By Nikki Kallio
With just a little extra effort, milk producers can reach into wider consumer markets by offering high kosher products to people who follow Jewish dietary laws.
First, the milk must come from animals considered “kosher,” a term which essentially means “proper” or “acceptable” according to biblical law. Kosher animals include those that both chew their cud and have split hooves. So, yes, dairy cows are generally kosher animals, but there are instances in which they would not be.
“There are animals that have internal organs that could be damaged or injured, and those would be considered a non-kosher animal,” said Rabbi Tuvia Torem, who works at Tidy View Dairy in Freedom, Wis. “What we are doing is ensuring the animals that are milked have not had any specific injury and those are taken out of the herd.”
Sheep and goats are also considered to be kosher animals, but a pig, which has split hooves but does not chew cud, would not be.
The USDA’s kosher labeling simply means the milk is 100 percent cow’s milk, without special supervision over production. But high kosher products are produced under supervision by a Jewish person, usually a rabbi. Supervision ensures that only kosher animals are milked and equipment is properly sanitized, particularly when a location produces both kosher and non-kosher products.
Torem takes various steps in his work at Tidy View, such as reviewing vet records to ensure any surgeries performed on animals would not interfere with its kosher status. Cattle who undergo procedures in particular for Displace Abomasum (DA) are separated from the herd.
Milk produced as high kosher is labeled carefully so that it is clearly identified when it arrives at a cheese plant. The cheese plant also must “kosherize” equipment, purging it of any product that is not kosher. Cheesemaking would then be supervised to ensure that process also follows kosher laws.
“The milk that we supervise at Tidy View goes specifically for cheesemaking, but there are other dairies and farms that will do supervised milk for bottling and other dairy products,” Torem said.
Tidy View kosher milk is used to make “good Wisconsin cheeses” like cheddar, mozzarella, muenster and parmesan, Torem said.
Kosher dairy products are sold primarily through stores specializing in kosher products, largely in areas with larger Jewish and kosher-keeping populations on the East Coast, West Coast or specific stores in the Midwest, including in Milwaukee.
Moshe Minsky, who owns the Florida-based Vishedsky Cheese LLC, is primarily working in the Chicago area and Wisconsin, developing artisanal cheeses for the kosher market.
Kosher foods have a long history, starting with a rule recorded in the Talmud about 2,000 years ago stating that milking must be supervised by or performed by a Jewish person, Minsky said.
“What happened is you had a product they would call milk, but it was really mixed with other non-kosher animals’ milk, especially when a farm consisted of many different animals,” he said.
In America, as more Jewish families migrated to the United States following World War II, the demand for kosher products grew, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein offered a ruling that USDA-certified milk was acceptable as 100 percent cows’ milk.
“But a lot of the Hasidic communities and Orthodox communities nonetheless wanted to adhere to the ruling of having a rabbi or Jewish person to supervise the milk production,” Minsky said.
That high kosher product, or “Cholov Yisroel,” literally means “Jewish milk,” Minsky said.
Some large dairies have a rabbi onsite to supervise production. Other times, the rabbi is contracted by the cheesemaking companies, like Vishedsky Cheese, to supervise milk at the dairies.
“It’s actually a great boon for farmers if they would want to diversify their farms, get more milk out there and get a bigger customer base,” Minsky said.