My Passover will be free this year. At least my chicken will be. Free range, free of hormones, free of antibiotics and pasture-raised. As my family gathers together and celebrates Passover, we are trying something new. I am liberating my menu from conventional chicken. The meat we serve will reflect the values of this holiday. I am not an environmentalist, the only thing "green" about me are my eyes. But over the past few months, I've gotten to know some of the folks leading the eco-kosher movement and I am eco-curious.
I don't think I am ready to make a permanent change, I'm embarrassed to admit that I thought the extra zero on the sales sticker was a typo - free-range, pasture-raised, organic kosher meat can be very expensive! And confusing!
Let me try to explain...
USDA standards allow any chicken with access to the outside to be labeled free-range or free-roaming. If you imagine your free-range bird spent her days frolicking in the grass and strutting her stuff in front of all the single roosters, you may be in for a surprise. Large poultry houses that raise chickens using conventional farming methods can provide chickens access to a yard, and label the bird "free-range", regardless of the condition of the yard or whether the chickens actually avail themselves of the opportunity.
"USDA organic standards are written to mean that a chicken can be raised in near total confinement and fed nothing but organic corn and still be called free-range organic," explains Naftali Hanau, founder of Grow and Behold. Naftali and his wife Anna are bringing sustainable, pastured poultry from farm to table, one chicken at a time.
Although there is not an agreed-upon definition of pastured chicken (or even USDA standards) it is typically about as close to Old MacDonald's farm as you can get. The chicken walk around in open fields and woods, foraging for food, and going back into a secure enclosure at night to roost, nest, and lay eggs.
Until recently, virtually all kosher meat available to U.S. consumers were raised in confinement. "A kosher consumer who refused to eat unsustainable, caged meat had no choice but to become vegetarian," explains Devora Kimelman-Block, founder of KOL Foods, "sustainable agriculture is a way of producing food in which animals are treated humanely and the environment, farm, and factory are healthy for workers and consumers."
The idea of sustainability and ethical agriculture fits well with our holiday of freedom. On seder night when we speak about our exodus from slavery, it will enhance our experience to know that the chicken we are eating did not spend their lives in a cage. To hear Devorah explain it, we should eat "in a way that honors the earth and honors the life that was taken in order for us to eat." This starts with a few simple steps she believes all of us can take:
- Eat consciously. Bless your food and reflect on everything involved in bringing it to your plate.
- Eat sparingly. The rabbis encouraged people to eat meat on the holidays because they lived in a society in which eating meat was rare luxury. It isn’t special if you eat it at every meal.
- Don’t swallow your ethics. Consume only sustainable, grass-fed meat.
The USDA's National Organic Program regulations specify requirements for livestock products to be sold, labeled or represented as organic. Organic management of livestock includes:
- requiring organically produced livestock feed and forage;
- prohibiting the use of antibiotics and hormones;
- maintaining specific living conditions including access to pasture for ruminants and access to the outside, direct sunlight, fresh air, and freedom of movement for all livestock; and
- practicing preventive health care to minimize occurrence and spread of diseases and parasites. Furthermore, organic livestock producers must develop an organic system plan, maintain production records, and undergo annual on-site inspections.
Back in 1992, Rachel Weisenfeld's husband lost his job as a computer programmer. Needing to help out her family financially, Rachel became a telemarketer for a company importing kosher natural chickens from Canada to the United States. It was, you could say, a Wise decision.
Although the non-kosher organic poultry market was still in its infancy, Rachel thought that there just might be a market for organic kosher chicken and started Wise Kosher Natural Poultry. Rachel is proud that her company was the first in the United States to offer a free-range, pasture-raised, kosher-certified, organic chicken, but the difference in taste is more important than the label on the package. "The biggest difference you can feel when you make chicken soup," she says.
Even large companies are responding to consumer demand for healthful poultry. Empire Kosher has eliminated the use of antibiotics for all their chicken and turkey. Empire also produces a line of certified kosher antibiotic-free (ABF), vegetarian fed and humanely raised all-natural chicken and turkey products under the Kosher Valley brand and their USDA-certified line of organic poultry is growing exponentially.
Passover is only a few weeks away. My kitchen may not be ready yet, but I've got my chicken all figured out.