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Will These Bones Live?

Yechezkel 37:3

© 2001 Rabbi Blech; Reprinted with permission from the MK Vaad News and Views, Volume II, Issue 4 #9; Teves- Shevat 5761 / January/February 2001

by Rabbi Zushe Yosef Blech

The Midrash Tanchuma (Parshas Shemini) teaches us that one should not be misled into thinking that Hashem has prohibited the joys of life. Rather, for every item that was proscribed, an equivalent, permissible item is available from which to partake. For example, the Midrash notes that although pork is prohibited, there exists a certain Kosher fish called Shibuta that has the same taste. The Midrash continues with many such examples, and concludes that the prohibited items themselves are a designed to be a means for the Jews to merit the reward to keeping the Mitzvos. Perhaps the modern application of this Midrash - the duality of interchangeable Kosher and non-Kosher foods - can be best found in the ingredient called gelatin. Gelatin is derived from the bones and other tissue from animals or fish, and is used in a myriad of applications. It forms the basis of marshmallows and gelatin desserts, finds its way into yogurt and ice cream, and even invades the world of children's candies. Its Kosher status has been the subject of debate over much of the past century, and perhaps no other food ingredient has enjoyed as copious - and passionate - a treatment in contemporary Halachic writings as this simple protein. It is therefore important for the Kosher consumer to understand the issues involved in "Kosher" gelatin, and thereby be able to ensure that he chooses the truly Kosher version implicit in the above Midrash.

The first part of our discussion is to define what gelatin is and from what it is derived. Gelatin is an animal protein made from collagen, the connective tissue found in tendons, bones, and skins. By cooking bones or other parts of animals or fish, some of the collagen is extracted from the meat and dissolves in the broth, and when such broth cools it tends to gel. You can see this property in several common foods. Homemade gefilte fish usually involves cooking the bones and skin together with the ground fish, and when the broth cools it gels due to the collagen that has been dissolved in the broth. [The "gel" in canned gefilte fish typically relies on other gelling agents such as carrageenan to look "homemade".] A European delicacy called Ptscha is made from the broth of cooked veal bones, relying on the same collagen to form the gelled finished product. Gelatin is collagen that has been extracted from animal tissue using strong acid or base to partially hydrolyze it. The word gelatin comes from the Latin word "gelatus" meaning stiff or frozen, and this material has a number of very useful properties that are useful in a variety of food and pharmaceutical applications. Indeed, many of these properties are unique to gelatin, and for this reason there has been much interest in dealing with its Kashrus status.

Until recently, all conventional gelatins in North America were made from the skin and bones of pigs (Min Tameh) or non-Kosher beef (Neveila). [In other countries, such as China, other animals such as mules and horses contribute to the fare.] All of these sources are clearly non-Kosher, and it should therefore have been simple matter to assume that gelatin from these sources is similarly not acceptable. However, as in many matters of Kashrus, things are not always as simple as they may seem. The modern story of Kosher gelatin production in the United States begins about 40 years ago when a famous chocolate company in the United States wanted to produce Kosher marshmallows. The issue of gelatin has always been controversial, so Rav Nachum Tzvi Kornmehl zt"l, the Rav Hamachshir of the company, posed the Sheila to three of the preeminent Halachik authorities in the United States - Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Aharon Kotler, and Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin zt"l and to the Gedolim in Eretz Yisroel. Although differing in some of the details in their rulings, the consensus of these authorities was that regular gelatin could not be accepted as Kosher [see some of the details below], and their position became the normative Kosher standard in North America. These authorities did, however, prescribe a method by which truly Kosher gelatin could be produced, and indeed two productions took place at that time. This special gelatin was hoarded and used for some years but eventually ran out, and for many years no Kosher gelatin conforming to these requirements was available. It should be noted that a few Rabbis in the United States continue to rely on those opinions that permit regular gelatin, and for that reason virtually every gelatin manufacturer and the United States manufactures "Kosher" gelatin! Ironically, marshmallows marked with oversized Kosher markings containing such gelatin are often found in Kosher markets around holiday seasons, even though their Kosher status has been rejected by overwhelming consensus of Halachik authorities in North America and much of the rest of the Jewish community. Indeed, all of the major Kosher certifying agencies in the United States adhere to the psakim of Rav Fenstein, Rav Kotler and Rav Henkin and do not certify products containing such gelatin.

