the fruits, either. Jay Sadek, the RCBC’s mashgiach at Big Apple Farm in Teaneck, said customers regularly buy strawberries at the store. “It’s not a problem,” he said. “Nobody has asked about strawberries recently.”
Glatt Express in Teaneck, also under RCBC supervision, had a ready supply of strawberries on Wednesday. An employee at Fair Lawn’s Food Showcase, also under RCBC, said that the store carries frozen strawberries but has a limited supply of fresh produce that does not include the berries.
Sadek said that he has not received additional instructions from the RCBC on handling the fruits. “They tell us to do what we normally do, just wash it a little better,” he said. “Anything can be infected. They just say wash it really well and make sure there’s no bugs.”