By: Rabbi Tsvi Heber
Nissan is the time of year when we bring the final redemption1 and the resurrection of the dead to the forefront of our consciousness, culminating in the recitation of the chapter of the Navi Yechezkel which describes his vision of the atzamot yevayshot, the dry bones.2 The imagery of dry bones represents Jewish suffering throughout history, suffering which will end, with Hashem’s help, speedily, in our days.3 In the meantime,4 mention of dry bones in the context of contemporary kashrus takes on an entirely different connotation, prompting a fascinating discussion into the status of ingredients that are derived from the dried-out bones -- and other parts -- of non-kosher animals and insects. This article picks a bone with three ingredients used extensively in the modern food industry; carmine, shellac and gelatin.
In January 2006, the Wall Street Journal5 published an investigative article revealing the presence of “a bug” in Tropicana Ruby Red Grapefruit Juice and Dannon Boysenberry Yogurt. Both products are coloured with a distinctive red dye called carmine which is extracted from crushed female cochineal beetles. Carmine is also a common ingredient in candy, ice cream, and cosmetics. Ingredient labels on products containing carmine refer to it as either carmine, cochineal extract or may even code it as “natural red 4”. Carmine is produced by heat-drying cochineal insects until they are completely dehydrated and subsequently crushing them into powder. The powder is then boiled in water which serves to extract carminic acid which is present in the powdered insects. Use of added chemicals causes the colouring and animal matters present in the liquid to precipitate into a red pigment.6 Presumably, the consumption of carmine should be strictly prohibited, since it is tantamount to consuming crushed insects; or should it?
You may be surprised to learn that carmine is not a “new-world” discovery. In fact, the first instance of carmine appears in the Torah under the name Tola’as Shoni, loosely translated as scarlet wool, which was one of the dyed materials donated for use in the Mishkon.7 This particular wool was coloured red with a dye referred to in early sources as karmaz8 and kochanilya9 and was identified as being extracted from an insect.10 While use of carmine as a dye for materials in the Mishkon is not necessarily indicative of its kosher status,11 perhaps we can consider it kosher for another reason.
It is entirely clear that the Torah prohibition of non-kosher food applies to food in its edible state. Non-kosher food that sours or spoils to the point of inedibility is no longer Biblically prohibited.12 That said, such inedible food remains prohibited at the Rabbinical level to anyone who ventures to consume it, since the act of consuming something inedible designates it, albeit artificially, as an edible.13 However, should such inedible food subsequently be cooked into kosher food, the mixture would be permitted.14 For the sake of simplicity, we refer to these collective principles as “the rule of inedible food”. Perhaps the dehydrated insect is nothing more than the equivalent of an inedible piece of wood15 or dry bones16 that, once mixed into a kosher product, can be permitted according to the rule of inedible food?17
Notwithstanding the cited logic, halachic authorities are loath to rely on it. Who is to say that the blood of an insect can be dried to the extent necessary to be rendered inedible?18 Furthermore, why should dehydration create a permanent heter for the insect powder if, at the moment that it is placed in water, it is rehydrated and perfectly edible again?19 Finally, is it really a fact that the rule of inedible food applies equally to food that was once edible and prohibited? Perhaps the rule of inedible food is limited in scope to basar b’cholov such that it can prevent inedible kosher meat from becoming non-kosher when it mixes with milk, but cannot change the status of already prohibited non-kosher meat to become kosher?20 As a result of these questions, the policy of all national kashrus agencies, including COR, is not to grant kosher status on carmine.
Shellac or “confectioner’s glaze”, as it is referred to in the colloquial, is a resin that is secreted by the female lac bug. For commercial use, the resin is collected from trees, processed, and purified so that it does not contain any insect parts which may have stuck to it. The purified resin is dissolved in three to four parts ethanol to make liquid shellac used as a transparent food glaze which works well to maintain a long-lasting shine on a product.21 Shellac is used in jelly beans and rainbow sprinkles amongst other goodies. The female lac is obviously not kosher, so why do we commonly find confectioner’s glaze in products bearing reliable kosher certification?
Can you think of another sticky substance that is secreted from a non-kosher insect that we might consider similar to shellac? You are likely thinking of honey which secretes from a bee. So why is honey kosher? Two possibilities are considered in the Gemara. The first is based on logic that honey does not inherit non-kosher status from the bee, since honey does not extract any nutrients or proteins from its host. The second is based on a drasha, a way of reading the verse in the Torah that prohibits the consumption of a sheretz ha’oaf, a flying insect, while excluding the substance that the sheretz ha’oaf secretes. That substance is identified by the rabbis as bee’s honey.22 The difference between the two cited possibilities is that the former is more inclusive and allows us to permit all secreted substances that do not extract nutrients or proteins from their respective hosts, while the latter is exclusive as it can only incorporate substances whose characteristics are most similar to those of bee’s honey. Shellac is obviously quite different from honey as it is secreted from the lac which is not a flying insect at all, rather a sheretz ha’aretz, an insect that lives on the land, and does not fit into the drasha.
Many halachic authorities seem to indicate that they are comfortable with the former, more inclusive view which allows shellac.23 Furthermore, some say that since shellac is, from its inception, as dry as a bone and completely inedible, it should not take on the status of its host even according to the more exclusive view.24 Unlike carmine which is essentially the dried out insect itself, shellac is an inedible secreted substance which emanates from the insect and therefore should not inherit the kosher status of its host.25 Accordingly, while some are stringent, most kashrus agencies, including COR, consider shellac to be kosher.