[It is beyond the scope of this article to delve into the details of the gelatin controversy, but a brief synopsis should help the reader understand the basic issues involved. Rav Chaim Ozer zt"l wrote a famous Teshuva, in which he permits gelatin based upon three considerations: (a) The hard bones from which the gelatin is produced are not considered meat, (b) because gelatin is considered a new product totally dissimilar from the original starting material (Ponim Chadashos), and (c) because gelatin is rendered inedible for a period of time during its processing (Nifsal M'Achila). The three authorities mentioned above, however, reviewed the matter and rejected this opinion for the following reasons: First, Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Aharon Kotler both held that bones from non-Kosher animals are not Kosher. Further, the argument is essentially academic since, even according to this approach, the bones would have to be completely clean, dry, and without marrow. Bones generally used for gelatin manufacture may have meat and marrow on them. In addition, most gelatins made today are produced from skins, which are not subject to this consideration. (Indeed, the Talmud (Chullin 122a) considers pigskins to be edible meat, and one need look no further than the snack section in the supermarket to note "Fried Pork Rinds" as proof!) As to the second consideration, the basis for the concept of Ponim Chadashos is a Rabbeinu Yonah, an opinion questioned by many authorities. Rav Moshe Feinstein further holds that Ponim Chadashos only applies to an Issur Yotzeh (an excretion from a forbidden animal) and not to parts of the animal itself. In addition, Rav Yechezkel Abramsky zt"l argues that gelatin is not even a "new creation", but merely an edible extract that had always been present. As such, the concept of Ponim Chadashos does not apply according to these Poskim. As to the third consideration, the status of non-Kosher food that is Nifsal and then returned to an edible state is a longstanding question amongst the Poskim. Both Rav Feinstein and Rav Henkin rule that the matter remains a Safek (an unresolved Halachik issue), and one must therefore be strict in its regard. Rav Aharon Kotler argues forcefully that such material remains prohibited, and cites several additional reasons to prohibit gelatin. One is that since the processing of the gelatin was done with the intention of creating an edible product, the rule of inedible foods does not apply at all. Another is that even if the material would still be considered inedible, eating it intentionally would still be prohibited (Achshivay). He further argues that since gelatin is used to improve the food into which it is mixed, the fact that it itself may be inedible is of no consequence. It should be noted, however, that other authorities, notably Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank zt"l, and yb"l Rav Ovadia Yosef and Rav Eliezer Waldenberg shlit"a permit the use of regular gelatin based upon one or more of the above arguments. On the basis of these opinions, the Rabbanut in Israel does allow the use of certain types of gelatin produced from non-Kosher sources (primarily from dried bones). However, none of the Mehadrin Kosher certifications in Israel allow the use of this product, and the Rabbanut itself requires that products containing such questionable gelatin be clearly labeled as "permitted only for those who allow the use of gelatin".]

Gelatin is an exceptionally useful and versatile ingredient, and in order to understand its Kashrus implications - and ways of avoiding them - we must first identify how it is used. The production of gelatin first became commercially significant during the Napoleonic wars, where the French attempted to use everything but the squeal to feed its people in the face of the British blockade. While the use of gelatin as a protein supplement may have been a wartime expedient, gelatin is an incomplete protein that lacks several basic amino acids necessary for good human nutrition. Nonetheless, it has recently returned as a protein supplement in many health drinks and muscle-building potions, an important consideration when embarking on such programs.

The need for technical properties of gelatin has also posed Kosher concerns. Vitamins are often spray dried into powders for use in vitamin tablets and as ingredients in foods such as breakfast cereals. Some vitamins, such as Vitamins A, D, and E, are fat-based and tend to oxidize and degrade when exposed to air. In order to protect them from this problem they have traditionally been protected by a process called microencapsulation. This process involves coating each fine spec of powder with a protective layer by mixing a protective agent with the vitamin before spraying. As the powder forms, the agent forms a protective coating around each particle as the powder is formed, and gelatin has traditionally proven to be ideal for this purpose. Indeed, it is the only agent that seems to work well in tablet manufacture since it can withstand the stress of the tableting process without rupturing. It was therefore difficult to produce vitamin tablets that would be acceptable to the general Kosher market.

