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Commentary: Food Safety is About More Than Health

By Peter Winkelstein

Buffalo, NY – The "mad cow" scare has me wondering about the safety of my food. Even with all of our modern scientific knowledge, how can I be sure that my food's healthy? Well, I'm taking some comfort in the fact that people have been worrying about this for a long time. Before we knew anything of prions or parasites, there were laws about food handling: the Jewish kosher laws.

Most people know that the kosher laws forbid the consumption of pork. But you may not know that many other kinds of meat are also outlawed. The rule that determines which meats may be eaten derives from a passage in Lev. 11:3 [and Deut. 14:6]: "any animal that has true hoofs, with clefts through the hoofs, and that chews the cud such you may eat." This rule's an algorithm, rather than just a list of allowed or forbidden meats. Pork is disallowed because a pig doesn't chew its cud. Rabbit's out because it doesn't have cloven hoofs.

There is also a long tradition of kosher slaughtering of meat. Animals for slaughter must be healthy and their internal organs unblemished. The process of slaughter must be rapid and painless. All blood must be removed from the animal, and certain nerves and fat are forbidden.

Now that we know about diseases like mad cow, which is probably spread by the slaughter of sick animals, and trichinosis, spread through eating undercooked pork or wild game, it's tempting to look at the kosher rules as essentially public health laws. In fact, some people have turned to kosher beef as a way to minimize the risk of getting mad cow disease. But the Torah, the Jewish bible, doesn't tell us why the laws are there. Some of the laws have no known health benefits. They are simply stated as part of a list of regulations, given with the authority of God. And these laws cover all living creatures, dividing them into two groups: the clean, that may be eaten, and the unclean, which are forbidden.

So, if not health, then what are these kosher laws about? Why does the Torah have such detailed regulations about food? Perhaps because food is about more than nutrition. If I simply take my food for granted, and eat without thinking, I treat my meal as just another part of my routine day. But the mad cow scare has recently made us all approach our food a little differently. We have to think before we eat: is this food safe? The kosher laws have for ages made us think about what we are doing every time we eat: is this food kosher? By reflecting on our food, even for a moment, we make eating a special time. It can be a chance to relax, to take some time out from the rush of a crowded schedule, to visit with friends and family. Even grabbing a breakfast or lunch "on the go" can mark a time that is different from the rest of the day.

When we eat, we should pause and reflect on what we are doing. And not just reflect on our food, but on our lives. It is in these pauses, when we step out of our routine, that we can look at ourselves, look at our work, look at our families, and begin to see them in a larger context. It is then that we can decide to improve ourselves and the world around us.

Eating is something we do every day. Thinking carefully about each meal is a way to remember that food is more than nutrition for our bodies. Paying attention to our food gives us an opportunity to nurture our souls, as well.

Listener-Commentator Peter Winkelstein is a pediatrician who lives on Grand Island.