Gelatin is a translucent, colourless, flavourless food derived from collagen. Collagen is the connective tissue found in tendons, bones and skins/hides of various animals such as domesticated cattle, chicken, pigs, and fish. Cooking these animal parts serves to extract their collagen which dissolves in the pot. When the water or broth cools, the collagen will gel. This effect can be seen when cooking fish together with its skin which produces a familiar gel.
On a commercial scale, gelatin is made from by-products of the meat and leather industries. Most gelatin is derived from pork skins, pork, and cattle bones, or split cattle hides.26 Fish by-products may also be used because, although their “bloom”27 is not as high, fish is an easy way of eliminating the kashrus obstacles which will be discussed. Gelatin is commonly used as a gelling agent in food, pharmaceuticals, capsules, and cosmetic manufacturing.
By now, you are undoubtedly working on a possible heter for animal gelatin. Perhaps animal hides, tendons and bones can be dried out to the extent of inedibility and permitted according to the rule of inedible food? We should be able to differentiate between bovine28 gelatin and carmine because gelatin comes from collagen in the skins, bones, and tendons which do not have the same halachic status as flesh and blood.29 It is possible that these parts of the animal are not even included in the Torah prohibition of non-kosher animals and therefore, once dried and processed, can be permitted.30 Practically speaking, the discussion seems academic, since gelatin production usually contains meat and bone marrow which is ultimately cooked together with bones and hides31 thereby infusing them with the taste of treif basar which is Biblically prohibited. Furthermore, there are softer, fleshier parts of the animal skin that do, in fact, have the same status as its meat and are included in its Biblical prohibition.32 Ultimately, for these and other reasons, the greatest poskim of the generation did not accept animal gelatin as kosher.33 Accordingly, the policy of every major kashrus agency in both Israel and North America is not to grant kosher status on such gelatin.
Let’s turn the discussion over to kosher gelatin which is manufactured from dried out skins from kosher animals that have undergone the complete shechita process or from kosher fish. There are several such products on the market bearing reliable kosher certification. They are used to make kosher marshmallows, candy, yogurt, pies and even ice cream.34 There are several questions that we should ask:
1. Should kosher animal gelatin be considered fleishig such that it should not be used in yogurt or dairy ice cream?
2. Is it important to have a mashgiach temidi who can check each fish skin for kosher scales in order to authenticate their kosher status or is it sufficient to rely on a chazaka; for example, to purchase them from a company that purports to use only kosher fish which can be verified from time to time by a mashgiach?
3. Can kosher fish gelatin be used in a sauce that is cooked with meat or does it have to be kept separate from meat like all other fish?35
Kosher Animal Gelatin
Not every mixture of meat and milk constitutes a Biblical prohibition of basar b’cholov. There are strict requirements that govern this prohibition; both pertaining to the technical definition of “meat” and “milk” that is included under its rubric as well as the method that is employed in “mixing” them together. For example, meat from a non-kosher animal such as a pig, poultry36 and blood37 do not fall under the category of “meat” for this purpose. Even kosher animal meat that is smoked,38 pickled,39 or simply mixed together with milk but not actually cooked40 together do not achieve basar b’cholov status. While consumption of all such concoctions are certainly prohibited, it is relevant to understand that they are not basar b’cholov in the Biblical sense and are not subject to its unique ramifications, such as the additional issur hana’ah; the prohibition against deriving benefit or pleasure from the mixture.41
Kosher animal hides, tendons, and bones are also not categorized as basar under the Biblical rubric of basar b’cholov.42 Most halachic authorities, however, concur that they may not be mixed with milk at the Rabbinic level.43 Rav Moshe Feinstein, in a novel teshuva,44 posits that there is room to believe that hides45 are not considered basar even at the Rabbinic level and can, l’chatchila, be mixed with cholov. Although Rav Moshe does not rely on his novel position completely, he is absolutely comfortable to rely on it if the hides are completely dried out to the extent that they are inedible. This approach has become the basis for the manufacture of kosher pareve animal gelatin and is accepted by the major kashrus agencies, including COR. This is why you might see COR certified dairy pies, for example, that have gelatin listed in the ingredient panel. The gelatin is kosher and pareve, as we have discussed above, and thus does not conflict with the product’s dairy status.
An additional line of thinking shared amongst some poskim is that, even according to the aforementioned halachic authorities who do not agree with Rav Moshe, drying meat to the point of inedibility will still allow it to lose its basar status under the Biblical rubric of basar b’cholov.46 It must be said that this position is not unanimous as there are halachic authorities that consider any kosher animal gelatin as basar even as it pertains to the prohibition of basar b’cholov.47
Kosher Fish Gelatin
The cheapest way to produce kosher fish gelatin is to procure skins instead of dealing with the entire fish. It is nearly impossible to check every single fish skin for kosher scales for this purpose due to the way that such skins are transported and stored. How, then, can we be assured that all of the skins used in gelatin production are kosher? This question was posed to North American poskim who ruled that the aforementioned Rabbinic requirement to inspect every fish only applies to fish which will be consumed intact (e.g. canned tuna fish) where Chazal were concerned that someone might eat a bite-full of non-kosher fish. However, the halacha does not apply to cases like gelatin where the fish will be processed to the point that it becomes a liquid and any potential non-kosher fish will invariably be thoroughly mixed into the overwhelming majority of kosher fish. This position was brought to Gedolei HaPoskim in Eretz Yisroel, who
approved of this approach.48
Should we consider fish gelatin the equivalent of regular fish such that it may not be mixed with meat due to health concerns cited in halacha? Poskim who have weighed in on this question seem comfortable permitting it. This is because there is an underlying assumption that any significant deviation from the scenario presented by Chazal is not a concern. Chazal spoke about fish and meat. As you now know, kosher fish gelatin is dry as a bone and inedible, and therefore should not pose a sakana.49