The presence of even one whole bug, dead or alive, can render an entire vegetable treif — unkosher. On this matter, Orthodox rabbis are unequivocal.
“From a Torah perspective, eating a Big Mac or eating a salad with insects in it, the salad is worse,” Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, who runs the nonprofit Kosher Information Bureau, told me when I met him at his home office in Valley Village.
With stakes like that, it’s no wonder some kosher-observant Jews are willing to pay top dollar for kosher-certified produce. At one store in Los Angeles earlier this month, an RCC-certified head of romaine was selling for seven times the per-ounce price of one without the kosher designation. For East Coast consumers, who buy the majority of Asyag’s produce, most of the lettuce is first pre-cut and bagged as processed salads, and then sold at an even higher markup.
Greenhouse-grown, bug-free kosher lettuce is an Israeli innovation. First pioneered in 1990 in the then-occupied Gaza Strip, the growing technique is still often referred to as the “Gush Katif” method, named for the now-dismantled Jewish settlement where it originated.
Over the past five years, California has become home to the largest North American bug-free-growing operation, and it’s about to get bigger. Asyag, who has been selling RCC-certified lettuce under the brand California Kosher Farms since around 2008, is about to embark on a major expansion, aiming to double his farm’s output over the next 12 months to more than 1 million heads of lettuce a year. He’s looking to buy more land in Oxnard and has already started using Israeli-designed hydroponics to grow more lettuce in less space.
But while the equation “lettuce minus bugs plus rabbinic approval equals good returns,” might seem simple, the reality is anything but. This nascent industry is fraught with disputes, not just over what Jewish law requires, but over what price consumers and businesses should have to pay in order to keep their salads kosher.
Through dozens of interviews with growers, rabbis, local kosher caterers and staff from one local kosher supervision agency, a complicated picture emerges of a niche business that illustrates the complexities and the unusual financial challenges of the modern kosher marketplace. One thing is certain: It is the RCC supervisors who hold most of the cards.