Gelatin is also used as a processing aid in other ways that are not apparent. For example, apple cider is noted for its cloudy, hazy appearance due to fine particles and sediment naturally occurring in the juice. When a clear product is desired, the juice must be filtered, and a classic process involves the use of gelatin. When a small amount of gelatin is added to such juice, it acts as a flocculent - a chemical that binds to the impurities and causes them to settle to the bottom. The Kashrus implications of this process to purify drinks are actually discussed in Poskim (where gelatin from a sturgeon was used), and many contemporary authorities have held that such apple juice would be permitted. However, most Kashrus concur authorities that it is inappropriate to certify a product into which a non-Kosher ingredient is intentionally added, and most Kosher apple juice today is produced using alternative filtering processes (or truly Kosher gelatin - see below).

But perhaps its most celebrated use is as the basis for gelatin desserts. Until the advent of acceptable Kosher gelatin (see below), the Kosher consumer had generally been relegated to using alternative colloids derived from various types of seaweed (agar agar and carrageenan). While these preparations produce an acceptable product, they tend to be a bit watery and do not perform as well as true gelatin. Gelatin is also used extensively in dairy products, such as in providing a silky mouth feel to custard-style yogurts. It is also useful in making low-fat dairy products and margarine, because it emulsifies fat and water while providing a slippery "fatty" sensation. It is also used as a stabilizer in sour cream, ice cream and other frozen deserts, and as a thickening agent in whipped cream. Gelatin is also used in a number of gelled candy confections such as jellybeans and gummy bears. Again, Kosher products can be made using various gums and other colloids such as fruit pectin, but such products had difficulty meeting the same standards are those using true gelatin. But perhaps the greatest "crisis" in this regard were marshmallows - the object of every Kosher child's fondest confectionary dreams - for no suitable alternative has ever been found.

With such important needs to be met, several companies have recently developed Kosher gelatins that meet the rigorous requirements of virtually all authorities. One company has developed a product called Kolatin - a beef gelatin made from Glatt Kosher beef hides, which was the process that was originally approved for Kosher gelatin production forty years ago. The only Halachik concern with such a product would be its Pareve status, an issue that was indeed dealt with at that time. Rav Moshe Feinstein ruled that clean hides from Kosher animals are not considered meat as regards the rules of Basar B'Chalav M'Doraissa (on a Biblical level). Therefore, if they are processed in such a way as to render them essentially tasteless - as is the case with gelatin - the product is considered Pareve. Rav Aharon Kotler, while disagreeing with this concept, nevertheless allowed its use in milk where it constitutes less than 1/60 of the product (similar to the Halacha of using Kosher animal rennet to make cheese). The Bais Din of the Agudas Yisroel in Yerushalayim also ruled that such material would be considered Pareve. The only practical problem with the product is that its production is tedious and therefore more costly than conventional gelatin. First, only part of the production in a Kosher slaughterhouse is indeed Kosher - some animals are Treifa (having damaged internal organs) and others are not slaughtered properly (Neveila), both of which are not Kosher. As such, hides from Glatt Kosher animals must be monitored and segregated for gelatin production. Second, the hides must be soaked and salted ("Kashered") to remove blood, just as all Kosher meat is processed. Third, the hides used in conventional gelatin production are generally the trimmings and other by-products of the leather industry, which can be purchased at heavy discounts; Kosher hides are prime material and must be purchased at full price. Fourth, the equipment used to produce Kosher gelatin must be completely Kashered from their normal non-Kosher production, a time-consuming and expensive process. In addition, the entire process must be supervised. Nevertheless, Kolatin is used to make true gelatin deserts and real marshmallows, both of which are available with a reliable Kosher certification under the Elyon label.

A second approach to Kosher gelatin has been the use of fish instead of animal material as the original source. Several companies manufacture such products under reliable Kosher certification, foregoing some of the costs associated with Kosher animal gelatin. The major Kashrus issue here is whether one can mix it with meat, since such mixtures are prohibited due to health concerns (see Yorah Deah 116). The consensus of contemporary Poskim is to be lenient in this regard for the following reasons. First, some authorities believe modern health considerations differ from those discussed in the Talmud and that meat and fish mixtures no longer pose a health concern. Second, it is unclear whether all fish were subject to this concern, or whether the rule applied only to the flesh of fish and not to the skins. Third, fish gelatin generally has little flavor, and may therefore pose no concern at all. For all of these reasons, most Halachik authorities have concluded that fish gelatin is truly Pareve even for use with meat.

Chazal tell us (Chullin 7a) that new Halachik applications are left for each generation to discover and perfect, and the work done to develop truly Kosher gelatin is a fitting realization of this promise. By understanding both practical needs and the Halachik issues, we can work to determine if these "dry bones" can indeed live again as Kosher material!


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